State of the Planet

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I Shouldn’t Have to Pay to Fly With a Clean Conscience

airplane engine while plane is on the tarmack
Photo: Ivan Shimko on Unsplash

As I booked my flights to go home from New York to Italy for the Christmas holidays, I was welcomed at the Norse Airways checkout page with this message: “Would you like to offset your flight? For just $6, you can offset the carbon emissions from your travel.” Six dollars: the price to pay for my conscience to feel better.

Through just a click and half the price of a movie ticket, I could help preserve a part of the Amazon rainforest, plant mangroves, or invest in a far-away renewable energy project. This seemed like a great solution. I could click on the option, pay the extra money, and feel good about it.

With my family in Italy and my interest in an international education and career, I have taken long-haul flights more often than the average person. During my last trips before the pandemic hit, I noticed a new trend: together with the add-on prices for premium seats, hotels and car rentals, I could now pay some extra amount to the airline for them to offset the emissions I was going to produce.

Growing wiser, I started to question this practice. Should I be paying for this? Of course, I am happy to do so. After all, I am receiving the service that is causing this carbon to be spread into the atmosphere. But does this let airline companies wash their hands of the problem, of the fact that their company’s core business inevitably depends on planet-heating emissions?

Global air travel currently emits more than one billion tons of greenhouse gases each year. This is around 2.5% of global emissions.

In most other emission-heavy sectors, efforts are being made to truly decarbonize: energy is moving away from fossil fuels, as is ground transportation. Why is the airline industry different?

The only group that airlines need to answer to when it comes to emissions is the consumers. There is little additional motivation to improve the situation other than to avoid consumer backlash. Offsets are perfect for that: they not only show active work to get things to change, but they also transfer responsibility to the flyers.

And the guilt is built up easily. When looking for flights, Google now shows you immediately, right next to the timetables, how much CO2 a flyer is responsible for releasing into the atmosphere. Google Flights shows that a seat on a one-way flight from New York to London in economy class, for example, accounts for about 820 pounds of CO2, a low estimate compared with other sources. The global average emissions per person is 9,700 pounds per year. So in the span of one round trip across the Atlantic, a passenger is burning 2 months’ worth of their yearly emissions.

My contribution to global warming is much higher than average, and I cannot deny it. This awareness of it leads me to reconsider my need to travel. However, it is wishful thinking to believe that most travelers will be as concerned about the environment. Between now and 2050, demand for international flights is not expected to slow down: in fact, the number of passengers looking to travel in and out of the United States, for example, are forecasted to double in the next 20 years.

While offsets sound like a great idea in principle, they do not always work. As this article from the New York Times eloquently explains, many offset programs have been found to overpromise and underdeliver. While the number of emissions released during a flight is easily calculable, that is not the same for the positive effects of tree planting or forest preservation. This grey area offers airlines an opportunity to make claims that they cannot back — not because of their negligence, but because they are truly unverifiable.

Unfortunately, regulation worldwide still lags.

In the United States, there is currently almost no regulation on emission standards for airlines. In 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency, clearly influenced by the governing party at the time, established new emission standards which most airlines already met.

In the European Union, the situation is a bit better. The Emission Trading System requires all airlines operating in the EU to monitor and report their emissions and, at the end of the year, surrender enough allowances to cover the emissions reported. By changing the number of allowances granted to airlines at the beginning of each year, the EU is able to incentivize lower emissions. However, by the EU’s own admission, this system needs revision. Crucially, any emission regulation for airlines is applied only on domestic flights. International flights are essentially a free-for-all.

While investment in alternative technologies to make air travel less carbon-intensive is happening, there is no regulation enforcing the necessary transition. Sustainable aviation fuels, known in the industry as SAFs, are generally biofuels created from diverse sets of crops, and have a much lower carbon footprint. Unfortunately, at this point they are not economically viable and have not achieved mass production.

A recent independent report suggests that the cheapest SAF at the moment is still “2–3x the cost of the average historical fossil jet fuel price”, and that “SAF production needs to increase by a factor of 5–6 from currently planned SAF projects by [2030]” if we aim to stay below the 1.5°C target set by the Paris Agreement. There is still plenty of work to be done, and time is running out.

If nations are truly committed to the promises made in the Paris Agreement, and to lower emissions enough in every sector of the economy, air transportation, especially on international routes, is showing to be a true blind spot. As demand for international flights is not likely to change, it is crucial that policy-makers focus on regulating airline emissions and fostering innovation in sustainable aviation fuels.

In the end, I bought the offset offer. It will probably go to a third-party offset company with a smart, catchy name with carbon in it, which I assume does great work. Or at least, I hope.

But this cannot be the final solution for aviation to reach net-zero emissions. And we don’t have much time to find it.

Matteo Chiadò Piat is a graduate student in Columbia University’s MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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