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Airlines can trade climate change for a plane ticket. Don’t buy this

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If you’re frustrated with less and less legroom on planes, you might be relieved to hear that your trail could be next. Your carbon footprint. Airline passengers are now given the option to offset the environmental impact of their own flight by paying an airfare surcharge to offset carbon emissions. Given the rise in the cost of air travel, adding to the price of a plane ticket may not be particularly attractive, but lately survey data from Morning Consult showed that more and more Americans are willing to consider this a price worth paying.

Many airlines now offer such programs. american airlines It has carbon offset plan in partnership with a non-profit cool effectwhich provides customers with options to offset the carbon emissions associated with their flights. Delta Air Lines has a similar program as part of its net zero initiative.

Etihad Airways recently launched a program with a partner Carbonclick allow travelers to offset their flight emissions from the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) basket having a right projects that are geographically diverse and offer ways to support communities, combat climate change and biodiversity. This program also gives passengers the opportunity to earn rewards for participating in activities the airline calls Etihad’s Informed Choice for Guests.

southwestern airlines“Want to offset carbon?” the program provides compliance from the company for every dollar a customer pays to offset carbon emissions and bonus points for a quick reward – 10 points for every dollar spent.

In general, such programs work as follows: the carbon footprint of a flight is calculated, and then a fee is determined that can “offset” that impact, minimizing or nullifying the carbon footprint of a passenger’s flight. The basic idea is to calculate the CO2 equivalent emissions of a flight divided by the number of miles flown and the number of passengers. CO2-equivalent emissions are emissions of carbon dioxide plus emissions of other global warming chemicals (e.g. black carbon and methane), each multiplied by their global warming potential (the ratio of the chemical’s warming over 20 or 100 years per unit mass to its CO2), explained Mark Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University.

“Currently, there is no alternative to aviation when it comes to long-distance, low-carbon travel. Carbon offsets are an immediate, direct and pragmatic way to encourage action to limit the impact of climate change, at least in the short term.” Mariam Alqubaisi, Head of Sustainability at Etihad Airways, said.

That’s true, but it’s also the reason many climate experts say airlines should be more focused on larger sustainable aviation fuel targets and their own zero net spend targets, excluding passenger contributions.

Airline Sustainability, Former Passenger

On a global scale, the aviation industry is rated as responsible about 2.1% of CO2 emissions. In the transport sector, aviation generates about 12% of CO2 emissions and road transport 74%. These numbers are expected to rise in relative terms over the coming decades as air travel grows and as car companies move faster to electric vehicles.

Most major airlines have sustainability initiatives in addition to carbon offsets – many have committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 and are exploring options such as cleaner jet fuel and more efficient aircraft as priorities to tackle. with climate change. United Airlines, for example, has committed to achieving zero carbon emissions by 2050 without any contribution from traditional carbon offsets. Among its current focuses are corporate partnerships for aviation decarbonization and venture capital investment.

In the aviation industry, several airlines have phased out passenger carbon offset programs, including JetBlue and EasyJet, who threw a concept to focus more on cleaner fuels for airlines and more efficient aircraft. JetBlue achieved carbon neutrality on domestic flights in 2020 and just this month, the airline said in its latest net zero carbon policy statement that reducing carbon emissions from operations will take precedence over any offset contribution and the goal is to “reduce the need for carbon credits as much as possible”.

“Greenwashing” aviation

There also remains skepticism about how well carbon accounting works in practice, and claims of green laundering have made the carbon offset program, including for passengers, a potential liability for airlines. Recent Washington Post article on aviation carbon lawsuits criticized Delta for using carbon offsets, and this led Delta to talk differently about the future of offsets. New Delta sustainability director Pam Fletcher told the Post she opposes buying such loans. “It was the best tool at the time,” she said. “So kudos to us for getting some momentum around climate change. We are now focused on decarburization within our company and industry, working on issues within our own four walls.”

“Calculating an individual carbon footprint can be not only a science, but also an art,” explained Daniel Bresette, executive director of the Environmental and Energy Research Institute, in an email.

Bressett said it might be tempting to buy compensation to assuage one’s conscience, but the simplest compensation schemes simply calculate an estimate based on how many miles the journey will cover. While this sounds straight forward, it does not take into account how fuel efficient the aircraft is, how full it will be, or what weather conditions will be.

“There are many variables to take into account when calculating accurately,” Bressett writes.

Bresett said that one of the factors that is taken into account in the calculation is a combination of science and economics, in which airlines are experts: valuation and reduction in fuel consumption. After all, fuel is expensive and accounts for about a quarter of operating expenses in 2022. “This is a large proportion, so airlines are interested in knowing exactly how much fuel a flight will require. This helps them calculate the carbon footprint of a flight and the shares of individuals,” he said.

Questions to ask about carbon offsets

It’s more difficult to figure out how to calculate its offset. If the compensation finances tree planting, which tree will be planted and where? If the offset finances renewables, what type of energy production will these projects replace? If offset funds are used to improve energy efficiency, how carbon-intensive would energy consumption be otherwise? These questions can be answered, but only after serious analysis and the collection of a large amount of information. This means passengers have to read a lot of fine print.

“Until carbon offsets are better regulated and more transparent, travelers should exercise due diligence to determine if they are worth it in terms of costs and benefits. Compensations need to be transparent about what climate benefits the traveler makes possible,” Bresett said.

As part of awareness raising, it is helpful for people to think about their own carbon footprints and how they can reduce them. But stated preferences can be very different from actual consumer behavior, which is much harder to change.

“The glare of carbon offsets has faded,” said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights.

Regardless of what people say in surveys, the vast majority of customers are missing out on the carbon offset surcharge when booking their flights, Keyes said. “Maybe they don’t believe the extra dollars will be an effective way to make an impact, or maybe they don’t want to pay extra for an already expensive flight.”

The price, depending on the duration of the flight, is not high compared to the total cost of a plane ticket. The American Airlines calculator shows a range from under $10 for shorter flights to $25 for flights over 13 hours. This price is based on the average price per ton for American Airlines’ portfolio of carbon offset projects, which include reforestation in Mexico, peat swamp restoration in Indonesia, and improved cooking stoves for families in Honduras. Southwest Airlines lists a $3.59 New York-to-LA flight compensation and says its price is based on “aircraft type, typical jet fuel consumption, flight distance, and estimated load factor.”

Consumer psychology and environment

In consumer psychology, it’s not just about the dollar amount for carbon offsets.

“It’s something that people are very price sensitive about,” Keys said. “I think everyone wants a better environment, everyone would like to see flights and planes emit less carbon, but I think people have demonstrated that they are not willing to overpay to achieve this.”

He gave the example of grocery stores asking customers if they would like to round up their amount for charity. While a small number of people may answer yes, most will answer no for the same reasons, Keys said, referring to the fact that they are already paying a large bill or don’t understand where the money will actually go.

Keyes quoted Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr as saying said in 2020 the airline saw that only 1-2% of passengers opted for the cheapest carbon offset option, while the more expensive option “was used by so few customers that I could greet them all individually with a handshake.”

If air travelers want to stay environmentally conscious without paying carbon offsetting fees, Keys recommends choosing cheaper airlines when traveling. The more expensive an airline is, the more it is to blame for airline emissions, since there are usually fewer seats on planes, which increases the amount of carbon emissions per person. Constantly overpaying for flights also gives airlines more incentive to add additional flights on that route, which can also increase carbon emissions.

In other words, if you want to reduce your carbon footprint while flying, reducing your comfort may be your best bet. A compromise that many pilots are already making when they take to the skies.

“It is true that we all have a role to play in reducing carbon emissions. But it is unfair to place this burden solely on individuals,” Bressett said. “When I get on a plane, I don’t have much to say about how the flight will go. Airlines do, however, have a voice, which means they have a greater responsibility for climate compliance, including through the use of sustainable aviation fuels and improving the energy efficiency of their operations.”

CNBC Barbara Collins contributed to this report.


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