Dear Dot: Are carbon offsets a flight of fancy?

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Dear Dot

After almost two years of staying put during COVID, I flew to California to see friends and family on JetBlue. The captain proudly announced that Jet Blue had a carbon offset program so that the flight was carbon neutral. How does the offset work? 

— Curious Traveler, West Tisbury

My dear Curious Traveler,

Carbon offsets are indeed curious things. While it was the “word of the year” way back in 2006, it has continued to confuse and confound ever since. 

There are cynics among us who consider carbon offsets to be little more than an attempt to assuage our guilt over less-than-eco-friendly actions. But we’ll get to that later.

For now, let’s examine what offsets are.

The notion of carbon neutral or offsets boils down to simple math: For the carbon that you put into the air, you (or someone on your behalf) invest in projects that reduce or mitigate the equivalent in carbon from the air.
A number of companies will do the math for you. For a flight to California, you would key in the flight information and up pops a number. A business class trip from New York to Los Angeles, for example, (the emissions calculator didn’t recognize Martha’s Vineyard airport, which is appalling. We exist!) results in 1.87 tonnes of carbon dioxide being released per passenger.
JetBlue led the industry by purchasing offsets and I certainly applaud that step, which has been followed by Delta, American Airlines, EasyJet, and a number of others, domestic and not.

But let’s consider the offsets themselves because they can range from powerful to … not so much. Planting trees has long been a popular and cheap carbon offsetting investment. Theoretically, a certain number of trees are planted to absorb the carbon dioxide that you release. But this solution has come under fire, literally and figuratively. The thing with trees, of course, is that they take a long time to grow, and they can be cut (or burn down). That’s not to say don’t plant trees – please do. With abandon! It’s just that, as an offset project, they are subject to whims and nature. Rather you want to seek out well-credentialed offsets. Luckily for the research-challenged among us, well-respected others have curated those well-credentialed offsets for us. The Gold Standard is, well, the gold standard and you can go online and see the incredible projects they support, including cleaner cook stoves in Rwanda, biodigesters in Cambodia, and a biomass power project in India. Renewable energy projects are key to reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. Travelers can ensure that offset projects receiving the Gold Standard have been endorsed by more than three dozen non-governmental organizations worldwide. This third-party verification is critical. It is a key component to a good offset program (and various other certification programs, but that’s another question for ol’ Dot). 

We must be clear, however, that the solution to climate change goes far beyond throwing a few bucks at offset projects, especially if we continue to engage in carbon-intensive actions. Those of us who love to travel must recognize that our globetrotting ways have a significant impact. While air traffic emits about five percent of greenhouse gases worldwide, these emissions enter the atmosphere at a much higher altitude, thereby increasing its negative impact on the climate. In fact, as much as 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions today can be attributed to air travel. 

The good news is that the airline industry, like many others, is already taking steps to reduce emissions. JetBlue, along with its offset program, is moving toward using fuel with lower emissions. And there are other industry-wide innovations (like electric planes and more efficient flight paths and air traffic control systems). Let airlines know that you want them to adopt these steps. And soon!

In the meantime, Dot is fully supportive of visiting family and friends. So, yes, offsets.

But also…

  • Fly economy (yes, I know they pack us in, but the more people per plane, the less emissions per person. Relish that thought when you can’t recline your seat without landing in someone’s lap.)
  • Avoid night flights, when the clouds created by contrails trap heat.
  • Consider video-conferencing rather than business travel. We can thank COVID for making that commonplace.
  • When practical, don’t fly at all. Take the train or bus or an electric car (like this one that Laurie David drives)!

Offsettingly,

Dot

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