Air transport accounts for about 3% of European Union greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and 2% worldwide. Emissions from international aviation grew by 87% between 1990 and 2004 in Europe and air traffic is forecasted to more than double between 2005 and 2020 (European Commission. Inclusion of Aviation in the EU Greenhouse Gas Emissions Trading Scheme ).
Air travelers are increasingly aware of its own negative impact on the environment. People concerned with the environment and global warming are trying to reduce their carbon footprint. Airlines through technology and efficiency are now trying to bring down emissions. But after reduction has reached its limit, can carbon offsets be the solution?
Carbon offsets are a form of trade. Carbon offsets let you pay to reduce the global GHG total instead of making radical or impossible changes in your lifestyle like flying less. To counter-act carbon emissions from flights, a new breed of business sell carbon offsets (now a $100 million industry, a $4 billion in 2010). In exchange of the money you voluntary pay you are funding projects to help avert climate change, often by planting trees or investing in renewable energy sources like solar and wind power.
But some environmentalists doubt the validity and effectiveness of carbon offsets. Critics point out that offsets fall far short of solving the problem around carbon emissions. For those, to really make a difference, people need to fly less and make lifestyle changes. They also point offsets only serve companies the chance to claim an environmental credibility they just don’t deserve by promoting themselves as environmentally friendly or green. Environmentalists call this type of practices Greenwashing.
But also the Industry is skeptical about the effectiveness of the carbon offset scheme. Recently Wolfgang Mayrhuber, the CEO of Lufthansa said the Company understands consumers’ concerns and admited that his priority is improving aviation technology to bring down emissions rather than offsetting. «I would rather have a clean environment and a rich environment than rich traders«, Mayrhuber told CNN . «I am not opposing it (offsetting) but to me it has the least priority because it has the least effect«.
Giovanni Bisignani, the Director-General of IATA said in a CNN Business Traveler program  he believes that the «tunnel-vision on emissions trading is no solution at all. Airlines are working hard to reduce their 2 percent share of global carbon emissions. Europe is fixated on punitive measures. Unilaterally bringing aviation into the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) seeks to limit mobility and adds $6 billion to the cost of travel. But reducing emissions is more effective than charging for them«.
Andy Harrison, the easyJet Chief Executive said that steps must be taken «to get the oldest aircraft out of the sky to enable the industry to achieve green growth (…) Governments and regulators must begin to recognize that some aircraft are dramatically more environmentally efficient than others. EasyJet’s mix of new aircraft with high seat densities and high load factors means a traditional airline emits 27% more CO2 per passenger kilometer than easyJet» (easyJet Inflight. June, 2007).
Still you are, after all, paying for non-emissions, something that doesn’t even exist, carbon offset might help spur innovation, including the financing of carbon-reducing projects, that otherwise wouldn’t happen. Aside from the physical benefits of the projects you choose (a good option is to look for programs partnered with an established environmental group), carbon offsets make travelers look beyond and before buying offsets, they presumably first reduce their households or businesses emissions.