Airlines are selling carbon offsets as the solution to climate change. Here’s why they’re wrong

Offsetting can't make flying ‘carbon neutral’, no matter what the airlines say.


Has paying a few quid to carbon offset your travel often felt like a con? Can paying an extra £2 each time you fly for some tree planting scheme really make your flight “carbon neutral”?

As the old saying goes: if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. But that’s not stopped airlines making bold claims. 

EasyJet claims it can operate “net-zero carbon flights”. Delta says it’s going to become the first carbon neutral airline globally”. British Airways now allows its customers to pay a small fee to “fly carbon neutral”. 

But a joint investigation by the Guardian and Greenpeace’s Unearthed found that these major airlines are exaggerating the benefits of the carbon offsetting schemes they offer to passengers.

What is carbon offsetting?

Carbon offsetting relies on the idea that something can be “carbon neutral” if someone pays to “cancel out” emissions by supporting a green initiative somewhere else in the world. This could be, say, preserving a forest that would otherwise have been cut down. Or planting a tree – or trees – that will magically suck up the CO2 emitted by that flight.

But can we really justify polluting in one area by promising  – and it really is only promising – to clean up or look after another? After all, the carbon pollution is still going into the atmosphere from the flight. And it’s still causing climate change.

And how does an offsetting project know which bit of forest is due to be chopped down anyway? This, it turns out, is one of the biggest problems with the airlines’ carbon offsetting schemes examined by the investigation.

What’s wrong with the airlines’ carbon offsetting schemes?

Our investigation found problems in how the carbon savings were calculated by the projects. United Airlines, British Airways and EasyJet were all found to be supporting offsetting projects that were “saving” forests that weren’t really under threat, or investing in schemes that aren’t even expected to last long enough to effectively offset the emissions created by fossil fuels.

Some offsetting schemes are being run by companies that clearly have their own agenda. For example, one EasyJet-backed offsetting project in the Peruvian Amazon is being run by two logging companies that have built new roads through the rainforest, and that are targeting tree species declared “vulnerable” by the IUCN red list.

Yep, a forest protection scheme run by logging companies. Logging companies targeting endangered trees.

“It’s a scandalous situation,” Philip Fearnside, an ecologist at the National Institute for Research in Amazonia, said about the current state of the voluntary carbon offsetting system. “Most of this is pure public relations.” 

“Your flight is just as bad for the environment, despite its offsetting scheme. And it’s definitely not 'carbon neutral', as the airline wants you to believe.”
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Carbon offsetting is doing little but help airlines scrub their carbon-tarnished image. It’s also making their customers feel they can keep flying as much as they want. What really needs to happen is a tax on excessive frequent flying to contain demand for flights. This is the only way to really make flying less carbon intensive.

Can we really have ‘carbon neutral’ flights?

While it might be technically possible to have a carbon neutral flight, it doesn’t seem like that’s what’s actually happening.

Our investigation found no evidence that these airlines’ carbon offsetting schemes are backed up by actual carbon savings.

“It’s a scam,” professor and expert in deforestation modelling Britaldo Silveira Soares Filho told Greenpeace’s Unearthed. “Neither planting trees nor avoiding deforestation will make a flight carbon neutral.”

So your flight is just as bad for the environment, despite its offsetting scheme. And it’s definitely not “carbon neutral”, as the airline wants you to believe.

Even worse, carbon offsetting is also now feeding a dodgy new market for banks and billionaire investors to make yet more money out of the world’s biggest crisis.

Who’s pushing carbon offsetting in the UK?

UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak has plans to make London the “global hub for the trade of voluntary carbon offsets”. 

Former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney is spearheading efforts by an industry taskforce to create a $100 billion global offsetting market ahead of the Glasgow climate summit later this year. EasyJet and Verra, the world’s biggest issuer of carbon credits, are both members of Carney’s taskforce

Even former UKIP and Brexit Party politician – and well-known climate sceptic – Nigel Farage is getting involved. Turns out you don’t even have to believe in climate change to make money from carbon offsetting.

“With airlines, the fossil fuel and meat industries and even supermarkets all scrambling to buy more offsets, it’s almost impossible to figure out which ones are legit.”
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Many powerful industries have an interest in emitting carbon limitlessly.

Before turning London into a global hub for corporate greenwash, the UK government needs to be sure that offsetting schemes aren’t just a trick used by big polluters to dodge their climate responsibilities.

How the carbon offsetting ‘trend’ might end up causing more harm than good

Carbon offsetting is being used as a “get out of jail free” card – all the while allowing companies to do nothing to reduce their emissions.

Even more shockingly, it’s become an excuse for companies to actually increase their fossil fuel production and consumption. 

There are some offsetting schemes that have credibility. But with airlines, the fossil fuel and meat industries and even supermarkets all scrambling to buy more offsets, it’s almost impossible to figure out which ones are legit.

Offsetting projects simply don’t deliver what we need – an absolute reduction in the carbon emissions entering the atmosphere. 

Instead, they allow companies to continue with business-as-usual, while also being able to stamp “carbon neutral” on their high-emissions products.

It’s time to face up to the reality of climate change

The UK thinks it’s leading the world in tackling climate change. But buying into the carbon offsetting myth – and worse, allowing investors to make a quick buck out of it – is just another form of climate denial. 

The brutal truth is that there isn’t a way of buying ourselves out of this crisis using offsets. 

The only way to begin to properly eliminate carbon emissions is to not make them in the first place. 

Oil companies need to be getting out of oil and gas and moving to renewable energy. Our public money should no longer go to propping up polluting industries, but invested into a green, fair transition.

The government needs to tax the people who fly the most in order to limit the number of flights that take off. And airlines must look at better ways to bring their emissions down.

And we need policies and incentives that restore and protect places like forests for their own sake – not as part of a scam that puts nature itself up for sale.

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