COMMENT: Offsetting aviation emissions is greenwashing if the overall climate impact of flying is not taken into account 

Published 21:37 on December 16, 2022  /  Last updated at 11:06 on December 19, 2023  /  Aviation/CORSIA, Contributed Content, Other Content, Voluntary

Airlines need to stop their continued underestimation of flight emissions and policies need to be put in place to ensure high quality carbon credits are used, writes Niklas Kaskeala of Compensate.

By Niklas Kaskeala, Chief Impact Officer, Compensate

Whilst Covid slowed down international travel, the relaxation of most travel restrictions and the re-opening of borders has led to aviation emissions rising back to pre-pandemic levels. Approaching Christmas and the New Year, it is perhaps time to truly reflect on the choices made by the aviation industry and frequent flyers, as well as aviation’s true environmental impact.

Despite flying being an activity of a relatively small proportion of the global population, aviation has contributed to 3.5% of human-caused global warming since 1940. Greenwashing has been prolific, with airlines most crucially getting the climate impact of flying wrong.

Most airlines ignore the damaging impact of the non-CO2 emissions at high altitudes. Flight emissions are mainly caused by the usage of jet fuel but planes also generate contrails, induced cloudiness and NOx derivatives. Therefore, a so-called Radiative Forcing Index (RFI) should be used when evaluating the full climate impact of flying. According to the latest scientific studies, this index has a value of 3, which means that the true impact of one ton of carbon dioxide emissions caused by aviation is equivalent to 3 tons of CO2.

In a review of various flight emission calculators, Compensate found that most airlines underestimate the climate impact of flying by completely excluding the RFI value. Airlines are therefore only considering around one third of the real climate impact of flying. Those few offset service providers that take the RFI value into account, regularly use a value that is not in line with latest scientific knowledge.

According to British Airways, a return flight from London to New York in economy class emits 0.7 tCO2e, Finnair’s emission calculator gives a figure of 0.6 tCO2e. Neither British Airways nor Finnair uses a RFI value.

Looking outside airlines’ offsetting services, we found that South Pole estimates a return flight from London to New York to emit 1.8 tCO2e and Atmosfair estimates 2.7tCO2e. According to Compensate’s model, using a RFI value of 3, the emissions for an economy class flight is 2.8 tCO2e.

Considering that the sustainable individual annual footprint to meet the 1.5C threshold is 2.5 tCO2e, it is obvious that at this stage of the climate crisis, flying should be avoided whenever possible. From this perspective, airlines not being honest about the climate impact of flying is even more irresponsible.

Airports must also bear the weight of this as well. Many airports are claiming carbon neutrality because they offset Scope one and two emissions. This is often misleading and dupes travellers who may think that their flights have been offset too.

Combining the above with the fact that airlines are also often offering poor quality carbon credits, the sins of the aviation industry are present for all to see.

Whilst flying can’t always be avoided, the impact of travelling can be mitigated. Airlines need to stop their continued underestimation of flight emissions and policies need to be put in place to ensure high quality carbon credits are used. The aviation sector must be held to account for the part they play in accelerating climate change. Real change needs to occur at both the individual and industry level if we have any chance of reaching a sustainable future.

Any opinions published in this commentary reflect the views of the author(s) and not of Carbon Pulse.