Most of us want to do the right thing by the planet. We can see that the daily bonfire of millions of barrels of oil is not likely to be good for the environment. We can see the haze of white ice-clouds, seeded high above by jet planes as they cross the globe. We can experience the craziness of the weather, and know that something isn’t right about it. So if we’re going to stop conducting this giant experiment in climate-science, we know that we’ve got to start changing those climate-risking actions we get up to every day.
The problem is that it can all be very confusing and complicated. Take flying, for example. The simple line is that flying is bad for the planet – and we should cut back on the amount of air travel we undertake. What we can’t cut back on we should ‘offset’. That means balancing the greenhouse gas emissions that our air travel puts out. Airlines will even helpfully add a surcharge to ease your climate-conscience – so is that ‘job done’?
Not by a long way. First of all, not flights are emit equally; short-haul flights pump out a lot more greenhouse gases per mile than long-haul flights – even though the long-haul flights rack up the largest totals. Second, what exactly are you measuring when you look at a flight’s emissions? Is it just the volume of CO2 emitted – or should you include other effects, which can, especially for high-altitude flying, really rack up global-warming causing problems? And lastly, how do you know all of the increased climate change risk from your flight has been offset? Because, sadly, not all off-setters are honest.
The good news is that, after a decade or more of wrangling with these complexities, scientists have a better handle on the emissions side. Plus the carbon off-setters now have a gold standard from the UN to adhere to. And even the airlines are much more sophisticated, and less apt to just green-wash their commitments. So the potential to make your flying less of a problem for the planet is definitely there now. But to make sure you take the right route to climate-righteousness, you need to understand a little of the science behind air travel, carbon regulations, and offsetting.
The reason why flying gets so much flak, when it comes to climate change, is that a plane does a lot more than pump out large quantities of carbon dioxide. At high altitude, the nitrous oxides that jet engines emit also help to form ozone. And at those heights, that extra ozone acts to absorb heat, and so increase global warming. Then there’s the condensation trails we all see flowing behind jet planes high overhead. These contrails are condensed water vapor – and again they have a warming impact.
It doesn’t stop there – the contrails can ‘seed’ larger areas of high ice-clouds, known as cirrus clouds. They too help to boost atmospheric warming. All 4 of these effects add up to make the overall temperature ‘forcing’ to be three times that of just the CO2 on its own. So the first step in honest offsets is to check that the numbers quoted include all of these effects for air travel. If they talk about CO2E, or CO2 equivalent, there is a good chance they do.
The next thing to check is the credentials of your off-setter. Nowadays, many big airlines will have their own tie-in schemes to offset emissions, with a third party. You don’t have to offset with them – it’s just a bit more convenient. But whoever it is, you must make sure they are dealing with properly certified carbon offsets. These are now registered with the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), and consist of projects that have gone through all the steps needed to make sure they result in real reductions in CO2 equivalents.
An honest carbon off-setter will brandish their Certified Emission Reduction (CER) with relish. They prove that the scheme that offset the carbon met the stringent safeguards of the Clean Development Mechanism. So it must be a genuine, consistent and new project to reduce carbon that is being funded – and not some half-way measure, or scheme that was going to be implemented anyway.
All of this involves a little homework, and extra expense, of course. But we should stop thinking of air travel as a right, and more a privilege with certain responsibilities. And that should include making sure your offsets are honest.