Taking a broader view, even the best possible personal actions have a negligible impact, and could even be politically harmful, Mann concludes. “This new obsession with personal action, though promoted by many with the best of intentions, plays into the hands of polluting interests by distracting us from the systemic changes that are needed.”

Much more important than personal action, some might argue, is being committed to supporting politicians who put climate issues front and center, and who will make tough calls about putting high-emission industries on notice. (It also means being prepared to pay more taxes to support those goals, if necessary.)

How about carbon offsets?

If you haven’t come across them before, carbon offsets can seem like a magic get-out-of-jail-free card for travel fans. Before boarding, you simply pay for someone to perform an environment-friendly practice to “cancel out” your flight, such as supporting solar cooking and heating solutions in rural China, or renewable energy generation in Turkey, and the slate is wiped clean. “Through effective carbon offsetting, you’re preventing anyone from being harmed by your emissions in the first place,” argues philosopher Will MacAskill in his 2015 book Doing Good Better.  “If you emit carbon dioxide throughout your life but effectively offset it at the same time, overall your life contributes nothing to climate change.”

Unfortunately, the jury’s out on how true this actually is. There are hundreds of different carbon-offsetting schemes, whose quality vary tremendously. The offset is seldom perfect, and can almost never guarantee that carbon dioxide will be sequestered for the minimum century that it’s supposed to be. On a more practical note, it simply isn’t possible to “remove” the carbon that you released in the first place.

Once again, the best option would be not flying at all—we keep alighting on more discoveries about the harm planes can do, which may mean even the most conservative estimates are still too optimistic.

If you’re going to fly regardless, it’s still worth exploring your offsetting options. But, crucially, don’t use offsetting as a way to justify even more frequent flying, and do your research before you buy. Many airlines will give you the option to offset at the time of purchase; otherwise, consider carbon emission-reduction projects such as WWF’s Gold Standard, Germany’s Atmosfair, or the US-based Carbon Fund. You can also support Cool Earth, a world leader in preventing deforestation.

The UN has its own scheme in the offing to take the onus off the consumer. CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation) will start its pilot scheme in 2021, before a full roll-out in 2024. It aims to cap net emissions from international aviation at 2020 levels by forcing airlines to buy emission reductions or offsets to keep their impact in check.

CORISA has the backing of the International Air Transport Association, and 78 countries have signed up so far, including the US, Australia, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Japan, the UK, and many EU countries. China, Brazil, and India have not taken the plunge. As the scheme currently only runs up to 2035, its effects may be limited. There are concerns, too, that low-qualify offsets may be used, or even “double counted,” according to analysis from the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT).

Does this mean the end of flying, forever?

In a best case scenario, CORSIA might freeze the carbon footprint of some airlines. But what it won’t do is shrink it. “Our next goal is even more critical—cutting net emissions to half 2005 levels by 2050,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s director general at the group’s annual meeting in June. “Airlines are investing in efficiency measures to achieve that—including new aircraft, better procedures and making forward buying commitments for sustainable aviation fuels. We will continue to make progress, but we need governments to be aligned in their policy actions.” In practice, de Juniac said, that means streamlining air traffic management and supporting “the commercialization of sustainable aviation fuel.”

Biofuels are perhaps the best hope we have for a greener, less harmful flying future—though the technology is still a long way off, and many of the options identified so far, such as palm oil, are deeply unsustainable. Nordic countries in particular are backing research for it: Norway is aiming to have 30% of the fuel used by its aviation sector from alternative sources by 2030, while Sweden’s efforts to be entirely fossil-free by 2045 rely heavily on renewable fuels.

The will might be there, but the technology is not. And when it finally arrives, it’s by no means certain that these biofuels will be as effective or as inexpensive as present fossil fuels. Now may be a good time to start thinking of flying as a luxury—something to be done yearly, or even less often. The planet will thank you for it.

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