Should I offset my summer holiday flights?
Green Energy

Should I offset my summer holiday flights?

A passenger aircraft and its engine exhaust contrailsImage copyright
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The airline industry produces a substantial amount of carbon dioxide

Flying off somewhere nice this summer? Now feeling guilty? You wouldn’t be alone.

The continuing campaign by teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg to get everyone to reduce their carbon emissions has prompted some soul-searching over when, and whether, it is OK to fly.

In Scandinavia there is even a word for it – “flygskam” – flight shame.

If you don’t want to add to the carbon in the atmosphere, you could, like Greta, take the train instead.

But if you are have already booked your fight, or if flying is the only way of getting to your destination, you can instead donate to a carbon offsetting scheme.

These allow individuals and businesses to give money to environmental projects around the world in order to balance out their carbon footprints.

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Carbon offsetting schemes include giving people in African countries more efficient stoves

So for example, if you fly from London to New York, you can contribute to a scheme that plants trees, or helps people in an African country get more efficient cooking stoves.

You can either do this via your airline, or pick one of the growing number of stand-alone organisations that run carbon offsetting schemes.

But how do you choose a scheme that has meaningful impact? It is an important question because offsetting is controversial. Some critics have dubbed it a “licence to pollute”, arguing that it is likely to ease your conscience and make you happier about booking another flight.

And some offsetting schemes have been criticised in the past for not being effective. Yet despite this criticism, demand for offsetting is soaring.

What is offsetting?

First you calculate how much carbon you’ve emitted. Then you buy an “offset”.

These are part shares in projects that work to reduce carbon being emitted elsewhere, usually in poorer parts of the world.

These can be schemes to plant trees, install renewable energy technology, or to change people’s lifestyles, such as providing them with more fuel-efficient cooking equipment.

This way, if you have emitted a tonne of carbon, in theory at least, you have ensured a tonne of carbon hasn’t been emitted somewhere else.

Many airlines do run their own schemes, but they often come in for criticism for not pressing home the environmental message strongly enough. Virgin Atlantic runs its programme in partnership with a reputable offsetting company called ClimateCare.

Unlike some of its rivals, Virgin’s offsetting scheme doesn’t come up automatically as an option when you buy a ticket. You have to scroll right to the bottom of the page and click on the sustainability tab, it then offers a simple calculator where you can type in your journey and find out how much to pay.

Emma Harvey, Virgin Atlantic’s head of sustainability, says the firm has tried to make the scheme as flexible and user-friendly as possible, but “customer offsetting is one small p

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