Opinion: carbon offsetting allows those who want to fly to contribute to the fight against climate change

Ryanair is now one of the top 10 carbon emitters within Europe. The Transport and Environment NGO suggests that aviation is Europe's biggest climate failure. Flight shaming is now a fact. People are encouraged to stop taking flights as a means of transport. The anti-flying movement is now a hot potato for the aviation industry.

In 2016, Ireland's domestic aviation contributed 9.8kt of CO2, a figure that has been reducing steadily since the 2000s, whereas international aviation’s emissions are constantly increasing. Standards in aircraft technology, investment in sustainable biofuels and alternative energy, changes in the airspace structure, emissions trading and carbon offsetting schemes have been implemented over the last decade in order to reduce aircraft emissions.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Andrew Murphy from Transport and Environment on how Ryanair have become one of the top 10 carbon polluters in Europe

While trying to reduce their fuel consumption, Irish airlines are replacing their aircraft with newer ones that are more fuel efficient. The Irish Aviation Authority is constantly improving the landing and taking off procedures and airports like Dublin promise that they will be nicer neighbours. In addition, IAG, the parent group of Aer Lingus, is committed to achieving to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Dublin, Cork, and Shannon Airports are accredited at Level 2: "Reduction" status, meaning they have successfully reduced their overall emissions and carbon footprint year after year.

In research I conducted at DCU, I realised that many of those concepts have been greenwashed and some of them have proven to be a cure worse than the disease. For instance, the increased demand for food-based biofuels leads to an increased use of agricultural land with effects on the food prices. Deforestation and draining of ecosystems due to biofuels damages the environment far more than the use of fossil fuels.

Hydrotreated palm oil is cheap, but it destroys rainforests and reduces biodiversity (no orangutans, Sumatran tigers and Borneo elephants!). Moreover, with their CO2 and methane emissions, palm oil-based biofuels actually have three times the climate impact of traditional fossil fuels. Finally, the supply of sustainable biofuels such as algae is not keeping pace with demand. Algae would need 68 000 square km to meet the needs of the aviation industry, an area roughly the size of the island of Ireland.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Philip Boucher Hayes discusses a new proposal to tax air travel as a response to the climate crisis

Because we all want to travel and discover new places, how can we contribute to the fight against climate change? The obvious solution is to avoid travelling and not risk being flight shamed, but most of us still need to fly for work, family reasons or pleasure. There are ways that you can continue flying and get a few more sunny days in Greece and Portugal, but still account for your carbon footprint.

My students in the aviation courses (BSc and MSc) at DCU often ask me how a passenger can reduce his/her footprint without taking fewer flights. The answer is simple: carbon offsetting. Carbon offsetting is an attempt to internalise the externalities associated with anthropogenic climate change. Each air passenger can pay to offset the emissions caused by their share of the flight’s emissions. Passengers can offset their emissions by investing in carbon reduction projects that generate carbon credits. For example, when a passenger is booking a ticket, s/he has the choice of donating money to a carbon reduction project, forest creation/conservation or use of "waste" energy in co-generation projects.

The main goal of buying carbon offsets is that they should generate genuine emissions reductions

If an airline does not offer that option or does not offer the option to cover the total emissions (e.g. the €1 offset offered by Ryanair does not cover the total miles flown), then the passenger can buy the offsets directly from a carbon offsetting provider such as Gold Standard. The main goal of buying carbon offsets is that they should generate genuine emissions reductions and do not cover projects that would happen under a "business as usual" scenario.

The main principles of carbon offsetting are (a) additionality, (b) verification, (c) traceability, (d) complementarity, (e) registration and (f) guarantee. Aviation should go beyond carbon offsets and implement a basket of measures that will actually reduce emissions. The industry seems ready to do so and we are committed to educate the future aviation leaders to act in an environmental responsible way.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ