Are carbon offsets worth the holiday premium?


Environmental awareness varies by carrier.

Article Image

Image by Public Domain

By Ethan Attwood

The cost of a summer holiday might be greater than the dent it puts in your bank statement. The increased awareness of the carbon-intensity of air travel has many taking the holistic view, and looking to travel by road or sea instead. Though both of those carry their own environmental drawbacks, the fact is that flying is the most carbon-emitting method of travel, and it’s not close. A return trip to Rome is estimated to emit about 500kg of CO2, and worldwide emission totals over 1 billion tonnes. Fortunately airlines are aware of this, and have begun to take steps to mitigate the enormous carbon footprint of their business. But how exactly are they achieving this, and are these offsets as impactful as they claim?

EasyJet have fully offset the emissions of all their flights by default since 2019, and remain the only major European airline to do so. This is achieved through supporting tree-planting and anti-deforestation programs in South America and Africa, and investing in renewable energy programs in India. They are also supporting Wright Electric, an ambitious startup with connections to NASA, Honeywell and some weighty defence contracts who aim to eliminate carbon emissions from all flights under 800 miles by 2040.

Wright’s objective highlights the major role aerospace design can play in the journey away from fossil fuels. The flagship 100 passenger Wright Spirit is currently in testing and projected to enter commercial fleets in 2026. This has been made possible by some cunning engineering enabling 2MW generators (of which about ten are required to power an aeroplane) to be made lighter and more efficient. Of course, the environmental benefit of electric propulsion is contingent upon having a green energy grid from which to charge them (and for that I’ll refer you to my autumn 2021 article on fusion). EasyJet also highlights their use of the Airbus neo series of aircraft, which claim a 15% reduction in fuel usage through improved engine efficiency and their whimsically named wing tip design: sharklets. Those upward pointing wingtips you see out of your cabin window are there to reduce drag on the aircraft, reducing the energy it needs to push through the air.

Perhaps the most used airline for students in the UK, Ryanair, claims to be “Europe’s greenest major airline”. They too support sustainability projects in developing nations and operate a relatively new, fuel-efficient fleet with high load factors (the percentage of filled seats on a given flight). However, sustainability initiatives are funded directly by passengers who are now given the option to buy a calculated carbon offset. This isn’t a lot for the kind of routes Ryanair tends to run – a three hour jaunt to Majorca is about an extra £5 – but despite this, CEO Michael O’Leary revealed last year that only 1 percent of passengers were buying them. Despite Ryanair’s bold claim and the supposed efficiency of their fleet, they operate with the fourth-highest fuel use per available-seat-kilometre in Europe, and were rebuked by the Advertising Standards Agency in 2019 for lack of evidence.

Unlike Ryanair, easyJet at least acknowledges the fact that purchasing carbon offsets is not a long-term solution, merely a mitigation until Wright’s designs or Airbus’s plans for hydrogen-powered aircraft are realised, and the associated issues with electricity supply and hydrogen economy are solved. The unfortunate reliance on kerosene means aviation is a comparative dinosaur when it comes to low-carbon technologies, and alternative fuels that would work with current jet engines (e.g. biofuels, which are not fossil fuels but do require land, agriculture and energy-intensive processes to produce them) provide a negligible improvement at best.

Until this problem is solved through innovation, and I’m confident it will be, the best we can do is fly less and when we do, take the options that are made available to us. Offsets are just that – converting money into sustainability projects to offset the fact we’re still emitting. The ideal solution will enable us to stop the emission in the first place. Ultimately these projects should be financed anyway, but until then, consider the £4 a cost of doing business.