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Flights not Feelings

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

With the academic year drawing to a close and the summer holiday coming up, many people are probably thinking about their vacation plans. Young people are avoiding flights more and more due to the environmental consequences. In response, airlines are engaging in greenwashing by offering you the ability to “offset your carbon” - pay a little bit extra and you can fly guilt free!

In this week’s archive post we’re going to look into why this practice is so problematic, and suggest what you can do instead.

  • If you feel guilty for flying, airlines often offer you the ability to “offset your carbon” - pay to make up for the C02 emitted by your flight

  • Two main critiques

  1. It doesn’t work like it says it does, reduction is more effective

  2. Puts the responsibility on the individual to stop climate change

  • What can you do?

    • Individual solutions (which can help): take the train instead, reduce instead of trying to “compensate”

    • Collective solutions: Hold corporations and governments accountable, demand a shift to more sustainable and transparent practices

You may not have heard the Swedish word Flygskam but you’ve probably heard of the English translation: Flight Shame. Flight shame is the guilt people feel about flying due to awareness of its environmental impacts.

One of the ways airliners have tried to counteract this is by offering you the option to offset your carbon emissions. Once you have bought your tickets you will be often asked if you want to pay a small contribution to invest in projects that will partially or completely compensate your emissions from flying - allowing you to fly without harming the environment guilt-free.

Too good to be true? Yes.

What is Carbon Off-setting

For example: if you pay for carbon offsetting with KLM, your money could go to a reforestation project in Panama. The idea behind is that eventually these trees will be able to capture the amount of carbon equivalent to your emissions from your flight.

EU report has shown 85% offset projects failed in reducing emissions, why?

Certain projects are ineffective: for example new trees can take 15-35 years before they reach their peak carbon capturing age, but oftentimes these trees are secretly cut down so the land can be used for other purposes.

Projects are counted multiple times: for example, both your airline & the country they are funding projects in takes credit for the carbon offset

These projects were going to happen anyways: your donation hasn’t added any trees, or windmills

Regulation and oversight is mixed: There are organisations that audit and certify these projects, but this is not always equally successful. Especially in non-industrialized countries, indigenous land rights are often ignored and exploited when developing projects

The previous critiques are more instrumental - these are things that could be tinkered with that imply voluntary carbon-offsetting could work. However, critique is also more fundamental:

  • To stop climate change we need to reduce, if you offset your carbon by paying so that a company does not cut down trees in the amazon, but the demand for wood doesn’t change - all that happens is that trees are cut down somewhere else in the wood

  • Voluntary carbon-offsetting puts the onus onto individuals to stop climate change, while we know that industries are the main polluters

So what are some things you can do?

  • Fly less, take the train or bus when you can

  • If you really want to offset your carbon, do your own research into reliable projects (and keep in mind your flight has more environmental consequences than just carbon)

  • Get involved in climate activism! If you want some recommendations for actions & organisations to join, DM us!

If you’re interested in learning more, here are some nice accessible sources to look at:

De KLM misleidt haar klanten over CO2-compensatie by Follow the Money

Why carbon offsets are worse than you think

Gürçam,S. (2022). The Neoliberal Initiative of the Aviation Industry to Fight the Climate Crisis: Greenwashing. International Journal of Environment and Geoinformatics (IJEGEO), 9(3): 178-186. doi. 10.30897/ijegeo.108392

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