Carbon offsetting your flights: A guide to how to do it right

Published by Georgia Crump on

What is the environmental impact of flying? And should I be offsetting the carbon footprint of my flights? Let’s take a closer look at carbon offsetting the emissions associated with air travel… 

carbon offsetting flights

Carbon offsetting your flights

In August 2019, Greta Thunberg famously chose to travel by boat from Sweden to New York for a UN climate conference, making a public statement about the damaging impact of flying on the environment. And with good reason, flying is mile for mile the most polluting mode of transport today.

If flying was a country, it would be the 7th worst polluter in the world.

It goes without saying that we should all be avoiding air travel wherever possible. However, in reality this is not always practical. International train travel can be prohibitively expensive and it is unlikely that we would spend three weeks on a cargo ship to reach a sick loved one. 

So if flying is the only option how can you minimise the impact on the environment? 

The answer is carbon offsetting. The number of people looking to carbon offset their emissions has increased dramatically since the turn of the century. Between 2008 and 2018 the number of passengers donating to carbon offsetting schemes has increased 140-fold, according to the International Air Travel Association (IATA). 

How much carbon dioxide is released from flying? 

It is estimated that a long-haul return flight from New York to London releases 2.8 tonnes of CO2. That’s nearly half the average UK resident’s annual emissions. 

Today, the aviation industry contributes roughly 2% of the entire world’s greenhouse gas emissions. This might not seem like a lot, but when you realise that only 5% of the global population have ever flown, it becomes clear that flying is one of the most polluting activities around today. 

Emissions from different modes of transport

Estimates on CO2 emissions do vary depending on the number of factors taken into account. Many calculators will look simply at mileage flown. However, to get an accurate estimate of the carbon footprint of your flight, you also need to account for plane type, since some are more efficient than others, cargo weights and taxi times. What class you choose to fly will also affect your footprint. Travelling in economy class produces much less CO2 than first class because the emissions are split between fewer seats. 

What is carbon offsetting? 

Carbon offsetting is a way in which individuals and organisations can take full responsibility for their carbon footprint. Put simply, it means compensating every tonne of carbon you emit by ensuring there is one less in the atmosphere. This means that you can mitigate the exact amount of emissions produced by your flight. 

Carbon offsetting is achieved by buying credits from carbon reduction projects. These projects can take a variety of forms. For example, planting trees, renewable energy, and making processes more energy efficient will all result in less CO2 emissions.

Why are some people critical of carbon offsetting flights? 

Some airlines offer the option for passengers to add carbon offsetting their flight to the price of their ticket. Environmental groups like Greenpeace are critical of this, saying that it offers airlines a licence to keep polluting without trying to cut down the number of flights and resulting emissions. 

What’s more if carbon offsetting is offered at all, the responsibility is put on the passenger, rather than the airline, which many feel to be wrong. 

Furthermore, for any company claiming to be offsetting their emissions, including airlines, it is important to check what projects they are supporting and how much money they are donating. Companies can all too easily be accused of ‘greenwashing’ if they are discovered to be sending money to projects that aren’t verified, or not donating as much money as they claim.

So is there a way that I can carbon offset my flights properly? 

As we’ve said before the first step is to check whether you really need to fly. Video conferencing, embracing slow travel, and holidaying closer to home are all part of the effort to cut down on the number of flights globally. 

If you really can’t avoid flying then carbon offsetting is the answer. To do this effectively, you need to look out for proper certification.The best way to guarantee this is to make sure the project you’re donating to is certified by an independent carbon reduction standard, such as Gold Standard or Verified Carbon Standard. These organisations ensure that projects are actually reducing CO2 emissions, as well as supporting sustainable development. 

One thing these standards will check is “additionality”. This means that a project can prove CO2 emissions would not have been reduced without their intervention. 

As individual consumers, we don’t usually have the resources, time, or access to verify every individual project in detail. Companies such as Treepoints offer this kind of support to simplify things for you. 

Flight carbon footprint calculator

We’ve built a handy calculator so that you can find out the emissions from your flight, and then offset it by donating to world class carbon reduction projects.

Take me to the Flight Calculator

All you need to do is select your departure and destination airports, your seat class, and the aircraft model (if you know it).

You can then see an estimated carbon footprint and the cost to offset it.

Key points for offsetting the carbon footprint of your flights

There are three simple rules to remember when considering the environmental impact of flying:

  1. Avoid flying whenever possible. Remember that sometimes breaking habits can be difficult, but is the only way to achieve change.
  2. If you have to fly, make sure to fly with the most efficient airline. Atmosfair have provided a helpful comparison
  3. Offset. If you are flying, make sure to measure & offset the carbon emissions of your flight. And don’t rely on the airline to do this on your behalf.