With the Summer holidays fast approaching, many Brits will be thinking of jetting off from the UK to sunnier shores.
If you’re planning to hop on a plane this Summer, have you ever thought about the carbon cost of your holiday?
Your Carbon Footprint
Whilst the notion of a carbon footprint may be problematic in terms of fossil fuel companies off-loading their responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on to individual consumers, it is still a helpful tool. It helps us see a breakdown of the carbon impact of our choices as consumers.
Did you know, the average UK annual carbon footprint is 12.7 tonnes of CO2e per year.[i]
And just over a quarter of that (27%) is travel – 9% of our total footprint being personal flights, on average. The more we fly, the more that will be – and vice versa.
What is Your Personal Carbon Footprint?
How many flights do you take a year? How much meat and dairy do you eat? How do you power your home? How many new clothes, electrical items and other things do you buy?
There are some great environmental footprint calculators. I would recommend doing each of them to get a general idea of how you fair:
The Carbon Cost of Flights
And do you know the carbon cost of the flights you take?
Here are a few examples of typical flights from the UK:[ii]
CO2e Cost in Tonnes
Manchester to Malaga
Leeds Bradford to Lanzarote
London to New York
London to Los Angeles
If we’re aiming to reduce our personal carbon footprints from close to 13 tonnes down to 2.5 tonnes per year, with the aim of keeping global warming below 1.5’C[iii], the carbon cost of these flights uses up a HUGE chunk of that carbon ‘budget’ and some use it up many times over.
What can we do to reduce our carbon emissions from flying?
Until the aviation industry can drastically reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, the best way to reduce the amount of CO2e your travelling emits, is to fly less – or not at all.
Our family plans not to fly at all in Europe any more for this very reason.
We started this in 2019 when we flew only one-way to Italy to stay with friends, and then took a week to travel back home by train, travelling home via Milan, Switzerland and Paris.
And earlier this year in 2022, we took our postponed 2020 Summer holiday to Scotland by travelling on the overnight train there and back.
Next Easter we have a wedding in Scotland which we’ll travel by train to, and I’m already planning train routes down to the south of France for a Summer holiday in 2023.
However, there are times, such as a close family friend’s wedding in the US, where we will have to fly to get there.
And that’s when we offset.
What is carbon offsetting?
Carbon offsetting is the process of counterbalancing the amount of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases (GHG) a person or has directly (or indirectly) produced by contributing to reduce the same level of emissions in environmental projects around the world.[iv]
This is often done through tree-planting schemes and / or investing windfarms, solar cookstoves, or better farming methods.[v]
Carbon offsetting by tree planting
Sadly, tree-planting schemes are not viable to offset all the carbon our lifestyles emit.
To offset the carbon footprint of someone from the Global North, some estimates state each person would have to have somewhere between 450-700 trees planted per year!![vi]
And in terms of return flights we’re looking at:
Number of trees needed to be planted per person, per return flight from London[vii]
- San Francisco – 16 trees
- New York – 10 trees
- Barbados – 13 trees
- Mallorca – 6 trees
With passenger numbers ranging from around 200-500 per plane, and the number of flights taking off from Heathrow, for example, around 1,300 per day, you’re looking at anything from 1.56 million to 10.4 million trees needing to be planted EVERY DAY to offset the carbon from flights from just one airport in one country!
Aside from the question about whether it’s physically possible to do that (I’m sure it’s not ;-)), we would very soon run out of land to plant these trees!
So we’re back to the fact that until aviation industry radically reduces their greenhouse gas emissions, the best way we can decrease the greenhouse gas emissions we generate from flying is not to fly.
Other Problems with Carbon Offsetting
Only four of the 11 most-used airlines offer their own carbon offsetting schemes. And of those that do, convenience isn’t always the best option – e.g. Ryanair’s scheme of tree planting in Ireland and Portugal would offset less than 0.01% of their emissions![viii]
Tour operator ‘Responsible Travel’ go even further and say:
“Carbon offsets sum up all that is wrong with our approach to tourism and the climate crisis. They perpetuate the idea this crisis does not prevent unlimited growth with old and highly polluting technology; shifts the moral responsibility for carbon reduction to someone else (not the type of behaviour we need to encourage); and finally there is the small matter that they don't work. From 2021 the EU will stop allowing offsets to be counted towards emissions reductions targets.”[ix]
They give reasons why they don’t work. (You can read these in full on their site: www.responsibletravel.com/copy/carbon-offsets)
- Offsets can’t act quickly enough; only reductions can
- Offsets shift our moral responsibility to reduce on to someone else
- Offset programmes may have happened regardless
- Offsets can impact on indigenous communities
- Take up rates of offset schemes historically have only had 1% take up
To Offset or Not Offset - that is the question. The Answer is: Always Offset.
The best way to reduce our emissions from air travel…. Is to reduce our air travel.
That said, even with all its imperfections and and flaws, if you have to fly, it’s still better to offset your flights as best to you can.
Four important things to look for in a carbon offsetting scheme.
- Not Only Tree Planting. Make sure the company you use funds schemes in addition to tree-planting, such as deforestation prevention, cleaning cooking fuel alternatives, renewable energy (solar, wind, hydro, waves, geothermal), landfill gas capture etc. Look for a diverse range of projects, and ones that work together with local communities and indigenous peoples.
- Third Party Accredited. Ensure the company and the schemes are third party quality accredited, the best one being QAS (Quality Assurance Standard). They carry out checks on emissions factors, calculation methodologies, best practice, pricing and more; and they make sure QAS-certified carbon offsets steer clear of contentious issues.[x] Other carbon offset / credit standards are Gold Standard, established by the WWF in 2003, and the Clean Development Mechanism, which is defined in the Kyoto Protocol.
- Radiative Forcing. Make sure the scheme you use accounts for Radiative Forcing – those that do tend to apply a factor of 1.9. The science is very complex to understand, but essentially it means that the impact of fuel being burnt at high altitude is far greater than if they were burnt on the ground.[xi] Many airline offsetting schemes calculate emissions as if they were on the ground. But of course, planes produce their emissions at high altitude where the effects are magnified due to contrails, direct injection into the atmosphere and several other factors.[xii]
- Impact on Indigenous Peoples. Look for schemes that explicitly state that they work with local communities ensuring schemes only benefit them, rather than impose unwanted changes, and use up valuable land with unwanted tree planting.
Which Are the Best Carbon Offset Companies to Use?
Only Clear, Carbon Footprint and IATA have successfully submitted their carbon offsets to be audited against the high standards required by the QAS.[xiii]
IATA provides QAS-Certified offsets to several major airlines, through its Carbon Offset Program, and represents 240 airlines, or 84% of total air traffic. 30 of these airlines have introduced an offset program, the best of which have met the stringent criteria set by the Quality Assurance Standard.[xiv]
Head to qasaudit.com/best-carbon-offsets to see if your airline is there.
Both Clear and Carbon Footprint allow you to add up multiple flights, car journeys and hotel stays connected to a holiday. And they both also allow you to offset your home carbon footprint too. On top of this, Clear gives you the option to offset sky dives and balloon rides!
Personally, I prefer Clear’s more user-friendly interface. AND your ability to not only offset your trip, but to make it up to 200% carbon negative!
Lower Carbon Holidays
Keeping in mind, each of us should be aiming to reduce our carbon footprint to only 2.5 tonnes of CO2e emissions a year, the best way to lower the carbon footprint of your holiday is to not fly. Look at train or ferry travel as alternatives within Europe.
But if you must fly, then make a decision to reduce the number of flights you make each year, and when you do fly, choose a high-quality offsetting scheme to offset the greenhouse gas emissions your flight emits.
Once you’re on holiday, look at hiring an electric car, choose a green hotel, support local food producers and choose low carbon impact activities.[xv]
I hope this helps provide some information and insight into offsetting the greenhouse gas emissions from your flights and reducing the carbon footprint of your summer holiday.
If you have any questions at all, please do not hesitate to ask.
With love from my family to yours, and have a very happy eco holiday,
ps - a really interesting podcast episode to listen to about 'green' flying is:
Can flying ever be green? With easyJet CEO
Deborah Meaden and Fliss talk to easyJet CEO Johan Lundgren about the future of aviation. Plus, they meet the man who’s building a solar-powered surfing destination... inland!
References & Further Reading