Special report: Carbon offsetting fails to fly

18 Dec 2009 by Tom Otley

As a Business Traveller poll reveals that only 6.4 per cent of you carbon offset your flights, Jenny Southan asks what’s going wrong.

With talks in Copenhagen and a tough year financially coming to a close, now is the time to really think about how we as individuals should respond to the problem of climate change. A recent poll asking our readers whether they carbon offset when booking flights revealed that in ten months, the number of people who do, has dropped from 12.5 per cent to just over 6 per cent.

Lucas Bobes, group environmental officer for global travel distribution system Amadeus, says one of the reasons for this is undoubtedly the recession: “The economic downturn has generated reduced interest in the carbon offsetting of trips, and I think it is also fair to say that the trend will remain for the future.”

For some time now, most airlines have offered passengers the chance to offset their carbon footprint by paying a fee equivalent to the carbon emissions they are responsible for either directly though them or through an independent partner, which is then used to fund emission-reduction projects such as hydroelectric renewable energy plants in South America or wind farms in China.

So how much does it cost? According to British Airways, which was the first airline to offer voluntary passenger carbon offsetting scheme in 2005, your carbon footprint for a return flight from London Heathrow to Helsinki (1,848km) will be 396kg, which will cost £5.10 if you want to offset it. It will cost you about £4 for the same flight with Easyjet.

Why the difference in price? There are different ways of making the calculation – BA states on its website that “Contributions are automatically calculated based on the volume of carbon dioxide your flight produces and the cost of carbon credits per tonne at the time of your booking” but airlines may or may not be taking into account variables like how many other people are flying on the plane, meteorological conditions, taxiing on the ground, how old and therefore fuel efficient the aircraft is, holding patterns and re-routing in the air, or currency conversions.

So other reasons why passengers may be hesitant to pay extra for carbon offsetting is that they way CO2 emissions are calculated is not transparent, and that people don’t tend to trust that their whole contribution goes on reducing CO2 (we know that the government charge VAT on it for a start, and there are almost always admin fees of some kind).

But with all this talk of dangerous climate change, shouldn’t we be more, not less, inclined to take responsibility for our carbon emissions, and consequently do anything we can to reduce the impact of our jet setting?

Tony Grayling, head of climate change and sustainable development for the Environment Agency, says: “The best thing to do is to directly reduce emissions from flights, but offsetting does have a role to play, providing it is done well and provided that you can be sure that the emissions offset are genuine.

“The UK government has published guidance on what constitutes a good offsetting scheme where a consumer, for example somebody who is going to buy an offset to offset their flight, can be sure that they have invested in a genuine emission reduction rather than a pig in a poke.

“That means either purchasing EU allowances within the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) or it means purchasing credits under the Clean Development Mechanism, whereby verified projects in developing countries that reduce emissions can earn allowances under the Kyoto Protocol, which is the current international climate change agreement.

“At the moment, those are the only emission reductions that you can really rely on because they are proper international registries and there is a proper verification process. I would not advise people to purchase what are called ‘voluntary emission reduction units’ because you can’t be sure that they are achieving genuine emission reductions.”

British Airways was the first airline to achieve the UK government’s quality of assurance, and is only joined by TAP Portugal as a carrier to hold this credential. If you go to you can see the full list of companies that have approval from the Government Quality Assurance Scheme for Carbon Offsetting. There are eight of them, including the two aforementioned airlines, and IATA (the International Air Transport Authority).

The scheme guarantees the following points:

•    Your emissions will be calculated accurately

•    It will sell good quality carbon credits that comply with the Kyoto Protocol and have been verified by the United Nations or the EU Emission Trading Scheme

•    It will cancel the credits within a year of you buying them and ensure that the same credit isn’t bought twice

•    It will have transparent prices for credits – eg how much they cost per tonne of CO2

So what do the airlines have to say? Lars Andersen, head of public affairs for Scandinavian Airlines, which uses the Carbon Neutral Company for all offset payment transactions for flights and events, says: “We have the most advanced carbon calculator on our homepage, which we update four times a year with actual fuel burn on routes for each aircraft type. There is a lot of interest from big corporations – we can provide all the figures for their emissions.

“This is a product that many customers in Scandinavia want, but there are not that many buying offsets. I think that is because the general public, unfortunately, don’t trust that it will have any effect. It is a good solution in the short term – if you trust it – but it won’t solve anything in the long term.”

Karlheinz Haag, head of group environmental concepts for Lufthansa, which uses independent partner My Climate to calculate and offset the carbon from its flights, has also found that the service hasn’t caught on. “Each individual is free to choose whether he wants to use the opportunity to use our carbon-offsetting tool. I would be lying if I said it was the majority of people who use this – it is a certain amount who feel a dedicated responsibility to use it but it’s a minority,” he says.

Finnair doesn’t offer passengers the chance to buy offsets at the time of booking but instead invests in making itself as an airline greener by reducing emissions and fuel burn. Kati Ihamaki, vice-president of aviation and sustainable development for Finnair says: “I would hope that there would be one standard carbon calculator one day. Travellers like to see a green scheme in place, to tick the box, but they are not prepared to pay for it. Hopefully, in the future, they will be. It is up to the customers to choose how the fly and with whom. Shortest and fastest routes, efficient airport operations, a new fleet – this is what we can offer passengers to reduce their environmental impact.”

So what is the answer? It would seem that most travellers, commentators, and even the airlines themselves believe that solving the problem of climate change is not going to be achieved by individual passengers paying for carbon offsets. But it does have a part to play if done properly. To really ease the consciences of the most environmentally concerned among us, the best advice, it would seem, is to buy them through government- approved schemes through which you can offset what you like as an individual or as a business.

However, even using an approved scheme can see the price of offsetting the same flight vary wildly. For example, Carbon Passport ( charges £7.20 for a return flight from London Heathrow to Helsinki. Pure the Clean Planet Trust ( will charge up to £12.23 for the same flight, while Carbon Retirement ( will charge £6.75. Clear ( charges average fees for flights within certain geographical areas, so a European return flight will be £4.52.

What’s more, even with these sites you can’t expect all your money to go on offsetting – for example, £0.94 of your Carbon Passport donation will be VAT, and Carbon Retirement will take £2.25 of your £6.75 in VAT and fees. Pure the Clean Planet Trust states that it uses 100 per cent of your net donation but doesn’t specify the fees it takes.

The last word goes to Inka Pieter, KLM’s director of corporate social responsibility and environmental strategy. She says: “It can’t be that only the airline is doing something, we hope that the customer will also do their part by offsetting – you are the traveller so you are involved.”

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