The guilt of flying in the era of climate change – long post

My blog is not a marketing tool for tourism. So while I will often share photos and videos to showcase some of the experiences I enjoy while traveling, I’ll talk about the downsides of tourism as well, one of which is tourism’s role in climate change.

I believe that climate change is currently the single largest threat to life as we know it and it is already having significant impacts in some locations. These impacts will continue to expand globally and increasingly rapidly in the upcoming years. The recent report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that our window of opportunity to stave off the most far reaching impacts has shrunk to the next ten years and if we do not take drastic actions to reduce emissions now, that window will close and we would have lost our chance to curtail the impacts.

As a tourism professor and researcher interested in sustainability I am well aware of tourism’s contributions to climate change but I also know that as the world’s largest industry, we depend so much on it that there really is no going back. We cannot return to a state of travel where only 25 million people travel globally each year as was the case in the 1960s. In fact the current rate of 1.4 billion international tourists per year (reached in 2018, some two years ahead of forecast (WTO, 2019)) is more likely to be the norm for the foreseeable future. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council and the World Tourism Organization, tourism is forecast to grow most in regions like Asia and Africa which also happen to be regions anticipated to be disproportionately affected by climate change.

Air travel has a outsized impact on climate change when compared with larger industries, accounting for somewhere between 2% and 9% of the climate impact attributed to human actions. Burning regular jet fuel which most airplanes still use, produces mainly carbon dioxide, but greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxides, water vapour and sulphate are also produced. While significant quantities of emissions are produced on the ground and at take off, the impact from airplanes intensifies at cruising altitude in part because of contrails which persist in the atmosphere for many hours and trap heat that would normally escape from the earth.

Contrails from airplanes taking off and landing at Los Angeles Interntional Airport – beautful but dangerous

Given my knowledge, I am perhaps more deserving of blame than others who may be less aware, because as someone who loves to travel, I am hard-pressed to stop travelling by air or to travel less frequently. In fact when I started to write this post I was on a flight to Paris en route to Greece for a 10-day study abroad. Yet, I am not without intense guilt and concern about air travel as a major generator of the GHGs that are the main drivers of climate change. Thus, many years ago I committed to taking action to make this aspect of my life more sustainable and I have tried to assuage my guilt by participating in carbon off-setting programmes. Off-setting air travel is specifically what the rest of this post is about.

So what is carbon off-setting and how does one do that for air travel? Carbon off-setting is a means of neutralizing the carbon dioxide emissions generated by an airplane as it flies from one point to the next. The idea is that for the total amount of emissions generated one would take an action or actions to sequester (extract from the atmosphere) the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide or prevent that amount from being generated in the first place (investing in clean energy). A simple means of doing this is to pay a fee through the airline or directly to a specialized agency to offset the emissions generated by your flight (off-setting can be done for all types of transportation).

For several years I’ve offset through carbonfund.org either by trip or by batch of trips. Carbonfund.org manages projects for renewable energy, energy efficiency and forest preservation and reforestation. Major online travel sellers like Expedia and some airlines like Lufthansa, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, Jet Blue, and Delta offer (or offered in the past) a calculator that allows passengers to calculate their emissions and in the case of Delta, pay to offset them through The Nature Conservancy which invests in the protection of forests. For Earth Month (April) 2018 Delta also purchased 45,000 carbon offsets for customers and employees.

Finding information about carbon off-setting for individual airlines is not easy, even when you know what to look for, since it is often obscured on the airline’s website. So the question is, how many of the 1.4 billion people who travelled internationally in 2018 were aware of opportunities to offset their travel, and of those who knew, how many actually did it? I would hazard a guess and say not many. But hope is not lost and the good news is that several years ago, many airlines started to voluntarily participate in programmes designed to reduce and offset their emissions.

A few years ago the International Air Transport Association produced a set of guidelines and a toolkit to encourage airlines’ participation in carbon offsetting schemes. According to IATA, more than 30 of its members now offer such programmes.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (a UN agency) has a goal of carbon neutral growth from 2020 onward and has developed the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) to help achieve it. CORSIA helps airlines to offset their emissions generated through international travel. The year 2019-20 is the established baseline. After 2020 any emissions above the baseline within a given year would have to be offset. Participation for member states in ICAO is voluntary until 2026. Thereafter all member states must participate unless special exceptions are approved. The obvious criticism of this scheme is that it requires off setting of overages rather than reduction all together.

The other good news is that airlines are doing more than offsetting their emissions, since that would not be enough to reverse their generation of GHGs. They are also implementing strategies to reduce the amount of emissions they produce including making the aircraft lighter by removing things like back of the seat tv screens and the cabling needed to run them, designing more fuel efficient planes, following better travel routes so that flights are more wind assisted, and using biofuels.

At the end of the day however, passengers like me must continue to assume responsibility for their own travel whether that is though participating in existing carbon offsetting programmes or creating their own carbon schemes to neutralize the carbon generated through their air travel by other means e.g. installing solar systems to generate electricity at their homes rather than using the grid, or paying their utility company for electricity generated from renewable resources.

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