Do Airline Compensation Programs Really Reduce Your Carbon Footprint?

“It’s a really dangerous distraction because it takes our attention away from looking at what we could do that is much more significant,” said Kate Ervine, an associate professor of global development studies at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

While individual activities have environmental costs, and flying is one of the costliest, climate change is overwhelmingly driven by the actions of the fossil fuel industry. And the vast majority of carbon offsets are bought by corporations, including the fossil fuel companies themselves, on the premise that they can achieve “net zero” emissions targets without fundamentally changing the way they operate.

The most basic problem with carbon offsets “is that you’re trading a known number of emissions with an uncertain number of emission reductions,” said Barbara Haya, director of the Berkeley Carbon Trading Project at the University of California, Berkeley. “But there’s also the whole commercial focus of companies that they can buy their way out of their responsibility to reduce their own emissions.”

The types of programs linked to offsets are, in themselves, valuable and even essential to mitigating the damage already caused by decades of greenhouse gas emissions; the sticky part is using them to justify more emissions. Even if we could accurately calculate how much carbon a new grove would absorb, tying its planting to releasing more carbon would only keep levels stable, and we need them to come down.

Many experts say that compensation can be valuable in principle. Professor Usher, for example, cited the cement industry as a good candidate for an offset program, because reducing emissions from cement production is a more costly and technically complicated task than, say, switching electricity production to renewable sources.

But the programs would have to be designed and administered very differently than they are now, and consumers would have to pay more than the few dollars per ton of carbon dioxide they currently pay.

“If you were to reinvent the entire industry structure, focus on a subset of activities, and accept much higher prices than today, then I think the answer to your question is, ‘Yes, we can do that,’” he said. Danny Cullenward, policy director at CarbonPlan, a nonprofit climate research organization. “If the question is can we, at $5 a ton, produce anything that is significant, I think the answer is no.”

For now, the best thing an individual can do remains what it has always been: try to broadcast less.

For people who want to help fund broader emissions reduction efforts, certifications from watchdog groups like The Gold Standard and Green-e can help identify worthwhile projects. “But think of it as a donation,” Dr. Haya said, “not buying credits to cover your emissions.”

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