You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Some flyers buy 'carbon offsets' to atone for airline climate sins. But does that do any good?

Tribune News Service logo Tribune News Service 2/17/2020 By Mary Wisniewski, Chicago Tribune
a close up of clouds in the background: This image dated November 20, 2014, shows the Yurok tribe's carbon offset project encompassing 7,660 acres of Douglas-Fir and mixed hardwood forest near the Klamath River in northern California. © Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS This image dated November 20, 2014, shows the Yurok tribe's carbon offset project encompassing 7,660 acres of Douglas-Fir and mixed hardwood forest near the Klamath River in northern California.

Having grown up with parents who encouraged recycling, Jenny Beightol has always been aware of her environmental impact. She doesn’t own a car, and bikes or takes public transportation to get around town.

But the 32-year-old Chicagoan sometimes likes to travel to places like Mexico. This has led to soul searching, because scientists say that planes account for about 2.5% of global carbon dioxide production, which contributes to climate change.

To ease her guilt, Beightol buys “carbon offsets,” which allow her to invest in environmental projects as a way of compensating for the greenhouse gas emissions associated with her flights. She figures out her air travel carbon footprint using the site TerraPass and gives to a project led by the Southern Ute tribe in Colorado, which captures natural methane gas and redirects it into reusable energy.

“Until our governments step up and get involved and truly fund alternative, low-emission ways to travel, it’s really on us as individuals to do what we can,” Beightol said.

In recent years, environmental activists have increasingly focused on pollution caused by the rapidly expanding aviation industry. The issue gained publicity last year with teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s decision to take a boat, rather than a plane, across the Atlantic Ocean. The British band Coldplay canceled its fall world tour over environmental concerns. There’s even a Swedish word “flygskam,” which means “flight shame.”

For eco-conscious flyers like Beightol, there are a growing number of ways they can offset the emissions associated with their flights. Many opt to pay an extra charge to a participating airline when booking a flight. The airline then contributes the money to a project that purports to do something to help the planet, like planting trees or investing in renewable energy.

Airlines offering offsets include JetBlue, Qantas, Air Canada and Chicago-based United Airlines, which is planting trees in Peru and Kenya through Conservation International.

Flyers can also use websites like Cool Effect, Green-e or Gold Standard, where they can learn about various environmental programs to purchase carbon offsets for airline tickets they’ve already booked.

Some travel apps are even offering to help. Hopper, the travel booking app, recently announced that it was planting four trees for every flight booked, and two trees for every hotel room reserved, at no extra cost to customers. The trees are being planted through an organization called Eden Reforestation in six countries, including Madagascar and Indonesia.

“I’ve never been so happy to spend money,” Hopper CEO Fred Lalonde said. He said he had never considered himself an environmentalist, but became “terrified” after his company started researching global warming.

“This is one initiative where we’re not looking at the cost, because the crisis is global and we have to act now,” Lalonde said.

But do the offsets do any good? Peter Miller of the National Resources Defense Council said that buying carbon offsets for air travel and skipping unnecessary flights can both be part of the solution to slowing climate change, though they’re definitely not all of it.

“If you do fly, offsets provide a way to mitigate the emissions from the trip,” said Miller, director of the Western region of the organization’s climate and clean energy program. “That’s a lot better than doing nothing, which is what most folks are doing at this point.”

Miller cautioned that buying carbon offsets are not a “get out of jail free” card, and said there is a lot more everyone can do to help the environment.

Flyers should also be careful about picking a carbon offset program, since they’re not equally reliable, Miller said. Scammers can claim they’re doing carbon offsetting in their backyards and take your money.

“It’s important for consumers to ensure that what they’re doing is really providing a benefit,” Miller said. He is a board member of the Climate Action Reserve, a nonprofit which develops offset protocols and serves as a registry for offset projects to track and ensure that the projects are doing what they claim.

Don Wuebbles, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, views planting trees to offset climate damage with skepticism.

“There’s certainly nothing wrong with planting more trees, but if you plant a tree, it takes 20 to 30 years before that tree pulls much carbon out of the atmosphere,” Wuebbles said. “To me, it sounds like a bit of a gimmick.”

Wuebbles said people can reduce how much they fly, but admits that he’s a “terrible example” of that, having just flown back from a meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal. He serves on the group’s special science committee.

Wuebbles said that one reason there is such concern about aviation is that even though it represents a relatively small percentage of emissions, it’s growing fast, as air travel has become such an important part of society for both business and pleasure. Besides carbon dioxide, aviation also produces contrails or condensation trails, which also are suspected of affecting the weather. “The jury is still out as to how much,” Wuebbles said.

The world’s airlines have committed to an international agreement called the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, according to Nancy Young, vice president of environmental affairs for Airlines for America, an industry group. Under the United Nations program, airlines have agreed to offset carbon emissions on international flights exceeding 2020 levels using various programs, Young said.

Unlike with cars, using batteries to operate planes may not be viable, Wuebbles said. He instead sees hope in using biofuels for planes, because while those still produce emissions, the fuel is coming from plants that have already taken carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, as opposed to fossil fuels, which are taken from under the ground.

Beightol said she realizes there is a lot of skepticism about the benefits of offsets, especially tree planting, which is why she found a different offset project through Cool Effect. She says she is also making the choice to fly less, with fewer business trips for meetings that can be done through teleconferencing, and fewer “quick trips.”

“I feel for my friends that have to be in person for client meetings and they’re literally just flying in the morning and coming home at night,” she said.

Douglas Kidd, executive director of the National Association of Airline Passengers, said his advocacy group just hopes that carbon offsets remain voluntary, “so that passengers can make their own decisions on how much they choose to donate, whether it’s a little, a lot or nothing at all.”

 

———

©2020 Chicago Tribune

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

AdChoices
AdChoices
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon