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What is carbon offsetting?

One of the dilemmas for those seeking to live a more sustainable lifestyle is working out how to have a sustainable holiday. How do you visit all those great places around the world, support the local communities by doing so, learn about and appreciate the beautiful yet fragile cultures and ecosystems we have on this planet and … avoid generating all those greenhouse gas emissions in getting there on a plane?

Many remote and pristine natural locations, which are now marketed as viable eco-tourism holiday options, have become increasingly accessible — mainly by plane. Even within Australia, it’s hard to figure out how most of us can get to the Kimberley region in far northwestern Australia, or even Kakadu in the Top End, without flying.

Defining the problem

The issue of air travel and its environmental impact is hard to ignore. Although cars generate just over half the greenhouse gases created by the transport sector in Australia, the transport mode that has become the fastest-growing greenhouse gas contributor is domestic aviation, with an overall growth of 76 per cent between 1990 and 2005, according to the Australian Department of Climate Change. Globally, the transport sector contributes about 13 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, of which 2 per cent is attributable to aviation.

However, global aviation is also growing at a rate of 6 per cent per annum worldwide, three times the rate of aircraft efficiency improvements that help reduce emissions. This results in a net annual increase in emissions of around 4 per cent globally, which compromises future carbon emission targets set by countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the US.

But the problem gets worse. There is an intrinsic difficulty with jet engine technology: jets emit not only carbon dioxide but also large amounts of nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse-forming gas that has a three-fold greater impact than carbon dioxide. So do we stop using airlines altogether, thereby placing even greater pressure on the global economy, not to mention threatening the income streams of local communities around the world who rely on tourism? Or are there alternatives we can consider for lessening these impacts?

When booking your airline ticket online or with a travel agent, you may have come across an option that enables you to “offset” your greenhouse gas emissions from your flight. These are called “carbon offsets” and they are currently the only real option (other than cancelling your flight) for negating your environmental impact from flying.

What is a carbon offset?

Carbon offsetting has become a large and somewhat confusing industry that basically serves two markets. The largest market, which you’ll be hearing a lot more about in the years to come, is the compliance market in which companies and governments buy carbon offsets to comply with caps on the amount of carbon dioxide they are permitted to emit.

All Australian businesses will eventually have to participate in this “cap-and-trade” system to enable Australia to meet its carbon emission targets and support sustainable living. It will begin this new emissions trading system in 2010. It won’t be the first country to do so, though, with 27 European Union member states already operating an emissions trading scheme. Countries such as New Zealand, the USA and Japan are also committed to introducing some form of emissions trading scheme to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The global move to a carbon compliance economy based on the “cap-and-trade” system will come to a head at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit on December 7, 2009. Officially called COP15 (the 15th Conference of the parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), the summit will see heads of state and environment ministers from around the world drawing up the successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which will include an agreed way forward on a global carbon trading scheme.

The success of Kyoto was hamstrung by the USA, and to a lesser extent Australia, not signing the treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the agreed global percentage. This was used as an excuse by the largest-growing developing nations and consequently largest carbon emitters, China and India, not to sign the treaty as well. COP15’s chances of success have been improved by President Barack Obama’s stated intention to achieve an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The USA’s leadership on this target is critical, as it provides the context for China and India agreeing to a global emissions target for the first time.

COP15 will also be of significance to the aviation industry. International aviation and shipping were the only greenhouse gas-emitting sectors that were not covered by the target cuts signed by most countries at the Kyoto Protocol. The two main reasons given at the time were a lack of reliable emission data and lack of an agreed approach for defining responsibility by country. It’s argued that not including aviation at Kyoto has resulted in a failure by the aviation industry to develop low-emissions aircraft, unlike what has occurred in the automobile industry, which is now well-advanced in the development of alternative-energy vehicles.

The Australian government in particular is urging that COP15 sets a carbon dioxide reduction target for the aviation industry and that it joins a global emissions trading scheme as a result. This will ultimately be a cost to airlines — they will need to upgrade and improve aircraft fuel efficiency to reduce emissions from their aircraft and/or buy carbon credits to pay for the amount of emissions they continue to generate. These costs will then be passed on to the customer through a carbon tax added to airfares along with the many other taxes that are imposed. Any additional taxes imposed will also have the impact of reducing passenger demand for flying, which will also lower emissions.

Voluntary carbon offsets

The aviation industry is the main participant in the other carbon offset market — the voluntary market. This market allows individuals to buy carbon offsets to negate their personal carbon dioxide emissions, which are generated mainly from their electricity and transport use (including flying), and support green and sustainable living. Voluntary carbon offset schemes are particularly attractive to airlines.

Noticing that an increasing number of customers were becoming concerned about aviation-induced greenhouse gas emissions, several major airlines, such as Qantas, started partnering with carbon offset companies to offer schemes that helped people voluntarily offset their flying miles if they wanted to. Now, passengers have a way of negating their personal flying impacts, supposedly resolving the pickle for those wanting to be more responsible. Or do they?

In a nutshell, voluntary carbon offset programs enable people to contribute financially to a greenhouse gas-reducing sustainability program that theoretically offsets the same amount of greenhouse gases that you generate by flying (total emissions from the plane divided by number of passengers). For example, a return domestic flight from Sydney to Brisbane can create about 0.1 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person (based on a full flight). A carbon offset program might offer you the ability to contribute to a tree-planting project or alternative energy initiative, where your contribution would be the equivalent to the percentage of trees or wind turbines or solar power cells required to reduce 0.1 tonnes of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. These projects theoretically won’t be developed without your funds, so there is a direct correlation between your flight and your offset. The cost of the carbon offset project divided by how many tonnes of carbon dioxide you want to offset will determine how much of a fee you will pay.

The advantage of carbon offset programs is that they encourage investment in green sustainability schemes that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, either by planting more trees to soak up some of the greenhouse gases generated by living in cities and towns or by investing in wind farms or other alternative energy initiatives that reduce the need to burn fossil fuels to generate power. Without the carbon offset contributions, many of these schemes may not see the light of day.

The disadvantage is that the greenhouse gases generated by your flying and driving miles are unlikely to be totally eradicated by the carbon offsets you buy. For example, it has been argued that the extra trees planted as a result of your carbon offset contribution might take years to fully grow, by which time the damage created by flying or driving has well and truly been done. In fact, it’s argued that carbon offsets encourage continuing unsustainable living or travel behaviour by giving you a guilt-free way out. It’s also argued that finally including aviation within the global climate change agreement in Copenhagen will be a much more effective way of reducing carbon emissions generated by passenger aircraft.

Making an informed choice

So do you offset your flying distance or not and, if you do, who with? My view is that in the time it takes for aircraft to become more efficient and reduce its carbon emissions it is definitely worth offsetting your flying miles. But only after you’ve done the research on how best to negate the amount of emissions you are personally responsible for.

The most effective way to reduce your flying impact is to lessen the amount of international travel you do and concentrate on domestic tourism options, which means you can build time into your travel timetable to take some of the great long-distance train or bus journey options available in Australia and New Zealand. Their emissions are much lower than those of a plane over the same distance. Even renting a fuel-efficient car can be better than flying over the same distance if you fill your car with additional passengers. If you drive any car — including a hybrid — by yourself, it produces more greenhouse gas emissions over the same distance than flying.

Still, when the only option is to fly, especially internationally, consider contributing some additional money to a carbon offset scheme. My advice is to look at the carbon offset projects that underpin the scheme being offered and determine what they will use your money for. Although verifying that projects deliver the promised carbon reduction is far from an exact science, the Australian Department of Climate Change (formerly the Australian Greenhouse Office) does provide a list of projects they have accredited as being Greenhouse Friendly™ (projects assessed by the federal government as generating abatement that is beyond or additional to “business as usual”).

Go to www.climatechange.gov.au/greenhousefriendly/abatement/projects.html and you’ll see there are a few Greenhouse Friendly™ tree-planting (carbon sequestration) schemes, although there are many more landfill gas project sites (where the underground gas produced serves as an effective alternative power supply source) and a few household electricity reduction projects (converting light bulbs).

The Australian Department of Climate Change also lists those companies that use these accredited projects as part of their carbon offset scheme. They include both Qantas and Jetstar (go to http://www.qantas.com.au/travel/airlines/fly-carbon-neutral/global/en) and Virgin Blue (www.virginblue.com.au/carbonoffset), which covers many of the international and domestic flying routes into and within Australia.

How much do offsets cost you?

Here are some examples of how much you will need to pay for offsetting your flying miles with Qantas:

  • A one-way Qantas flight between Sydney and Melbourne emits 0.107 tonnes of CO², which currently costs $1.02 to offset — double this for the return flight.
  • A one-way Qantas flight between Sydney and Los Angeles emits 1.429 tonnes of CO², which currently costs $13.58 to offset.

For overseas travel with airlines that might not offer a carbon offset scheme, an increasing number of travel agents also offer carbon offset schemes, including:

STA Travel, who use Origin Energy (www.originenergy.com.au) to manage their carbon offset scheme. Origin Energy’s scheme contributes to the GreenEarth Gas scheme, which is also listed as a Greenhouse Friendly™ scheme.

Flight Centre and Intrepid Travel, who use Cleaner Climate (www.cleanerclimate.com) to manage their carbon offset program. Cleaner Climate is an international organisation that largely funds renewable energy projects in Asia, Africa and North America.

If your travel agent or airline does not offer a carbon offset scheme or you are unhappy contributing to the types of projects your preferred airline or travel agent uses, it might be worth checking out these other popular carbon offset companies to see what projects they fund in comparison to the above examples:

  • Climate Friendly: www.climatefriendly.com
  • The Carbon Reduction Institute: www.noco2.com.au
  • Climate Positive: www.climatepositive.com
  • Carbon Planet: www.carbonplanet.com
  • Neco: www.neco.com.au
  • Coolplanet: www.coolplanet.com.au
  • Green Pig: www.greenpig.com.au
  • Landcare CarbonSMART: www.carbonsmart.com.au

For further information on these and other carbon offset schemes, go to the Carbon Offset Watch website at www.carbonoffsetwatch.org.au.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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