Humans spew more than 44 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. Tourism contributes up to 11 percent of those emissions, with flying making up the largest share, according to a 2018 study published in Nature Climate Change. It’s led to a reckoning for many travelers, who are rethinking how and why they fly—and seeking ways to reduce their carbon footprint when they do take to the skies.
One solution? Purchasing carbon offsets—an investment into a project or action, like planting trees or building solar panels, to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. Airlines such as Delta, United, and British Airways have options to pay a small surcharge (in one case the charge was $13) to offset carbon emissions for seats on the flight. However, this market-based approach to reducing emissions is not without criticism.
We asked readers in a January 2022 National Geographic and Morning Consult poll if they have or would pay an optional surcharge some airlines offer to offset the carbon emissions of their ride. Thirty-eight percent of Americans surveyed think it would be a fine idea, with the percentage rising to 48 percent among millennials. But some want more information on the actual benefits of it—and where the money goes. Some experts say the focus on individual actions distracts from the more impactful improvements that happen when the industry is regulated.
The good news is that, in many parts of the world, the offsetting question is finally being addressed by the planet’s biggest polluters. In 2021, airlines that fly internationally were required to offset their CO2 emissions based on the carbon they produced under the UN agreement Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation. In the same year, more than 200 companies and 100 countries have pledged to become carbon-neutral by 2050, or earlier.
If you’re looking to purchase an offset to feel a little less guilty about flying, here’s what you should know.
What are carbon offsets?
With carbon dioxide emissions increasing by 400 percent since 1950, and coal-generated electricity producing nearly a billion metric tons of carbon emissions in 2020 alone, the impact of an individual flight on a global scale is marginal.
But in a person’s daily life, flying is by far one of the most carbon-intensive activities. One flight can produce as much carbon as driving for more than 2,000 miles. To combat flygskam or flight-shaming, third-party companies sell voluntary offsets—different from compliance offsets, which are used to meet legally binding caps. Marisa de Belloy, CEO of carbon offset vendor Cool Effect says one purchase “is equal to one [metric] ton of carbon emissions that were not emitted. The term offset just means you’re using that ton to offset a ton you have put into the atmosphere.”
For example, a consumer could pay $8.50 to a program in Honduras that replaces open fire cooking pits with custom-built brick-and-mortar stoves that require less wood to cook meals and funnel smoke outdoors via a chimney. Cool Effect estimates one new stove could reduce three metric tons of carbon emissions per year.
Cool Effect’s de Belloy credits a growing discontent with the government and private industry’s failure to deal with climate change for motivating individuals to take personal action. Many travelers and companies are invested. The market for voluntary offsets hit a record $1 billion in 2021, according to Ecosystem Marketplace.
Do they make a difference?
Still, many travelers wonder: Is buying carbon offsets a long-term solution? Maybe.
“Offsets shouldn’t be seen as an alternative to regulatory requirements,” says Peter Miller, an expert in carbon offsets at the National Resources Defense Council. In the United States, there’s no federal regulation over the carbon offsets purchased by individuals.
“Consumers and companies should look first to reducing their emissions before looking to source offsets for those emissions reductions that are not possible or are not cost effective in the near term,” Kelley Kizzier, an expert in carbon markets at the Environmental Defense Fund, told National Geographic in 2019. “There are a lot of questionable offsets out there, and it can be difficult to navigate the sometimes-murky world of offsets.” One reader learned that the surcharge he paid went to a conservation NGO that later hit him up with unwanted fundraising mail.
To make a real difference in carbon emissions, de Belloy says offset programs should provide an additional benefit that would not have occurred without money from the carbon offset group, a concept called “additionality.”
For example, paying someone to preserve a forest would count as an offset if that forest was slated for development. Instead of being paid to cut down the trees, a landowner would be paid to keep them standing. If there was never a threat to the forest, your payment to the landowner wouldn’t count as an offset because your money would have provided no additional benefit—the forest would have remained regardless.
There’s also no guarantee for how long a project bought with a carbon offset will last. A 2019 investigation by ProPublica found numerous examples of carbon credit programs failing to protect tropical forests.
To protect a forest from deforestation, revenue from carbon offsets need to be more competitive than the oft-lucrative industries that lead to deforestation, like cattle ranching and soy production. Reforestation offsets also are complicated by the wildfires surging around the world, which can release sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere. Lands sustainably managed one year could fall under new political will or management the next.
Carbon capture vs. offsets
Purchasing traditional carbon offsets can be helpful, but their impact is hard to quantify. By removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the earth, direct air capture (DAC) may offer a more concrete solution.
A specific type of carbon capture, DAC is the focus of companies such as Swiss-based Climeworks, Carbon Engineering in Canada, and Global Thermostat based in the U.S. Its modular machines use a fan to draw air into a collector, which catches the carbon with a filter made of organic compounds. Once the filter is full, the collector is closed and heated to 100°C (212°F), releasing pure carbon dioxide. The carbon is then combined with water and piped underground. Natural basalt formations in the earth react with the carbon, turning it into stone over several years.
In DAC projects where the captured carbon is not stored in the ground, it can be recycled and used as a raw material. At Climeworks’ Hinwil plant, for instance, the carbon is used to fertilize greenhouses and add fizz to Valser, Swiss mineral water. Norsk e-Fuel combines carbon with hydrogen to create a sustainable aviation fuel.
One way to think of a direct air capture facility is as a super-forest. While real forests remove carbon naturally, most experts acknowledge that the process is too slow to make the dramatic impact our planet needs.
“The terrestrial biosphere and the ocean only collectively uptake half of what we dump into the atmosphere every year,” says Jennifer Wilcox, an energy policy expert at the University of Pennsylvania, who was just appointed to a leadership position at the U.S. Department of Energy.
Not only do we need to accelerate carbon removal, but we also need to consider ocean health (absorption of carbon dioxide by the ocean causes acidification) and land use when looking at different removal methods.
“A direct air capture plant can be up to a hundred times more efficient than a forest per given land area,” says Wilcox. “Land is a limited resource … the benefit of direct air capture is you don’t need arable land, so that’s why I think of [the direct air capture plants] as a synthetic forest.”
At Climeworks, each collector captures the equivalent of what 2,000 trees would, and because the carbon concentration is the same everywhere in the world, these facilities are location independent.
While this application doesn’t permanently remove carbon from the air, it is creating a circular economy, as well as a market for carbon removal that might allow the technology to scale up to a level that has a real impact.
How travelers can help
Encouraging travelers to see the value in carbon removal could help create more meaningful journeys.
“The real difference is when you buy an offset, you are verifiably reducing carbon emissions,” says de Belloy. “When you donate to a big environmental nonprofit, you don’t know exactly what the impact has been.”
Demand for captured carbon offsets from consumers and corporations might also help to drive down the cost of the technology—which is still incredibly high. Microsoft, for instance, recently pledged to be carbon negative by 2030 through the use of various capture and storage technologies. In December 2020, the U.S. Congress reserved $447 million to research and develop large-scale carbon removal. President Joe Biden’s goal to have a net-zero-emissions economy by 2050 includes upping federal investments and tax incentives for carbon capture technology.
Christina Beckmann, founder of Tomorrow’s Air, a collective of globe-trotters that has partnered with Climeworks, adds: “There’s a lot of potential for individual travelers being able to take climate action into their own hands.”
If flying is the only option, booking large commercial airliners, which seat more people and therefore have lower carbon emissions per person, instead of smaller planes like private jets, is an oft-mentioned idea for combating greenhouse gas emissions. Traveling on a full plane also helps to lower overall emissions.
With additional reporting from Chloe Berge, Sarah Gibbens, and Starlight Williams.