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Can you offset your love miles?

Flying is a much debated topic in our household. My partner’s homeland is across an ocean, we have friends and family across the globe and a bucket list of must-see destinations.

We'd like to say we'll never fly again as flying greatly increases our carbon footprints, but that's just not practical.

So we have love miles: the flights we take to be together and with loved ones. The question we’re left with is can we offset them?

First, some statistics. Air travel is a huge and growing business. Air passenger numbers rose from just over two billion in 2006 to 3.2bn in 2014. In 2014 54% of the world’s 1.13bn tourists travelled by air.

Air travel is more polluting than bus or train travel. But depending on the distance, number of travellers and kind of vehicle, it can be less polluting than driving. Many variables make it difficult to give hard and fast figures: domestic and long haul flights are relatively more polluting than short haul; some emissions are more damaging at high altitudes; flying economy is less polluting than business or first class. And both the airline and motor industries are making planes, vehicles and fuels more energy efficient.

Still, taking all that into account, on a short haul return flight from Paris to Rome you will create half a tonne of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse emissions, (referred to as CO2e emissions). A family of four taking return flights from London to Sydney produce 40 tonnes (see table below).

So, we need to do what we can to limit or offset the damage from our flights.

Table: CO2e emissions from return flights 

The Carbon offset button

If you’ve booked a flight online you’ve probably seen the carbon offset button. Carbon offsetting is meant to compensate for the CO2e of your flight. You pay the airline a little extra to put towards another activity that cancels out the damage. Popular schemes include renewable energy, energy efficiency projects, buying up forests or destroying industrial pollutants. But the value of these schemes is questionable. You’re already creating the emissions  and there’s no guarantee the scheme will take an equal amount of carbon out of the atmosphere, or that the good it will do wouldn’t have happened anyway. And, as Cheat Neutral, so wittily demonstrated, you can’t really pay somebody else to undo the damage you do.

But there is another option. Sandbag, a UK-based think tank, runs a scheme to ‘destroy carbon’. Internationally, carbon budgets have been set to cap carbon emissions. These budgets are controlled via a carbon market, where industries can buy and sell emissions permits.

Through Sandbag you can buy emissions permits to take them off the European market, which is massively over-supplied. Each permit you buy prevents a tonne of CO2e being emitted into the atmosphere and helps to limit the total amount of carbon emissions we can create. The scheme makes it easy to match the carbon from your flight tonne for tonne.

I would also recommend thinking hard about how much you fly. If you’re in the habit of flying three times a year, can you cut back to just once a year? Or if once a year, fly once every two or three. Can you reach your destination by train or bus instead? Do you really need that long-haul holiday or would a staycation or holiday closer to home be just as rewarding? You wouldn’t have all that hassle of getting to and from the airport and through security.

You can find out more about rail travel at or check for info on rail and ferry travel worldwide.

Or is there some other area of your life where you can significantly cut your carbon? Remember, going climatarian - avoiding beef or lamb - can cut a tonne of CO2e a year from your footprint. 

 Whatever you do, do it with love.

by Liz Sutton

Now, take our offsetting poll

Sources: DEFRA emissions calculations data (April 2015), IPCC, Civil Aviation Authority, Sandbag, World Bank, UNWTO.

Photo, Changi Airport traffic jam courtesy of Simon Clancy under Creative Commons Licence.

Climates admin 14.01.2016 2 456
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  •  Liz Sutton: 

    Hi Niall,

    Thanks for your comments. Your point about the difference between ecosystem carbon - natural cycle - and fossil carbon is a good one and I agree that the most climate-friendly choice is not to fly.

    But the reality is that many people, for a complex host of reasons, still feel the need to fly. This blog is for them.  We all have to balance competing priorities when we make a decision: affordability, time available, personal and family preference, family demands or events: ill health, births, marriages, deaths, work demands, health and wellbeing. Even if climate impact is important to us it's not always possible to put it above all other considerations.  I would rather people consider it alongside everything else and do what they can for the climate, rather than feel guilty about not being able to go the whole hog and do nothing.

    As with the climatarian diet, Climates is offering manageable options for people to have as much impact as they can whatever their circumstances.  Over time we hope that, with the ideas and support of Mates they find here, people will be able to do more.

    So please, keep your comments coming and post examples of what you are doing to inspire others!

    Thanks, Liz

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  •  Niall Leighton: 

    Offset schemes have rightly been compared to buying medieval indulgences.

    I look at things from another perspective. You have ecosystem carbon - carbon that is or has been part of the world's naturally cycling carbon from present vegetation or forests humans have chopped down in the past few thousand years, and fossil carbon, which has been locked up for millions of years.

    Reforestation is about locking up released ecosystem carbon. 

    Offsets are buying indulgences for fossil carbon.

    The Sandbag scheme might not be as dismal, but you are still releasing the carbon, and carbon permits are already grossly undervalued. There is a case for taking those permits out of circulation, but the scheme is still little more than a means of making you feel better about your misdeeds.

    The only answer remains not to fly. Did you know that, with the exception of one relatively short bus journey, you could get from Thurso in Scotland or Narvik in Norway to the coast of Bali by train and ferry. You'll still get through a lot of carbon, but you support alternatives to the airlines.

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