Flying is bad for the environment. But are carbon offsetting the solution?

It's clear that air travel isn't all that good for the planet. If you travel frequently and are concerned about your impact on the environment, you may want to purchase carbon offsets, in which airlines donate money to environmental causes that combat greenhouse gases, to balance out the pollution caused by your flights. However, it can sometimes be unclear when carbon offset programs have the greatest impact and whether you should purchase them for every flight or focus on other ways to reduce pollution. Experts tell Bustle that using a carbon offset program is an art form. They also say we need to think of carbon offsetting as part of an overall green life, not just when flying.

“Travelers need to fully understand that the most effective way to combat climate change is to stop emissions,” said Dr Susan Bacon, explains a professor of sustainable tourism at Griffin University. When you purchase carbon offsets, you are donating to environmental organizations that take action to reduce air pollution levels, such as planting trees, protecting the Amazon, or funding renewable energy. Many airlines now allow you to purchase carbon offsets with the purchase of a ticket for just a few dollars. Carbon offsetting does not affect the actual amount of carbon produced by your flight, and Dr Bacon said it was important to ensure your carbon offsetting scheme was validated against the gold standard. It also has limitations. “Carbon offsetting is only a short-term measure,” she said. “There is no absolute reduction [in pollution] when offsets are purchased.” Carbon offsets are designed to balance emissions from flights, but they will not reduce the world’s overall emissions levels.

Experts tell Bustle that when it comes to flying short distances quickly, carbon offsets aren't the greenest option; your best bet is not to fly at all. Dr Graham Miller, professor of business sustainability at the University of Surrey, tells Bustle that people looking to reduce their carbon footprint when traveling should switch from short-haul flights to greener transport such as trains, ships, or buses.

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The carbon cost of long-distance travel is higher. According to the Air Travel Action Group, the aviation industry accounts for about 2% of the world’s carbon emissions, and long-haul flights (seven hours or more) is a big part of it: One long-haul flight produces as much carbon dioxide as a person produces in a year. Dr. Bacon told Bustel that if you do need to travel long distances, you may want to buy two offsets: “One to compensate for the emissions that actually occur during the flight, and one to actually reduce emissions elsewhere. "

Carbon offset options shouldn't do all the work, either. Dr Miller said people traveling long distances could also make choices to make their flights as low-emission as possible. “Fly the most direct route, choose an airline based on the emissions of the flight and don’t fly business class,” he said. Flying business class has a much larger carbon footprint than flying economy class because it means less space for other passengers, making the plane less carbon efficient, and because business class travelers have amenities like huge seats and beautiful The bed sheets will produce more pollutants. Dr. Miller recommends choosing airlines with lower emissions records. It's still a highly polluting travel option, but you can reduce its impact by choosing your flights.

Dr. Miller also suggests that having a lower carbon footprint overall will influence your carbon offset choices. "Because of diet, daily commuting and consumption patterns, people with lower emissions have less to offset than people with higher overall emissions," he tells Bustle. That doesn't mean a person eating a mostly plant-based diet of people who walk to work can often take short flights and still have a net positive impact on the environment. Instead, it means thinking of your life and carbon footprint as one picture, rather than a bunch of different parts. Lower emissions in everyday life may mean you have less to offset when traveling longer distances, but Dr Miller says this can be a very difficult calculation so it's best to err on the side of caution.

Experts tell Bustle that carbon offset systems are useful, but they need to be put into context and emphasize the need to reduce emissions year-round, not just when traveling. This may be difficult, but it is doable.


Dr. Susanne Becken, Professor of Sustainable Tourism, Griffin University

Dr Graham Miller, Professor of Business Sustainability, University of Surrey