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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  1. Amazing, Gary has broken the omerta of the enormous climate impacts of flying on his blog! In all seriousness, props for that…

    I buy my offsets at the end of the year in one go through a 501c for more favorable tax treatment rather than at checkout with the airline. Checkout the FlyerTalk Carbon Conscious Travel forum for a much more thoughtful and in depth take.

    Long story short:
    1. Offsets don’t hurt
    2. High quality offsets almost certainly do take out as much carbon as they promise
    3. We still need to reduce aviation emissions by a lot

  2. A difference between the individual payments and legislative requirements for offsets is the concern over freeloading and gaming. For the individual there is a motivation not to pay unless everyone else is, otherwise I am a mug for doing so. Even if known to be the right thing to do. Similar to tipping uber drivers. Once out of sight not all people put that tip on the app. But, if we are all required to pay for offsets because it is added in through regulation then freeloading is reduced. While not everyone supports regulatory approaches probably more do that we think if it cuts down on freeloaders. Overall, environmental awareness is growing, even in US.

  3. Following from Eric’s comment..,I also by my offsets at the end of the year in bulk rather than at each flight. I prefer to select my projects for investing in and across different price points based upon social and environmental benefit.

  4. At least with Catholic Indulgences, they would likely use those to build a church or something instead of just line the pockets of some faux carbon scheme. I don’t trust carbon offsets. I believe in taking care of the planet and trying to keep the air clean but anything much beyond all that is just speculation. That is why I wouldn’t buy offsets from an airline. Heck I barely will trust them with my luggage.

  5. The Catholic Church made a fortune selling indulgences to all sorts of sin. Similarly, carbon offsets are a profitable scam that does little to reduce carbon in the air.

  6. A broad-based carbon tax is the answer. People may scream their heads off about it, but it will have an effective deterrent effect on the release of carbon. Relying on individuals to just “chip in and do their part” is a ridiculous way to enact policy.

  7. Offsets bought from credible programs don’t hurt. I agree with the previous commenter that a carbon tax is the answer. You trash the planet, you pay the price.

  8. Broad-based carbon tax is the way to go, and inevitable. Relics/fossils like Other Just Saying can decline to fly, if they so choose.

  9. @Paulo. Why do you hate civilization and the United States? I asked you before, but you did not answer.

  10. Add a base fossil fuel tax, then remove child tax deduction and tax having children, the root cause of global warming is too many people. Personally I recognize that individual choices have literally no effect, so I choose not to make them.

  11. Regulations with enforcement, incentives, taxes, offsets, efficiency improvements (and mandates), conservation, and especially cleaner energy sources are all very valid actions. It may be too late for a quick turnaround, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act, even if not every nation does. Heck, just slightly reducing highway speed limits worldwide would probably make a significant dent in emissions and fuel/energy expenditure.

  12. @ Other Just Saying
    I’ve said before: I don’t hate the USA; far from it. I do have an intense dislike of Trump and the associated lunatic fringe. Those issues will be resolved following the election of President Warren.

  13. @Not John Reducing speed limits is perhaps the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard. What about people who drive Tesla’s?

  14. I haven’t personally bought offsets before, but I am definitely considering doing so from now on. (Hmmm, I wonder if that would qualify as an airline fee on my Amex…?)

  15. Nick, it would be nice if everybody could drive electric vehicles, but that’s probably a long way off, especially in the Third World. Anyway, Tesla drivers would presumably have to charge less often.

  16. @Paolo, (1) During the current campaign. When has Warren said something good about the United States? What did she say?

    (2) What do you like about the United States?

  17. The very first sentence made my day. Hitting Catholics and eco-watermelons with one sentence? – yes, he can! Gary, if green mob will ever come to cancel you, you can always made a second carrier as a stand-up comedian.

  18. I think the problem is credibility. As an example, BA charges for carbon offsets. I think everything that comes from BA is a total cash-grab, because the f**ckers even charge for awards that are supposed to be free. None of the domestic carriers are any better, as they clamor for fees for every possible function and service.

    By contrast, if Southwest charged for carbon offsets (…they don’t), I would look into it more closely and consider it may go towards the intended destination.

  19. Whoa, is there some way to get these to trigger the Amex Plat credit? Inquiring minds want to know!

    I strongly agree that a carbon tax (or the more politically palatable fee and dividend) is a more rational approach that we should all push for; real action on controlling climate change will occur in the political realm, but individual action helps create palatable political pathways (economic growth divorced from climate emissions growth).

    Perhaps Gary would like to provide equal coverage to the innumerable fossil fuel subsidies showered upon airlines? For instance the average tax on automotive gasoline in the US is around 53 cents versus 2-3 cents per gallon for jet fuel.

  20. I guarantee you that there is direct correlation in the group of people who were certain that Trump was a Russian spy with the group of people who believe that man-made climate change is an existential threat. I didn’t vote for Trump, but I am as skeptical about the threat from climate change as I was about the Russian allegations. Skepticism is always good when theories are being advanced by partisans (especially by partisans who don’t believe they’re partisan!).

    For those who don’t believe this, how many of you think that the climate in Southern California has been changing? I’m sure the vast majority of Californians believe this. But real scientific data shows that humans are incapable of making accurate climate observations, especially where the climate varies from year to year.

  21. Being skeptical of Man Made Climate Change shows critical thinking skills and intelligence. Nowadays, we really should be skeptical of anything that is force fed to us as established fact. From Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, to all the Glaciers disappearing by 2020 in Glacier National Park. We really shouldn’t believe ANYTHING government tells us at face value anymore, without at least maintaining some skepticism, and looking into it ourselves.

    With that said: Carbon offsets are moronic. It’s virtue signaling stupidity at the highest level. If you care about the environment, there are many legit charities to choose from that actually do something. I’m partial to those that clean up our bays, oceans and rivers. You could even (gasp) volunteer a weekend and do some beach cleanup work with various groups. There are just so many good ones to choose from, that spending extra on an unvetted charity on an Airline ticket seems rather silly.

  22. The money statement.

    “Carbon offsets are a talking point to say you’re doing something – both for the airline, and for any individual looking to virtue signal.”

  23. There’s literally no way to have a conversation about this subject that doesn’t bring out the evangelical climate deniers.

    Truth is, we wouldn’t need to engage in conversations about voluntary carbon offsets if we implemented the types of across the board carbon fees that were offered up as the “free market climate solution” 10 years ago.

    But we won’t because complaining about and discounting climate science is a religion now.

  24. Wow the comments are getting to be fun on this post. I guess I’d be convinced of the doom of global warming if the experts could tell me what the weather will be like next week or next month versus 10 years from now. Regardless it seems that TDS has been triggered. Carbon offsets are as big of a scam as the Clinton foundation. I do wish I had gotten in on the ground floor of those business models.

  25. The current “business as usual” approach is doomed because it socializes the cost of polluting. Fee and dividend solutions are broadly popular because they’re market-based, revenue-neutral and, crucially, assign costs to those responsible. Use as much fossil fuel as you want, but I shouldn’t be forced to subsidize your lifestyle, be that in the form of higher insurance rates from more frequent fires or increased asthma rates.

    Disagree with the science if you want, but recognize you’re up against physics and chemistry, which seldom yield.

  26. The Green Blob here in England would much rather 2,500 people at FlyBe lose their jobs than the government reduce air taxes to help the airline recover.

  27. Love how @otherjustsaying is an unabashed Trumpist. While asking others what opposing pols have said about the USA, he blindly refuses to see how Trump bashed the USA throughout his election campaign.
    He also ignores the way Trump seeks to override the US constitution. Although if we ask Otherjustsaying about guns, he will refer you to a narrow and wilfully blind interpretation of the 2nd amendment

  28. I agree that the effects of climate change are largely unknown still, but I am surprised to see so many outright climate change deniers. Do you guys also believe that that whole “Earth is round” thing is another government conspiracy? What about the lunar landing- another government hoax?

    Wake up- the science is pretty clear and indisputable. What to do about it is not as obvious, but to argue it doesn’t exist? Sheesh. Take off the tin hat and get out of your mom’s basement!

  29. @Chopsticks- no, the primary correlation is between climate change skeptics and polluters- see “High CO2 Emitters Are Less Intensely Concerned about Climate Change” in this survey. Makes sense, people driving massive SUV’s are probably going to claim they aren’t the problem. But do you really believe this, or are just advocating the position as an easy out to avoid changing your lifestyle?

  30. @ George

    It’s not that the Earth isn’t warming, I’ll accept that. It’s the Loonies who believe that mankind is responsible and turning the clock back 500 years to well before the industrial revolution will stop it happening. That’s just nuts.
    Produce a viable plan, that doesn’t kill a few billion people, and it will be given due consideration.

  31. @747always. I will ask you the same question that I asked Paulo. What do you like about the United States?

    Yea, right, another anti-American creep.

  32. According May 13, 2010 World Property Journal article, Al Gore and his wife “spent $8,875,000 on a gated ocean-view villa on 1 1/2 acres with a swimming pool, spa and fountains, according to real estate sources familiar with the deal. The Italian-style house has high ceilings with beams in the public rooms, a family room, a wine cellar, terraces, six fireplaces, five bedrooms and nine bathrooms in more than 6,500 square feet of living space.”

    Maybe George should have told Gore that his property will be under water soon, because of “people driving massive SUV’s”.

  33. Carbon offsets make sense when done by a reputable organization and can be an elegant economic solution to the carbon emission issue. For what it’s worth, I never buy carbon offsets when purchasing a flight because (1) I do not want to take the time to research and validate that each airline’s offset partner is reputable and (2) I have already purchased carbon offsets exceeding my expected lifetime carbon emissions.

    On the topic of virtue signalling: for me, it’s more about doing my part and leaving a net positive (or at least net neutral) impact on the world. , I personally don’t broadcast to others that I’ve offset my lifetime emissions, but I do share my perspective on the benefits of carbon offsets and encourage others to offset their own emissions.

  34. @otherjustsaying love how you ignore how Trump is trampling over the constitution.
    Man up and say you want a dictatorship in the USA. Then again, Trumpists aren’t known for their bravery. Bone spurs anyone?

  35. @otherjustsaying why are you not upset that Trump bashed the USA incessantly in his election campaign? Why do you hate the USA so much?

  36. @747always. Trashing Trump is not an answer. When Trump is gone in 5 years, you will still hate the USA. I repeat, anti-American creep.

  37. @otherjustsaying still ignores the question. Why am I not surprised. He is the original anti American creep. Why? Because he supports Trump trampling all over the constitution.

  38. @Anti-American 747always. Your comments about Trump and his supporters are beyond idiotic. I am not going to argue with someone who is “severely retarded” (which is defined as an IQ range of 20-34). I guess given the basic brain power you have available to you, it is amazing you can even type insults at me.

  39. @otherjustsaying keep attempting to insult me little snowflake. You’re cowardly little self is still scared of answering why you support Trump trampling over the constitution. Grow a pair and answer a question little girl.
    Ps. Funnily enough I never insulted you till now O little snowflake.
    Why are you such a little coward?

  40. @Airfarer, get real. FlyBe is failing because of bad business decisions, not taxes (hint: all airlines are subject to tax, yet many are doing fine). If they fail, they fail – that is what the free market is about. Those 2500 people will not be unemployed for long as other airlines will have to expand their operations to pick up those 1000s of passengers.

    As for the global warming debate – scientists who denied a link between CO2 emissions and climate change were predicting no further warming 15 years ago. The rest were actually quite accurate in predicting continued climate warming. And the so-called skeptics have utterly failed to present any alternate theory about why temperatures are going up, just vague rhetoric about climate being complex and changeable. And to those people who see this through a lens of left-versus-right, bear in mind that Margaret Thatcher recognized the link between CO2 and temperatures 30 years ago (she even gave a speech to the UN about it), probably because she was one of the only world leaders ever to have a science degree. So it’s not just socialists wanting to smash the economy.

    Finally, to get back on topic, like many posters here I’m not surprised by this because a) nobody wants to be paying when 99% of the other passengers on the plane aren’t and b) not enough evidence that airlines’ offset mechanisms are the most effective approach.

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