Is carbon offsetting the answer to aviation emissions?

Adam Small

By Adam Small


We are all acutely aware of our current climate crisis. Global temperatures have been on the rise for decades, seasons are shifting, and countries are facing increasingly extreme weather conditions. 197 countries have signed The Paris Agreement, an international treaty on climate change, pledging to limit global warming. The US is committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, China by 2060. To reach these goals, we require cooperation and action across all industries.

The aviation sector, currently responsible for 2.5% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, has pledged to cut its emissions in half by 2050. So, how does the industry plan on achieving its goal? Many airlines are now proclaiming to offer carbon neutral flights because of their investment into ‘carbon offsetting’, but the validity of these claims is up for debate.

What is carbon offsetting?

The world’s largest airlines – the likes of British Airways, easyJet, United, Delta, Qantas along with others – are pumping money into so-called carbon offsetting schemes in exchange for carbon credits. The schemes come in various forms – tree planting, renewable energy farms, sustainable agriculture programmes – but by far the most popular is forest preservation.

Forests are known as carbon sinks because their vast plant life soaks up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Deforestation removes these sinks, leaving more CO2 in the atmosphere and raising temperatures. Airlines put money into projects that protect areas of forest from illegal logging, and thus they claim that they are carbon neutral. The logic is that if it wasn’t for their investment, carbon sinks would have been destroyed. So, airlines aren’t reducing their own emissions, but attempting to offset them elsewhere.

Proponents believe that the sale of carbon credits is a net positive; forests remain untouched, and the projects provide a flow of money to developing countries. It all sounds good in theory. However, the system has come under fire recently after a joint investigation by The Guardian and Greenpeace said carbon offsetting was “based on shaky foundations.”

The problem with carbon offsetting

The investigation called into question the validity of claims that emissions were being offset via these forest conservation projects. Put simply, the claims are abstract in nature, because there is no guarantee that the protected areas would have been deforested without the funding. In fact, a study found that one project’s preservation area had very similar deforestation levels to an unprotected area nearby.

Some projects use reference areas to work out the assumed rate of deforestation and therefore calculate how much carbon dioxide is being offset by investment. The investigation also determines this to be invalid. In Peru for example, easyJet is funding the preservation of a remote area of forest to offset its emissions, but the reference area encompasses a region that hosts a major road linking Peru and Brazil. The investigation found that 97% of deforestation in the reference area occurred within 20km of this road. Yet, there are no roads present in the project area, so how can the two be equated? The risk level is clearly not comparable.

In addition, most of the projects cover a relatively small area rather than the whole forest, so there is nothing stopping loggers going elsewhere if they are intent on felling trees. Since the main driver for illegal logging is money, it seems unlikely that it will cease unless entire forests are protected.

So, without any proof of the claims, it may look like airlines are simply buying a ‘carbon neutral’ label, even if their hearts are in the right place. Philip Fearnside, an ecologist at the National Institute for Research in Amazonia, believes that most of the claims are “pure public relations.”

What do the airlines say?

It isn’t just environmentalists that doubt the carbon offsetting system. CEO of United Airlines, Scott Kirby, said “the truth is that most carbon offsets aren’t even real” and exist so that companies can “pretend that they’ve done the right thing for sustainability.” Despite this, United still funds such projects, although it has committed to going green without the use of offsets by 2050.

Some industry leaders have acknowledged that carbon offsetting is not a long-term solution. British Airways CEO, Sean Doyle, described it as “a central part of our near-term plan,” and David Morgan, director of flight operations at easyJet, called it “an interim measure while new technologies are developed.”

So, carbon offsetting is a quick fix for a much larger problem, but when the entire basis of the system is in question – whether any CO2 is really being offset – how can airlines make a meaningful difference?

Sustainable aviation fuel

Sustainable aviation fuel, abbreviated to SAF, appears to be a viable option, with Anna Mascolo, president of Shell Aviation, saying the aviation sector must adopt SAF at scale if carbon emissions targets are to be met.

SAF can be produced from cooking oil, waste oils from animals or plants, or solid waste from homes and businesses, such as packaging or food scraps. It provides a renewable option for aircraft that recycles CO2, emits less particulate matter and sulphur, and has shown to be more fuel-efficient. Although SAF has been used in the industry since 2008, it is only 1% of worldwide consumption.

The main issues facing SAF adoption are production and cost. Supply is currently limited, with David Morgan adding “even if we wanted to run the whole airline on SAF… the production is simply not there.”  SAF is also 2 to 4 times more expensive than normal fuel, and after the rough time the aviation industry has had during the pandemic, it is unlikely that companies will make the switch any time soon.

The future of aviation

It may be that carbon offsetting is merely a distraction from the wider issue, but the clock is ticking, and emissions deadlines are creeping nearer. What the industry really needs is systemic reform. The way we generate and use energy must change if any industry is to meet targets laid out in The Paris Agreement.

Some companies are researching aircraft powered by hydrogen or electricity, but development and widespread implementation of these planes is a long way off. A more immediately usable option is SAF. Considering that most, if not all, of our current planes could run on SAF, the sector wouldn’t need to wait around until new planes are constructed. SAF can also be mixed in with jet fuel safely, so there needn’t be an overnight shift – the tide could gradually turn towards sustainability.

There has been some investment by several governments into the creation of renewable fuel sources, but it is limited in the grand scope of things. SAF production needs to increase rapidly if it is to meet demand and lessen our reliance on the “shaky foundations” of carbon offsetting. The market is in dire need of sustainable fuel, whoever ramps up production will reap the benefits.

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