Can aviation offset carbon emissions?

Economic measures

Carbon offsetting is one way the aviation industry is taking immediate action to combat climate change. From voluntary offsetting schemes for passengers, to CORSIA – a global initiative to stabilise CO2 output – we explore what is being done to compensate for global flight emissions.

Offsetting has a tangible impact on reducing CO2 emissions. It is more effective than charging an environmental tax on flights, as such a tax only requires companies and passengers to pay for their emissions, without any guarantees that the payment will lead to any net reduction in emissions.

Carbon offsetting mitigates the environmental impact of air travel, which currently accounts for around 2% of all global carbon emissions. It allows airlines and passengers to compensate for the CO2 emissions released through flying by investing in carbon reduction projects in other areas. An industry-wide approach to offset flight emissions could make all air travel net carbon neutral.

  • Carbon offsetting programmes are an immediate way for the aviation industry to compensate for their carbon footprint by investing in projects that reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Around 40 airlines worldwide offer passengers voluntary offsetting schemes, where passengers pay an additional fee to fund projects that offset the CO2 emissions produced by their flight.
  • The global market-based measure for aviation emissions is the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation – more commonly known as CORSIA – which aims to stabilise flight emissions while the aviation industry pursues other CO2 reduction measures, including technological innovations and operational and infrastructure efficiency improvements.

What is carbon offsetting?

Carbon offsetting is a way to compensate for CO2 being produced in one area, by helping to fund carbon reduction projects elsewhere. In other words, if a passenger’s flight generates one tonne of CO2, they can choose to help fund a project that can develop the equivalent amount of renewable energy, for example. Examples of offsetting schemes include funding reforestation or investing in renewable energy projects, like wind turbines or solar panels.

Offsetting is more effective than charging a tax, as a carbon tax only requires companies and passengers to pay for their emissions, without any guarantees that the payment will lead to any net reduction in emissions. In many cases, a tax on aviation will not reduce emissions and will simply be used to generate revenue for governments while taking away funds that the aviation sector could invest in more efficient aircraft. Offsetting places a cost on the industry, but the revenue goes directly to projects that compensate for CO2 emissions.

An alternative to carbon offsetting is an emissions trading scheme (ETS), also known as cap-and-trade. This involves setting an overall limit on emissions and then allowing companies to buy and sell emission allowances to meet their own targets. Aviation is currently covered by several ETS agreements at a domestic or regional level. The European ETS covers all flights between airports in the EU, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. China has implemented a trial ETS at several Chinese cities – including one in Shanghai that covers domestic airline. New Zealand’s ETS covers domestic aviation.

How can passengers offset their emissions?

Passengers and corporations who want to offset the emissions of their own air travel can do so through voluntary carbon offsetting programmes. Around 40 airlines worldwide offer voluntary offsetting schemes, whereby passengers pay a bit more for their flights to fund projects that will compensate for CO2 emissions. This is paid for either at point of purchase, with airlines integrating the option into their web sales engines, or passengers are directed to a third-party offset provider.

Currently, uptake by passengers is generally low. The industry is investing in initiatives to make offsetting easier to understand and purchase. Some airlines have gone a step further and automatically offset flights:

  • BRA Airlines in Sweden offsets 100% of all its passenger’s journeys and has launched a ‘Green Class’ ticket which also adds sustainable aviation fuel to the journey.
  • Scandinavian Airlines already offsets all ‘youth’ tickets (for under-25 year old passengers) and the flights of all their EuroBonus members (about 40% of the CO2 emissions of the entire airline). In addition, the airline offers passengers the chance to upgrade to sustainable aviation fuels.
  • Delta Airlines has been offsetting the growth in its emissions since 2012.
  • British Airways and Air France have offset 100% of their domestic flights in the UK and France respectively from the start of 2020.
  • etBlue will offset 100% of its US domestic flights from July 2020.
  • As of November 2019, 100% of easyJet flights are offset.

Can aviation achieve carbon neutral growth?

CORSIA is a global carbon offsetting scheme to address CO2 emissions growth from international aviation and was introduced by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in October 2016, with support from the aviation industry. CORSIA was created to enable the carbon neutral growth of international aviation post 2020, while avoiding a potential patchwork of different carbon offsetting and taxation measures popping up in countries and regions around the world. The aviation industry took a pragmatic decision to push for the development of one global measure, designed under the direction of ICAO.

A single global carbon offsetting scheme helps ensure environmental integrity by covering most CO2 emissions growth from international commercial flights. The global approach also avoids market distortion, which could be caused if some airlines have to pay for emissions and others are exempt, depending on where they are registered. Under CORSIA all routes and airlines are covered, except domestic air transport services, as these are covered under the Paris Agreement (and earlier the Kyoto Protocol).

To take into account the special circumstances and capabilities of some nations, CORSIA is being implemented in phases. From 2021 until 2026, only flights between “volunteering” states will be subject to offsetting requirements, building on the way the Paris Agreement is designed. However, from 2027, all flights will be subject to offsetting, with the exception of flights to and from Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Small Island Developing States (SIDS), Landlocked Developing Countries (LLDCs) and small aviation markets, unless they volunteer to participate.

It is forecast that CORSIA will mitigate around 2.5 billion tonnes of CO2 and generate over US$ 40 billion in climate finance between 2021 and 2035 ¬– money that will be used to support actions to reduce CO2 emissions.

What offsets are eligible under CORSIA?

There are numerous ways to achieve CO2 reductions that can be used as offsets, many of which bring other social, environmental or economic benefits. Offsets can be sourced from a range of activities including wind energy, energy-efficient cooking stoves, methane capture, forestry and other emissions reduction or avoidance projects.

The type of offsets that will be eligible under CORSIA is important in determining the effectiveness of the scheme. All stakeholders of CORSIA – governments, the aviation industry and environmental groups – want to ensure that offsets purchased under CORSIA deliver real environmental benefits. In the past, a number of questionable offset schemes in other industries have not delivered on the emissions reductions they promised. The emissions units that can be used by airlines under CORSIA will be decided by a group of government-appointed technical experts based on several criteria approved by ICAO. The main principles are already in place as follows: greenhouse gas reduction or offsets must provide additional environmental gains; offsets must represent a permanent reduction of emissions; and offsets should not result in unintended increases in emissions elsewhere.

Standards will be put in place to ensure that any CO2 reduction created by the offset unit can be fully attributed to the purchaser, is not counted towards any other offset, and is not a reduction that would have occurred anyway. To guarantee this level of environmental integrity, operators will likely be required to purchase offsets that have been verified by trusted bodies such as the Gold Standard or Verified Carbon Standard.

Aircraft operators will be entitled to claim emissions reductions from the use of sustainable aviation fuels, provided they deliver at least 10% in greenhouse gas savings and are not made from biomass obtained from land with high carbon stock. A globally-harmonised approach will provide clarity, help to remove barriers to take up of sustainable aviation fuels and support investment in this vital area.

Does offsetting work?

Carbon offsetting is by no means an overnight solution to tackling climate change. Projects such as reforestation and building solar panels and wind turbines all take time. When well-designed, offsetting finances projects that might otherwise never get off the ground. It also contributes to investment in developing countries, boosting biodiversity, supporting economies, creating jobs and improving the quality of life for people living in these areas.

However, carbon offsetting can’t act alone. Offsetting is only a temporary measure to gain time while the industry develops and invests in new technological innovations, sustainable aviation fuels, more efficient operations, and infrastructure to reduce CO2 emissions.