Airlines should focus on reducing emissions from flights instead of using carbon offsets for climate commitments, experts and environmental campaigners have warned.
British Airways and easyJet are among several leading carriers that use carbon offsets to back up claims of “carbon-neutral flying” and net zero pledges by buying credits on behalf of passengers or offering customers that opportunity to buy them when booking tickets.
On Tuesday, an investigation by the Guardian and Unearthed, Greenpeace’s investigative arm into the forest protection carbon offsetting market used by airlines found it had a significant credibility problem, with experts warning the system is flawed and can produce credits with no climate benefit.
Environmental campaigners said the airline industry must focus on reducing emissions from aviation and the use of offsets distracts from rising emissions from flights. In response to the investigation, several leading airlines said the use of offsets was an intermediary measure while new technologies were developed.
Stephen Smith, executive director of the Oxford Net Zero Initiative, said there had been progress on developing standards of what counts as a high quality climate target, including Race to Zero and Science Based Targets (SBTi), but cautioned the area was still a “wild west”.
“I think there can be a role for offsetting. But I think the first priority for any organisation has to be that they address their own carbon footprint directly. So for airlines, that means reducing emissions from their operations and fossil fuel use. And for passengers to think carefully about their flying habits,” Smith explained. “Avoided emissions credits are not going to get us to net zero in the long run.”
Under schemes like the SBTi, companies follow a step-by-step process to make a climate commitment that is in line with the goals of the Paris agreement, ensuring their operations help limit global warning well below 2 degrees.
Companies that follow the initiative must track and disclose their progress every year and are not allowed to use offsets to contribute to their goals. Carbon credits are only considered an option for organisations that want to make additional reductions.
In response to the findings of the investigation, airlines said they trusted the quality of Redd+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries) credits they used for climate commitments, which were often sourced through a third party.
British Airways said it was committed to net zero emissions by 2050 and offsetting remained a key part of its near-term plan while alternatives to fossil fuels were developed. It added: “In the medium to longer term we’re investing in the development of sustainable aviation fuel and looking at how we can help accelerate the growth of new technologies such as zero emissions hydrogen-powered aircraft and carbon capture technology.”
EasyJet, which offsets fuel emissions on behalf of all customers for “carbon-neutral flying”, said it was an interim measure while zero-emission technology was developed and the airline was confident the projects it supported were in effect preventing forest loss.
Cait Hewitt, deputy director of the UK NGO Aviation Environment Federation, said offsetting using avoided emission credits, such as those from forestry protection, cannot be the solution because emissions in the atmosphere still increase.
“Even if you did correctly managed to invest in a project and therefore avoid some carbon, that doesn’t solve the problem of the emissions from your flight,” Hewitt explained. “I think a lot of these projects probably do really good things. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this somehow delivers carbon neutral flying. That’s that’s just not the case.
“Almost all other sectors are now getting on to the path of cutting emissions and aviation has a real problem. One of the dangers with offsetting is that it risks creating the impression that airlines are taking real action on this issue.”
Leo Murray, an environmental campaigner that co-founded plane stupid and now runs the NGO Possible, said carbon offsetting was an alternative to reducing emissions from air travel and was stopping people from confronting difficult truths about the climate crisis.
“A carbon neutral flight is just a comforting fiction,” he said. “It doesn’t exist in technological terms: you can’t get on a flight that doesn’t emit carbon. But also, the idea that you can emit loads of carbon on a flight and pay to mop it up elsewhere is just not true.”