Home/Why carbon offsetting is the right solution for a Net-Zero future in aviation
May 16, 2022

Why carbon offsetting is the right solution for a Net-Zero future in aviation

We all love to travel, to explore the world, to see friends and family, and to fulfill business opportunities. But, peoples’ desire and need to fly comes with a great impact on climate change. Although new, more environmentally friendly aircraft technologies are in development, these options are unlikely to be ready for commercial use on a large scale until after 2050. Thus, aviation is facing a challenging journey to sustainability.

To reach net zero by 2050, an urgent dialogue between industry leaders on best practice is needed to bridge this gap with actions that can and should be taken right now.

Aviation’s impact on climate change

Whilst aviation only accounted for 2.5% of total human-made emissions pre-Covid, for those who did fly, it represented a large part of their climate footprint. It’s important to note that only 1% of the world’s population cause 50% of global aviation emissions. Post-Covid, people will once again resume unrestricted travel, and both the volume and share of aviation’s climate impact are expected to increase significantly. In fact, international aviation emissions are expected to double — and possibly almost triple — between 2015–2050.

Radiative forcing doubles aviation’s impact

Whilst CO2 is generally viewed as the most problematic greenhouse gas, it is accepted that non-CO2 emissions from aviation (e.g. nitrogen oxide, ozone, soot and water vapour) also have an impact on radiative forcing and, consequently, the climate particularly at the higher altitudes, although it remains difficult to quantify the effect. Radiative forcing is the balance between the sun’s radiation reaching the earth, and heat leaving the earth. Current recommendations from a 2021 study are for a ‘Radiative Forcing Index’ factor of 1.9. This effectively doubles the size of aviation’s impact on climate change.

The challenges for sustainability in aviation

International aviation exempt from country pledges

International aviation was exempted from the Paris Agreement (along with shipping), largely because it cannot be easily captured by individual countries’ pledges. Instead it falls under the mandate of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). Despite international aviation emissions accounting for approximately two-thirds of global aviation emissions, there is little motivation for individual countries to reduce those emissions (since they are not counted into individual nations’ emission accounts).

In October 2021, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) approved a collective target for the global air transport industry to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel not a quick fix

The adoption of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) is constrained by high costs compared to fossil-based jet fuels (it is two to seven times more expensive). Current aircraft can use up to 50% SAF, but SAF makes up less than 0.1% of global jet fuel supply.

Although demand is clearly increasing, a massive scale-up of SAF would require significant policy, technological, and supply-chain support, to make it sustainable, affordable, reliable and available.

There are many concerns that a SAF strategy overstates the environmental benefits (particularly as much of it would have to be shipped) and understates the risk that they could trigger food insecurity and human rights violations if customary land users are squeezed out to make way for fuel crops.

New propulsion technologies will take decades to be in use

Currently, fuel provides far more energy than batteries. The battery weight to achieve the same energy as fuel would be 47 times heavier or nearly seven times the weight of a fully fueled plane. In short, replacing fuel with a battery isn’t currently possible for larger aircraft. Decarbonizing larger aircraft requires us to wait for significant improvements to batteries, or different kinds of innovation such as hydrogen. These innovations are not expected to be in wide-scale commercial use until well after 2050.

Efficiency improvements don’t have enough impact

Advanced communication systems, navigation, surveillance, and improved air traffic management tactics, such as landings using continuous descent, can all decrease unnecessary flight time, helping to reduce climate impacts. Other operational efficiencies include fuel conservation strategies such as single engine taxiing, minimizing aircraft auxiliary power unit use, and holding aircraft at the gate during extended delays. While these are important steps to take, some require increased international cooperation and overall will only make a 3% difference by 2050.

Carbon capture — a dream of the future

Carbon capture is a new and exciting technology that removes carbon directly from the atmosphere and could even be used for SAF production. However, it’s currently a long way from being fully scaled up.

Bridging the gap to take action now

Evidently, most carbon reducing innovations are long-term solutions, but the climate emergency requires us to take action now.

While governments must implement policy frameworks that focus on production incentives for sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), and the industry needs to support aircraft and engine manufacturers to accelerate research on clean propulsion technologies, high-quality, meaningful and transparent carbon offsetting is the right method to bridge this gap now.

Carbon Offsetting

A carbon offset is a reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases made in order to compensate for emissions made elsewhere. This is done by purchasing carbon credits from projects that grow and protect forests or build clean energy alternatives.

According to IATA, the estimated reliance on carbon offsetting to reduce emission will be substantial for decades to come.

The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), aims to address any annual increase in total CO2 emissions from international civil aviation above 2019 levels. The scheme ensures any increase in CO2 emissions from aviation will be offset with activities that absorb CO2, such as investments in tree planting. Airlines that increase emissions from the previous year will need to buy “emission units” that can be bought and sold directly through a carbon market. Pre-covid, the scheme was expected to cover just 21.6% of the sector’s emissions between 2021 and 2035.

With only 1% of the world’s population causing 50% of global aviation emissions, aviation has a unique opportunity to change the behaviour of just a small group of people, to make a big impact in fighting climate change.

Not all carbon offsetting is the same

Although we need carbon offsetting, there are some people who have strong views against it. Currently, the voluntary offset market is under-regulated leaving us with a huge disparity in both the value of a credit and the climate impact it has. The voluntary carbon market is rife with low-quality carbon projects. Individuals and businesses are using these projects to offset their emissions which actually are not delivering on promised climate benefits, or that have serious negative consequences for biodiversity and human rights.

Some of the key issues are:

  • promising that emission reductions will materialise in future (for example, planting a tree that take 50 years to grow to maturity)
  • establishing projects that require landowners to forcefully evict people living on the project area territory.
  • artificially inflating baseline emissions in order to generate more carbon credits for the project
  • releasing carbon back into the atmosphere once the project ends (for example, forest fires or illegal logging)
  • or that the project does not contribute to achieving additional climate benefits (e.g. issuing credits on protected forests that were never in danger).

What does good carbon offsetting look like?

Done well, using quality carbon credits, offsetting is a powerful way to remove carbon and build the clean energy infrastructure to avoid further emissions.

At CarbonClick, we have combined leading industry carbon offsetting methodologies to develop our own framework, ensuring our projects are of the highest standard. We are dedicated to ensuring our credits stand up to the highest level of scrutiny. Before we bring on a new project, we conduct extensive due diligence to ensure our offsets meet the following criteria:

  • Real — Sequestration or emissions reductions have taken place
  • Additional — If not for carbon finance, the project would not have happened
  • Quantified — Credits are accurate and not double-counted
  • Permanent/no leakage — for example, forestry projects are protected for 50–100 years and emissions are not increased elsewhere
  • Verified — Independently verified on a reputable registry
  • Co-benefits — Supports communities, biodiversity, ensuring no negative consequences

The key to increasing uptake in voluntary carbon offsetting in aviation

A major hurdle for carbon offsetting in air travel is that, while 46% of people are saying that they are happy to pay a premium for carbon neutral flights, only 1% are doing so.

There are 3 key reasons for the low uptake:

  1. Very few flight carbon offsetting solutions are integrated in the booking flow, meaning customers only get the opportunity to offset post-purchase
  2. Consumers don’t understand or don’t relate with the projects the offset contribution go to
  3. People doubt their contributions go where the airline says they go, due to a historic lack of trust and transparency

To tackle these hurdles and achieve a higher uptake, offsetting needs to be simple, meaningful and trustworthy.

  • Simple — by being integrated in the booking flow so the offsetting happens at the point of purchase.
  • Meaningful — contributions go to projects that truly resonate with customers. Meaningful projects should have a long-term impact, be verified by third-party registries and undergo rigorous, continued auditing.
  • Trustworthy — providing full transparency in where contributions have gone. Unlike other providers, CarbonClick purchases carbon credits in advance, meaning the customer will receive an immediate receipt that allows them to 100% track and trace their contribution.

Carbon offsetting: Climate action to be taken now

While long-term solutions for carbon reductions are being developed, aviation leaders need to implement high-quality, transparent carbon offsetting programmes to take action right now. We only get one shot at fighting climate change. We have to do everything we can do together and we have to encourage others’ efforts in taking action.

About CarbonClick

CarbonClick is a global leader in providing high-quality and transparent programmes for voluntary carbon offsetting in aviation. Our solutions are trusted by businesses around the world, such as Etihad Airways, Air Tahiti Nui, London Stansted Airport and Lima Airport.

While focussing on providing simple, meaningful and trustworthy carbon offsetting, we are also leading the way in providing next generation solutions that include:

  • incorporating voluntary carbon offsetting in loyalty and reward schemes,
  • corporate carbon offsetting,
  • and carbon offsetting for cargo aviation.

Would you like to learn more?

If you have questions around voluntary carbon offsetting in aviation, please connect via: https://calendly.com/michelle_carbonclick