Are Carbon Offsets the Cure for the Eco-Guilty Traveler?

Michael Bateman is our C3 Program Development UVA Intern

With Spring Break arriving soon for many families, I've been thinking about the carbon footprint of my own travel plans. I’ll be flying from Charlottesville to Los Angeles to visit a friend at UCLA and I have heard that flying produces a lot of emissions. How much will my cross-country air travel impact the environment? And what can I do about it?

Using the International Civil Aviation Association’s carbon emissions calculator, I determined that, round trip, my flights would produce almost 1500 pounds of carbon dioxide.

That is almost 4% of the average American’s carbon footprint!

Even worse, the fact that the emissions occur at tens of thousands of feet of elevation may double the warming effect of airline emissions, leading the New York Times to declare that “Your Biggest Carbon Sin May Be Air Travel.” My eco-guilt was rising and I have to say I was surprised.

What's the solution?

The most obvious choice is to fly less. In fact, cutting out flying may be the single most important choice I can make to reduce my carbon footprint. Flying, however, is sometimes unavoidable, whether it be for business or pure practicality.  It’s also fun to explore other parts of the world.

If you have to fly, carbon offsets offer a partial solution. Carbon offsetting refers to the practice of making a payment to an offsetting service, which then engages in some action (i.e. planting a tree) to offset the carbon impact of your action.

In looking into this more deeply, I learned that carbon offsets have many critics—some have compared them to the medieval practice of buying indulgences to forgive sins. Others are suspicious of the effectiveness of the programs, instead suggesting that offsets assuage guilt rather than emissions.

A number of airlines provide carbon offsetting services, including JetBlue, Delta, and United Airlines, but these programs lack transparency and may not engage in the most effective actions for reducing impact.

The key issue, as far as I can tell, is the effectiveness of the charity. So I looked into some and here’s one that I like.

For many, Cool Earth is considered the most cost-effective climate change mitigation charity. It has the support of Centre for Effective Altruism, a movement dedicated to using evidence and reason to benefit others the most with a given set of resources.

Cool Earth works directly with rainforest communities in the Amazon, the Congo Basin, and Oceania to improve their quality of life, enabling the communities to protect their forests from logging, commercial agriculture, and other industries. Cool Earth not only supports these invaluable carbon sinks, but also protects biodiversity, water sources, and local communities’ well-being. They can reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a rate of just $1.70/ton of CO2-equivalent.

If you are concerned with your own carbon footprint from flying and want to be sure you are having a positive impact, be smart with your offsetting. You can determine the carbon footprint of your flight easily using this calculator then donate $1.70/ton of CO2-equivalent emissions to Cool Earth or a program of your own choosing.


photo credit: Photo by Lucas Davies on Unsplash