Carbon offsets for aviation emissions: arguments for and against

20 Jan 2023 by Tom Otley
Aircraft contrails in the sky davidstockman-iStock-172183539

Airlines are putting a lot of faith – and money – into carbon offsets. They are doing so principally through their support for the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) scheme. Uoou can read about that through the following links:

Many of these carbon offsets are nature-based – the classic example of one such project would be planting trees, or preserving a threatened forest..

There is a huge amount of controversy about carbon offsetting and we have written several articles on the subject

Here we summarise the arguments for carbon offsets, both for and against.


  1. They are necessary

As the World Economic Forum says, the climate catastrophe needs every possible ‘tool in the toolbox’ to be employed. Natural climate solutions such as offsetting are vital, and carbon markets are an essential source of finance for them.

  1. The quality of offsets is improving.

The quality of carbon offsets offered in what is called the Voluntary Carbon Market’ (VCM) is improving because of improving quality standards for them. This will help to build a culture of transparency and trust across the market.

  1. The rise of independent rating and monitoring

There are multiple independent rating systems for carbon offset projects, conducting due diligence and independent analysis, as well as ratings services to help buyers identify high-quality carbon credits.

  1. Technology

Technological advancements, particularly nature-tech, is helping this integrity. For instance, drone-based mapping or satellite imagery can provide monitoring, reporting and verification solutions. This, along with the opportunities for traceability offered by blockchain, should not be underestimated.

  1. Science-based target setting is increasing

On the face of it, The Science-based Targets Initiative (SBTi) doesn’t support carbon offsetting, since it requires airlines to decarbonise within their own operation and does not take into account the use of out-of-sector carbon offsetting, or other market-based mechanisms such as the EU Emissions Trading System or CORSIA. This was the reason Easyjet stopped offsetting.

Easyjet to stop offsetting flights from the end of 2022.

Nevertheless, as the WEF points out, the SBTi encourages beyond value chain mitigation to counterbalance annual unabated emissions, including through the purchase of forest carbon credits, and SBTi is preparing further guidance on this in 2023.

  1. Moving beyond individual projects

A problem with focusing on just one project is it can ignore what is going on around the project. For instance, it’s not much use preserving one bit of forest if instead of that area being chopped down, the logging company moves to an adjacent bit of land. The WEF points out that the “move to jurisdictional and nested approaches” helps avoid some of these problems, since a more comprehensive approach to forest and land use across one or more legally defined territories “reduces the risk of over-crediting; and it can also help address issues like permanence, additionality and leakage.” (the definitions of these can be found here.

  1. Benefits beyond carbon

As the WEF says, aside from carbon benefits, high-integrity, well-designed programmes bring numerous benefits to both biodiversity as well as to the people already living within, or close to, a programme area. When a high-quality carbon project is established, high-integrity developers consult with local stakeholders to determine how carbon finance can best benefit them and work closely with Indigenous peoples and local communities throughout the whole lifespan of a carbon program. The finance generated through credit sales is used to help communities develop new sustainable ways to make a living that are not dependent on deforestation and to support community priorities like education and healthcare.

In conclusion, the WEF says

“No one is claiming forest carbon credits are perfect… but we stand behind the use of demonstrably high-quality forest carbon credits as a crucial tool in the urgent fight against climate change.”


  1. Licence to pollute

Offsetting effectively offers a company a licence to pollute, and provided the cost of doing so is less than the cost of not doing so, they will continue to pollute. As has been pointed out, it is similar to the sale of indulgences run by the medieval church: misbehave, but pay monks to pray for your soul to shorten your time in purgatory. No one believes that any more, and yet they believe in carbon offsets washing our consciences clean.

  1. Worthless offsets

Supporters of offsets say that providing they are properly verified, then they have a value, but a recent investigation by the Guardian, the German weekly Die Zeit and the not-for-profit journalism organisation Source Material. It found that more than 90 per cent of the rainforest carbon offsets sold under the verified carbon standard of Verra were “worthless”. (Verra approves three-quarters of all carbon offsets and is used by airlines under its CORSIA initiative – see the links at the top of this article). Verra, in its turn, has responded with a statement arguing that the research was based on incorrect methodologies.

  1. Additionality

For an offset to be truly that – and offset -it needs to be proved that it would have been unlikely to happen otherwise – in other words, it is ‘additional’ offset as a result of the intervention of the carbon market.

  1. Permanence

The carbon emitted by an aircraft is immediate, the time lag for a tree sequestering that carbon takes decades, and may not be permanent – the forest may be cut down later, or catch fire, as happened to hundreds of thousands of acres in the U.S including forests Microsoft and other companies had used for carbon offsets.

  1. Location

The project must not lead to emissions shifting elsewhere, like some other forest being cut down as mentioned above.

  1. Local approval

There are many reported cases where the indigenous population is displaced from land so it can have a fence put around it so it is protected for the developed world to continue polluting – a new form of necolonialism.

  1. Most environmental NGOs are against it

For a flavour, see Greenpeace – Carbon offsets are a scam

  1. They put a price on nature

As Greenpeace says, “We cannot allow the richest nations and corporations to commodify nature, and buy off lands in poorer countries for offsets, so they can keep polluting the atmosphere…. Nature should remain off limits to corporate control for climate offsets.”


Many airlines now give you the opportunity to buy Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) rather than offsets.

Nevertheless, offsets are here to say, and in fact, the  Voluntary carbon markets is set to become at least five times bigger by 2030 -Shell.


Loading comments...

Search Flight

See a whole year of Reward Seat Availability on one page at SeatSpy.com

Business Traveller Decenber 2023 / January 2024 cover
Business Traveller Decenber 2023 / January 2024 cover
Be up-to-date
Magazine Subscription
To see our latest subscription offers for Business Traveller editions worldwide, click on the Subscribe & Save link below