It’s 4,781 miles, as the airplane flies, from my house in Seattle to my little brother’s place in London.
I am going to see him for Thanksgiving, my first visit since he started a job there two years ago, and from the time I get on the light rail in the U District to the time I stumble out of the Tube near his apartment in Brixton, I’ll have burned through nine hours of airplane time and 2.5 tons of carbon.
I have so much guilt. Guilt that my turkey dinner might be cancelling out every bike ride to the grocery store and unused plastic bag. Guilt that a better sister would have visited by now. Guilt that there are 67 countries where the average person produces less CO2 in a year than I will in a single day. Guilt that, even though I say I care about the future, I might be burning it down.
It’s not just me. Flygskam—the Swedish concept of flight shaming—has taken hold internationally. Gold Standard, an offsetting organization started by the World Wildlife Fund, says that the amount of money invested by people looking to offset their carbon footprints has climbed fourfold in the past few years.
According to the International Air Transport Association, flights were responsible for 2.4 percent of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2018. Since 2013, aviation emissions have increased 26 percent, and the sector could consume a quarter of the targeted global carbon budget—which is 205 billion tons—if we want to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C by 2050. (The UN has created the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, which aims to keep the sector’s growth carbon-neutral, by investing in offsets starting in 2020.)
To try to absolve my personal guilt—or at least understand it—I called the most expert airplane expert I know. A person who is also adept at enabling my life choices when they’re good, and shooting them down when they’re not. My father.
John Hansman, director of MIT’s International Center for Air Transportation—d.b.a. Dad—said that the best way to reduce emissions is to not fly. But sometimes there’s no other practical way to travel across two continents and an ocean in a few days. If you do need to catch a flight, carbon offsets are currently the best thing you can do to counter those emissions.
Planes are tricky, my dad says. Unlike cars, trains, or domestic energy use, where lower-carbon options are technologically viable, it’s hard to replace fossil fuels for flying. You need a huge amount of energy density to get a block-long tube of metal off the ground, so alternative options are limited. “Some people are trying to go to biofuels,” he says, “but it’s hard to have enough land to make enough biofuels, the pathways use a lot of water, and making biofuels from food that people would otherwise eat is really stupid.” Electric airplanes don’t currently make sense for long-haul flights, and researchers are working on planes fueled by natural gas or hydrogen, but they require huge, not-particularly aerodynamic tanks. So, for now, offsetting your carbon is it.
You can’t just absolve yourself by throwing money at the problem, there has to be systemic change.
Carbon offsets fund projects that reduce carbon to counter the amount you’re creating when you fly (or drive, or heat your home, or do basically anything). You use an online carbon calculator to figure out how many metric tons of CO2 you’re producing, and then fund a program that reduces the same amount. These can include forest regeneration, renewable energy, regenerative agriculture, and more.
Carbon offsets first gained steam around 2006, after the Kyoto Protocols went into effect. Back then it was difficult to verify how much of a difference the offsets actually made. Critics also worried—and still worry—that offsets might do more harm than good by giving travelers a handy justification for flying more. Offsets, in other words, are not a free pass. But in recent years, they’ve become more regulated and verifiable.
You still need to do some due diligence to make sure the offset is additional—meaning you’re not just funding existing projects. And that the offset is permanent—meaning that, say, a deforestation-reduction projects isn’t planting a tree and then cutting it down to harvest. If that sounds like a lot of work, just purchase through a reputable group that vets offset programs, like Cool Effect, Gold Standard, and Green-e. Cool Effect CEO Marisa de Belloy told Yale Climate Connections that they try to find projects that also build economic resilience for communities, projects with benefits beyond carbon.
Carbon balance is tricky, because it’s not a perfect one-to-one equation. It’s an imperfect system, but it’s a step toward keeping our global carbon emissions in check. Reducing aviation emissions is part of large-scale structural change—individual fliers can’t do it alone. But individual actions can add up. European carrier Easy Jet just announced they’re offsetting all their flights. And other airlines, like Air Canada, let you offset through the airline itself.
Buying offsets doesn’t give you carte blanche to travel willy-nilly; it has to come with a sense of awareness, too. As someone who often gets antsy travel bugs, I can be easily sucked into the appeal of cheap flights, so I’m trying to think about necessity versus luxury.I’m happy to give $30 to the Southern Ute Tribe’s Methane Capture project. Heck, what’s a few extra bucks to save my soul? As the critics have said, it actually feels a little too easy and cheap—you can’t just absolve yourself by throwing money at the problem.
I’m not trying to proselytize, but timing-wise, we’re in the busiest travel season of the year, one wrapped up with Black Friday, Giving Tuesday, and all the rest. It seems like offsets make a pretty good gift. Cool Effect, which estimates each American uses 16.6 tons a year, will offset the whole year for $123. A startup called Climate Neutral is launching a Climate Neutral Certified label for outdoor gear that will verify that a company has reduced or offset all their emissions. If you donate $100 to their Kickstarter campaign, they say that $72 will be used to offset your own carbon output. I’d take that in my stocking.
I don’t think austerity is the only answer to carbon balance, but we’ve gotten away with unchecked emissions for a long time. It’s not going to solve the problem, but to me it makes sense to pay for the privilege of making as big an impact as I will flying across the Atlantic. I’m probably not going to get to visit my brother in England for another round of holidays, so maybe I can be a solid older sister and give him preemptive offsets for a trip to see me next time.