Carbon Offsetting and Other Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint When You Fly
in Sustainability / Travel
Just over a month ago I wrote a blog post all about the different things we do or use whilst travelling to try make our adventures a little more eco-friendly, which included everything from taking reusables everywhere and refusing plastic bags to choosing hotels consciously, shopping local, eating vegan and, of course, reducing the number of times we fly. I specifically wanted to come back to the whole concept of reducing or even quitting flying and discuss more what can be done to limit carbon emissions when we do choose to fly.
First of all, I just want to say that there is absolutely no judgement here, most people, including us, have flown and continue to fly sporadically. The concept of fly shame and carefully thinking about whether to quit flying or not is a conversation that has taken a while to get off the ground, especially in the UK, but people are now starting to talk about it more and ultimately change their behaviour accordingly. The more open the discussion the better; the more informed we all are, the better decisions we can make in future.
Aviation accounts for 2% of global human-induced carbon emissions, which doesn't sound like very much and may make you think that flying isn't as bad as many like to make out, but this figure can be grossly misleading. Most flights are taken by wealthy people in the west and even then only a few go on multiple trips per year, this results in only a minority of regular travellers making up a large slice of the emissions in European countries such as the UK. Add into this the fact that the emissions within the aviation industry associated with everything other than the actual flights themselves, such as those from plane manufacture, processing and distribution of fuel etc.., are not included in the calculation above then a more realistic percentage will be higher again. Generally, the carbon footprint for any plane journey in particular is split in half with 50% going to the country of take-off and 50% going to the destination country, which usually will not match the set of passports on board (i.e. for a flight from the UK there is likely more British citizens on board than non-British citizens), meaning countries like the UK are effectively offloading a portion of their emissions to other countries. It is also worth noting that a governmental report from 2017 summarising the annual emissions in accordance with the Climate Change Act of 2008, acknowledges only domestic aviation emissions in the calculations, meaning emissions from all international flights from the UK weren't even taken into account. Thankfully the fifth, and most up to date, governmental carbon budget looking to reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 by 57% of the levels in 1990, does include international aviation and shipping emissions.
The reality is that more people are flying more often and the aviation industry is continuing to grow. Flying is still not only the quickest and easiet way to get to many places, but also the cheapest too. Dramatically reducing the aviation industry's carbon footprint requires a huge collaborative effort, we need new effective legislation, which thankfully may just about be on the horizon due to the fact a climate emergency was declared in the UK a couple of weeks ago, but airlines also need to invest more heavily in green technlogies and updating their fleet to become more fuel-efficient. Whatever happens more people are flying all the time and I don't think advocating for them to totally quit will lead to the result we need. As a family we have dramatically cut down on the number of flights we take, yet we will still be heading to Sicily in a few weeks for a trip that was planned months ago. However we do try in other ways to reduce our overall impact as much as possible when we fly, some of which I will share below.
The concept of carbon offsetting allows you to offset your carbon emissions from whatever means, be that flights or home energy, by investing in environmentally friendly projects. The idea being that the money invested will, for example, go directly into projects aimed at building solar panels or planting trees and will capture the same amount of carbon dioxide that you individually emitted. Some airlines allow you to opt in for an offsetting scheme at the same time as purchasing your ticket, alternatively you can calculate your individual carbon footprint and offset accordingly with an independent company, such as The Worldland Trust. This all sounds very well and good but some say it is far from the answer and may actually further the problem by more people justifying flying than ever before, as though offsetting could become an excuse to continue polluting. There is also the added problem that the people who travel the most can afford to both travel frequently and offset the lot without the costs significantly affecting their bank balance, meaning a wider societal acceptance of carbon offsetting will allow only the richest amongst us to travel. Additionally, some people argue that it simply cannot be viewed as a cancellation effect and we don't have enough data to say that planting trees on one side of the world is doing anything to combat the effect of carbon emissions due to a flight on the other side. There is also the fact that flights don't just produce carbon dioxide, there are many other detrimental emissions such as nitrous oxide, water vapour and soot, which have the ability to produce a range of climatic effects. It's just not as simple as one set of carbon emissions being cancelled by a certain number of trees. On the other hand there are others who argue it is better than doing nothing. Investing in ecofriendly projects can only be a good thing and awareness needs to be raised to encourage more people to offset but, in my view, what we ultimately really need is behavioural change. Flying less often is for sure the way to go, but there are steps we can all take, other than offsetting, to reduce our carbon footprint for those times we do fly.
1. Fly Direct
Planes burn much more fuel during take-off and landing than when they cruising so flying direct to a destination lowers your overall carbon footprint. Sometimes, if a layover appears inevitable, it may be worth looking at how you could fly direct to a city near your final destination and plan a way to take the train or bus for the remainder of the journey.
2. Travel Light
Planes which are heavier use more fuel so it makes sense that if you limit your luggage your carbon footprint for the journey will be reduced slightly. It is also so much easier to just have hand luggage so you can avoid long check-in queues and waiting around near the baggage carousel at your destination.
3. Choose your Airline Consciously
Different airlines are responsible for varying amounts of carbon emissions which mostly comes down to how updated their fleet it and how full their flights are. In a recent survey EasyJet came top of the league for airlines trying to cut down on carbon emissions. Many factors come into play when deciding who to fly with, the price is normally the priority but it is worth doing some deeper research into the environmental performance of different airlines.
4. Budget Seats
It comes as no surprise that flying business or first class takes up more room per passenger and as such raises your carbon footprint for the journey quite significantly. Flying economy not only saves money which could then be put towards a carbon offsetting project but allows more people to be flown over a given distance using the same amount of fuel.
5. Use your Local Airport to Avoid Driving
Driving across the country to an airport will increase your carbon emissions compared to if you flew using your local airport a few miles away. If you have to travel to an airport outside your nearest major city to ensure you fly direct to your destination then it's always worth checking out the train or bus options instead of taking the car.
6. Remember all the Reusables
The sheer amount of single use plastic on flights, especially long hauls, has always made me do a big internal cringe. Making sure we take all our own food and drink limits the plastic food packaging we will consume on the flight. This includes taking a metal reusable water bottle each (filled up in the terminal just before boarding), reusable coffee cups, boxes of snacks and sandwiches, lots of peelable fruit (i.e. bananas and oranges), portable wooden toys and reusable wipes and wet bag. Plus things like taking our own blanket and headphones to avoid using the plastic packed ones on board.
7. Avoid Flying at Night
I feel ever so slightly hypocritical saying this as I know I've advocated in the past to try fly overnight if you are travelling with a baby or toddler. However if reducing your carbon emission is of top priority then it is worth thinking about this a little more. High-flying aircraft emit soot and water vapour which can produce condensation trails (contrails) and result in the formation of cirrus clouds in cold weather. Many researchers believe contrails can add to the greenhouse effect and that the effect is pronounced overnight. The idea being that these contrails stop heat escaping from the Earth at night (when it usually cools down and emits heat) which isn't offset by the contrails' ability to reflect incoming sunlight.
If you have any thoughts on any of the above then do get in touch, I always love to hear from you and it's certainly a topic that currently deseves much more attention.
Thanks for reading.
'Annual Statement of Emissions 2017 - Reporting UK 2017 emissions to Parliament under the Climate Change Act 2008', March 2019: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/annual-statement-of-emissions-for-2017
'CCC welcomes Government backing for fifth carbon budget and continued ambition to meet 2050 target', June 2016: https://www.theccc.org.uk/2016/06/30/ccc-welcomes-government-backing-for-fifth-carbon-budget-and-continued-ambition-to-meet-2050-target/
'Climate Change: Which Airline is best for Carbon Emissions', Roger Harrabin, March 2019: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-47460958
'BA and Virgin among worst airlines for pollution' Annabel Fenwick Elliott, December 2018: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/news/airlines-failing-to-reduce-carbon-emissions/
'Climate Change: Half world's biggest airlines don't offer carbon offsetting', Dulcie Lee & Laura Foster, May 2019: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-48133365