Flying home for the holidays? Consider buying carbon offsets

The impact of the first human flight, undertaken on Christmas Day in 1903, was enormous. The Wright Brothers only covered 37 meters, remaining airborne for just 12 seconds. But as the first people to successfully power through the air instead of gliding on a current, they inspired the technology that will have led to an estimated 39 million flights in 2019

Through those millions of flights each year, the global aviation industry is responsible for about 2 percent of all human-induced carbon dioxide emissions – the kind of impact our world now desperately needs to reduce. 

Carbon emissions hang over a future scientists describe in terrifying terms: rising sea levels, crop failure, climate refugees, and catastrophic weather patterns. That’s why Greta Thunberg, a young climate activist who inspired millions to participate in the Global Climate Strike in September of this year, has sworn off air travel completely. 

But should we all take such drastic action – even going so far as to cancel plans to fly this holiday season?

Greta Thunberg traveled from England to the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit via solar powered sailboat. She has famously given up air travel as part of her campaign against climate change. © WPA Pool via Getty Images

If flying home for the holidays invokes a montage of memories that resemble the opening of ‘Love, Actually,’ then permanently grounding yourself may be unrealistic – heartbreaking, even. There is a middle ground, however. Choosing to fly less and/or purchasing carbon offsets can reduce the impact of air travel without sacrificing your ability to visit people and places all over the world.  Think of it like paying someone to follow you with a mop as you track muddy footprints through a house – or an airport – cleaning them up as you go. (But of course, it’s not quite that simple.) 

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What is a carbon footprint? 

A carbon footprint is a way to measure the amount of fossil fuels (including coal, oil, and natural gas) used to power a human activity, and is typically calculated on a yearly basis. You can use online calculators to measure your carbon footprint, taking into account everything from your diet to the the miles you drive to work. You can also measure the carbon footprint of your next flight

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is actually just one of six greenhouse gases contributing to global warming. The others are Methane (CH4), Nitrous oxide (N2O), Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), Perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and Sulphur hexafluoride (SF6). By measuring in tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), a carbon footprint addresses all greenhouses gases as comparable to one unit of CO2, multiplying the emissions of each by their 100-year warming potential. 

The carbon footprint of a flight from San Francisco to New York City is 0.688 t CO2 (or .688 tonnes of Carbon Dioxide.) According to the World Economic Forum, the average carbon footprint per person is 14.95 t in the United States, 9.04 t in Japan, and 5.65 t in the United Kingdom. 

According to German nonprofit Atmosfair, a single flight from London to New York has a bigger carbon footprint than a single person in Paraguay creates in a year. © Orbon Alija via Getty Images

What is a carbon offset? 

A carbon offset is a financial contribution to projects that capture carbon or help reduce future greenhouse gas emissions; typically these projects are based in developing countries. Someone who wishes to ‘neutralize’ the carbon emissions of a flight can purchase carbon offsets that fund a project that might involve planting trees, building solar panels, or capturing methane from landfills. 

The reality of the modern world makes it nearly impossible to avoid carbon emissions completely. Even if you walked from San Francisco to New York instead of flying, the shoes you wear to travel that distance would have a carbon footprint from the factory they were made in, the miles they were shipped, and the materials stitched together that now protect your feet.  

Since we can’t eliminate carbon emissions from our lives, purchasing offsets is one way to  alleviate the impact of what we don’t reduce. 

Should you buy carbon offsets when flying? 

Let’s return to those muddy footprints. The reality of paying someone else to clean up your mess comes with inherent risks. Do you trust the person with the mop to do a decent job and not leave their own muddy footprints while they clean up yours? 

If you’re entering your credit card information to buy carbon offsets after booking your flight to see family in Kansas, how do you know it’s effectively received by, say, a landowner in the Amazon who is supposed to now preserve acreage from clearcutting? 

The carbon offset system is far from perfect, but it is evolving and improving. 

As the purchase of carbon offsets has become more commonplace, kiosks are popping up in airports around the world to let travelers purchase credits from their departure terminal. © Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

I recently purchased offsets from Myclimate.org for a flight from Portland, Oregon to Fort Collins, Colorado, where I was attending a conference on environmental journalism. Due to the nature of the trip and my personal desire to reduce my carbon footprint, my first instinct was to drive the 17 hours rather than fly for two. Turns out, flying on a full plane results in a smaller footprint than driving a car that distance by myself. (Had I carpooled with at least one other person, it would have been better to drive.) 

Myclimate helps you make calculations like these for a variety of transportation options, from flights to foot travel to cruises. The site also prompted me to choose which carbon-combatting program I wanted to support; I chose to contribute to helping small-scale farmers in Nicaragua with native species reforestation. My flight had a footprint of .591 t and cost 16 USD to offset. 

Two things that are important to examine in looking for the most valuable carbon offsets are whether its an effective method of carbon reduction and whether it’s an additional effort that goes above and beyond what’s already being done. Unfortunately, regardless of the program you choose, it’s very hard to gauge whether a method of carbon reduction is additional, meaning that the actions you’re contributing to would not have been taken without your purchase of carbon credits.  

Goldstandard.org is one carbon offsetting organization with stringent guidelines for the programs they endorse, and robust information about their vetting process. Not only do they require reductions to be ‘real, additional, and permanent,’ each offsetting program must also contribute to three SDG’s, or sustainable development goals. Interested travelers can browse their projects and view detailed reports on topics like safe water access in Rwanda, low smoke stoves in Darfur, and more. 

The 1903 Wright Flyer, the world's first airplane, on display at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. © Tim Sloan via Getty Images

Bret Love, co-founder of the sustainable travel blog Green Global Travel, recommends The Nature Conservancy’s carbon offset program. 

‘They’re a top-rated environmental NGO with a long track record of conservation,’ says Love. ‘In addition to planting forest they also focus on protecting existing forests, rivers, and wetlands as well as working directly with local communities on conservation projects. So many other carbon offset programs only plant trees, which is just a small percentage of the work that needs to be done to fight climate change.’ 

One red flag that might concern would-be purchasers of carbon offset is how cheap it is to offset. With all of the doom and gloom surrounding carbon emissions, how is my $16 really enough to cover a flight that some might shame me for

Currently, carbon offsets are very inexpensive because there are lots of very low-cost ways to offset carbon footprints. But as more people buy into carbon offsetting, those ‘low hanging fruit’ projects will be used up and the cost will slowly rise to fund bigger, more ambitious projects. That’s a good thing. 

Ultimately, there are a lot of unknowns when it comes to offsetting carbon. No matter how advanced and trustworthy the program, we save more time and resources in the fight against climate change by reducing our footprint first, and offsetting second. 

The Wright brothers changed the way we reach different people and places, making them all seem closer and more connected. This holiday season, and for as long as people travel from one place to the next, it’s up to each of us to choose our own ways to keep fighting for the world the pioneers of modern air travel helped open up. 

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