No One Buys Carbon Offsets: How Green Do We Really Want Air Travel To Be?

Several airlines sell Catholic indulgences that go by the name carbon offsets. The idea is that they’ll funnel donations to non-profits that do good for the environment in some amount the counteract the effects of carbon attributable (on average) to a given passenger’s travel.

I’m skeptical of these measures for several reasons – the science behind the offsets, the questionable management of many non-profits, the calculations of what’s attributable to a passenger and what will in fact offset their emissions – however from an airline’s perspective it:

  • Allows them to say they’re doing something about the environment
  • Allows customers to feel good about their travel (and thus ideally, from an airline’s perspective, leads customers concerned about their environmental impact to travel more)

Yet Lufthansa’s CEO points out something about their own efforts: very few people actually buy the offsets “with only 1% to 2% of passengers choosing the cheapest form of compensation when purchasing airfares.”

“The more expensive option is used by so few customers, that I could greet them all individually with a handshake”, Mr Spohr continued.

This suggests to me that while environmental concern and support for environmental causes is broad based it may not be very deep. Customers aren’t willing to incur additional costs for their own travel to offset their own emissions.

Another plausible interpretation is that customers don’t want to incur costs themselves (only) in ways that don’t make a difference for the overall environment. No one traveler’s individual emissions have a material impact on the environment. Will they be willing to incur the costs if everyone else has to, also?

Carbon offsets are a talking point to say you’re doing something – both for the airline, and for any individual looking to virtue signal. But at such low levels of adoption it isn’t a solution to anything. The open question is whether passenger reluctance to spend more for their own travel to offset environmental impact will extend to an unwillingness to support legislation that increases the cost of their travel (and whether this differs in Europe versus the United States).

Remember that when you get a good deal on airfare, or book a saver award, your environmental impact is at its minimum.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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