To fulfill their carbon neutral promises, airlines must be prepared to bear the costs

Blue sky thinking.
Blue sky thinking.
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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Industries must decarbonize. For aviation, where only jet fuel can power such hulking machinery through the air, this is a harder challenge than for most. Though adopting more efficient planes and better routes has led to some carbon savings, airlines appear decades away from being able to make wholesale changes. Unlike shipping, which has slashed its carbon output by opting for cleaner fuels and more efficient technology, aviation is stuck. Renewable fuel is mostly too expensive or inefficient to be a realistic solution, while battery-powered planes that can carry more than about six people are still a long way off. 

That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t try—after all, airplanes put disproportionately high amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. But until the technology improves, airlines making even the vaguest claims at some level of carbon neutrality, such as JetBlue, British Airways, and easyJet, have only one solution: carbon offsets, and lots of them. As airlines can’t directly reduce their own footprint, they must pay to cancel out more immediately shrinkable greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere in the world. (Hoping that people will simply give up flying doesn’t seem to be panning out.)

When individuals or companies purchase carbon offsets, they are helping to fund projects that either remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere, or prevent them from entering it. Because greenhouse gases mix quickly with the air in the atmosphere, and spread around the whole planet, it doesn’t especially matter where those reductions take place—what’s important is the net total of emissions in the atmosphere, or so the theory goes.

Climate experts around the world often describe offsets as a last resort, coming far behind adopting practices that actually reduce emissions. Offsets, they caution, cannot curb our growing emissions, especially since newly planted trees—a common offset—need time to grow. But for those emissions that can’t easily be reduced, offsets—provided they are either properly certified or traded in a regulated market (or both)—can be a reasonable transitional option, at least until something better comes along. They are, for now, aviation’s only recourse.

Show me the receipts

Environmental campaigners have a tendency to frame these carbon offsets in moral terms. George Monbiot, the Guardian columnist and political activist, puts it succinctly: “You buy yourself a clean conscience by paying someone else to undo the harm you are causing.” Offsets, he argues, are a modern-day equivalent to the indulgences once peddled by the Catholic church, permitting people to purchase “complacency, political apathy and self-satisfaction.” There are problems with this analysis, said Landon Brand, CEO of Project Wren, a company which sells offsets direct-to-consumers to counterbalance their personal carbon use. In the case of the Catholic church, there wasn’t really any specific activity that the church could do to “absolve” sin, says Brand. “With carbon, it’s different.” Assuming an accurate calculation of how much damage was done in the first place, he says, “it’s like they never touched the atmosphere.”

There’s an extra layer of complication for aviation, however. Though we already know airplanes are hugely harmful, there’s evidence that releasing carbon high up in the air may have far greater repercussions than an equivalent amount closer to the ground. Despite this unpredictability, scientists are getting better at judging the climate impacts of flights, says Brand. 

To be credibly carbon-neutral, airlines need to be prepared for a significant financial outlay—and be extremely transparent about every step of the process. Last week, JetBlue announced that it would offset between 15 billion and 17 billion pounds of carbon a year, noting in a release that all carbon offset projects would be registered with any of a number of possible third-party verification standards. JetBlue won’t disclose what percentage of its total annual emissions that equals, but a single cross-country flight on an Airbus 321 produces roughly 500,000 pounds of carbon dioxide.

In an email to Quartz, a JetBlue spokesperson said the company would purchase offsets that were on public marketplaces, such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). This is not an auspicious sign: CDM credits, established under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, were originally intended to allow rich countries to meet their climate targets at a cheaper cost by investing in the developing world. Many of these projects were low quality at best, unscrupulous at best worst. Sometimes described as “junk credits,” they would not meet modern standards. In a 2019 peer-reviewed paper, a team of authors led by Carsten Warnecke, an expert in carbon markets and offsets, found that relying on such outdated CDM carbon credits to compensate aviation emissions would “do nothing” for climate action.

There may also be issues around transparency. While the airline intends to “share exact physical locations” and possibly lead trips to project locations near its route map, she said, “our accounting is private and is held to auditable standards. Our certificates from projects will be retired on behalf of JetBlue by a third-party.” There is, as yet, no equivalent of the SEC’s 10-K for carbon offsets. “The public could look at the types of projects we select and in some cases, per the above, would be able to physically find them themselves or go online and research them.”

What makes a good offset?

Few with any experience of the industry can forget the horror stories of its earliest years, including Chinese factories that deliberately burped out more noxious fumes in order to be paid to clean up their act. 

The wild west years of carbon offsets are only somewhat behind us. Companies may be under more pressure to differentiate between good, or less good, carbon offsets, but there’s a distance to go. Three important factors can help differentiate offset gold from offset dross. The first: Is it permanent? Carbon offsets must represent a permanent reduction of emissions. Trees that are planted only to be burned down months or years later, to give one example, would not pass muster. Sometimes, guaranteed permanence may result in more expensive offsets: Direct air capture, which converts emissions into stone, works extremely well, but counts among the priciest options.

Next: Is it transparent? The best projects share their methodologies and put their data upfront, where everyone can see it. The International Small Group & Tree Planting Program (TIST) might be one useful example. Over about 20 years, this global organization has helped about 90,000 farmers in India, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda plant and maintain more than 19 million trees on their farms. To track these projects, third-party verifiers visit the sites to measure the diameter of these trees and make sure they’re still in the ground. Next, all the information is put online, with pictures of the tree, the most recent audit date, and the average circumference of each trunk. 

Lastly: if no one had paid anyone else money, would this project have happened anyway? Known in the industry as “additionality,” this is one of the hardest factors to measure and, arguably, the most important for offsets to actually equal emissions reductions. While it’s not possible to predict exactly what might have happened under alternative circumstances, auditors often consider what project developers in the industry or country typically do, or the trends in the sector in question. To be “carbon neutral,” airlines need to be opting offsets that fulfill all three criteria as a baseline.

Offsets aren’t the solution to climate change, but they’re all airlines have, for now. And there’s plenty of potential yet to be tapped. Brand gives the example of TIST’s tree planting on subsistence farms. If each of the approximately 500 million subsistence farms around the world planted as many trees as those involved in the projects, he says, “we could more than pull down all human-made emissions every year.”

Still, if airlines settle for less than the very best offsets, their efforts amount to little more than greenwashing. Admittedly, doing so would come at a real cost, and likely hurt business: As JetBlue’s 2018 annual report notes, domestic flights tend to have low profit margins, high fixed costs, and cut-throat pricing competition. Adding on the extra cost of actually offsetting all of these domestic flights means the airline would be taking on a financial risk that makes it even harder to be the cheapest option for travelers. It’s not hard to see why they’re reluctant to do so—but these empty actions do little to get aviation any closer to carbon neutrality.