16 votes

How can I best offset my emissions from flying?

I need to cross the country or cross the Atlantic. If I could take a bullet train that was slightly slower, I would if I could. But that isn't feasible. Neither is driving. Can I effectively compensate for my emissions? If so, what is the best way?

28 comments

  1. vili Link
    Here's one way to approach an answer. First, you will want to select an airline that causes as little emissions as possible. A recent study notes that not all airlines are the same. You can in...
    • Exemplary x2

    Here's one way to approach an answer.

    First, you will want to select an airline that causes as little emissions as possible. A recent study notes that not all airlines are the same. You can in theory more than halve your CO2 footprint just by choosing the right airline.

    But whatever company you choose, you will end up causing emissions. (Well, whatever you do on this planet, you cause emissions.) So, how to calculate and compensate for them?

    The reality is that it's practically impossible to calculate the environmental impact of your actions perfectly. Your decision to buy that flight ticket has an effect on a huge number of things that have happened and will happen (think of chaos theory), so the exact use of resources and output of emissions is unknown. It's really an endless rabbit hole when you start to think about it.

    But we don't need perfection. It's enough to get a good enough estimate. If you do a Google search, you can find a number of calculators that tell you what your flight's footprint might be, roughly. Usually, these estimates are given in "CO2 equivalent" numbers, which basically takes all greenhouse gas emissions and converts them into CO2 equivalent numbers. This gives you a working number. Remember, not all airlines are equal, so round up the numbers that you get, unless you know better.

    Now, there are a number of ways to offset CO2 emissions, but one of the best ways is through reforestation and forest conservation, particularly in the tropics where trees grow much faster than up north (and therefore also sequester CO2 faster).

    It's of course more complicated than a simplistic "trees = good", and it's not an immediate magic bullet, but I would say that it's still the best approach, at least if done well, and one that in addition to CO2 sequestration also has a wider holistic impact on climate change, biodiversity, ground water quality, erosion and local soil health, not to mention potential social impacts.

    Rather than planting the trees yourself (which can be a potential recipe for disaster if you don't know what you are doing), you will probably want to use an organisation that does it for you. I have personally dealt with Trees for the Future within a business setting but there are many others like them. Just do a background check because these things unfortunately also attract less trustworthy operators.

    Whatever organisation you use, you need to find out where they plant trees and what their trees' estimated CO2 sequestration rate is. As an example, Trees for the Future plant forest gardens in Sub-Saharan Africa and IIRC calculate that on average each tree sequesters 2.88 kg of CO2 in one year, within an estimated lifespan of 20 years, so 57.60 kg / tree. These seem to be quite low estimates for tropical trees, which is good, because you want to err on the side of overcompensation.

    Now, one question that you also have to answer is how quickly you want your compensation to offset your emissions. You can't really make it happen immediately, but do you want it to theoretically happen within one year? Or is it enough if it takes place within the next 20 years, if that's the average life span of a tree planted by the organisation that you choose?

    So, let's say you take a round trip from London to New York. CO2 calculators will tell you that your footprint will be around 2.4 tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions.

    Let's then assume that you use Trees for the Future for tree planting. If you are ok with the CO2 sequestration happening within the next 20 years, the numbers (2400 / 57.60) tell you that you need to plant 41.67 trees. Let's round that up to a nice 50 to err on the safe side.

    On the other hand, if 20 years seems like too long a time, let's say you want the trees to compensate for the emissions within one year (in practice this won't happen because young trees sequester CO2 slower, but let's not get that complicated). In that case, the numbers (2400 / 2.88) tell us that you need to plant 833.33 trees. Let's call that 900.

    Or you can pick a length of time anywhere in between.

    Now, the cost of planting a tree varies greatly, but since we have used Trees for the Future numbers for the CO2 sequestration, I'll use their prices as well, which have at least previously been $0.10 / tree, at least for business partners. In this case, you should donate them between $5 and $90, depending on the speed with which you want to offset your emissions.

    It's not a perfect way to do it, but I don't know of a perfect way. And "good enough" is much better than "nothing at all".

    10 votes
  2. [11]
    suspended Link
    I applaud all personal efforts to 'tread lightly'. On the other hand, I believe that the vast majority of responsibility falls on corporations.

    I applaud all personal efforts to 'tread lightly'. On the other hand, I believe that the vast majority of responsibility falls on corporations.

    8 votes
    1. [4]
      mir (edited ) Link Parent
      I keep seeing this Guardian article pop up on my Twitter feed every couple days or so whenever global warming or pollution gets brought up, and it always feels like we are playing blame tennis...
      • Exemplary x2

      I keep seeing this Guardian article pop up on my Twitter feed every couple days or so whenever global warming or pollution gets brought up, and it always feels like we are playing blame tennis with the responsibility for killing the planet being tossed back and forth between the consumer and the faceless corporations. The hundred companies listed are mostly energy companies - those responsible for mining and extraction of fossil fuels such as Exxon and Gazprom, with no mention of the corporations that use this energy after the carbon is sent up into the atmosphere, or the actual end consumer. If I set my thermostat to 30 degrees Celsius and leave my house for the weekend, is it me who is responsible, or is it my gas provider who supplied the energy? And if I buy peeled oranges packaged up in five layers of plastic because it is convenient, is Shell to blame for the carbon emitted? When I buy the new iPhone, or when I take the plane instead of spending the holidays back at home, or when I eat beaf instead of something slightly less harmful for the environment, these are all actions that contribute towards increased carbon emissions that I, as a regular citizen, have the ability to prevent. This Guardian report, on the other hand, is often used to abdicate our own responsibility in the face of the climate crisis for which we are all responsible.

      Don't get me wrong - I agree that the companies should be regulated, and that there are a lot of suggestions being thrown around about how if only the consumers had switched to energy-saving lightbulbs, the planet would be saved. The Walmarts, the McDonald's, and the H&Ms of our world need to be reminded that they cannot simply burn up carbon and pollute the water without such a cost associated with these activities as to make them unviable (or even criminal). However, in the context of what OP is asking, this article seems to me a little defeatist - after all, what can a regular citizen do against the likes of Shell, Exxon and Walmart?

      What I think a lot of us do not want to hear is that our lifestyle is unsustainable - there is no amount of regulation or legislation to which you could subject the corporations of this world for all the seven billion of us to live as we currently do. Sacrifices will have to be made, and yes, companies will have to be regulated, but consumers will also have to suffer if we intend to make it past the 21st century as a race.

      27 votes
      1. [3]
        pleure Link Parent
        I don't entirely disagree, but you have to remember that in many cases corporations are responsible for creating the demand for their product, they don't merely service an existing demand. It's...

        I don't entirely disagree, but you have to remember that in many cases corporations are responsible for creating the demand for their product, they don't merely service an existing demand. It's well enough to tell people they need to change their consumption habits, but they're simply not going to unless you can wrest control back from the corporations that are setting them in the first place.

        8 votes
        1. joelthelion Link Parent
          I agree advertising is a problem and should absolutely be regulated.

          I agree advertising is a problem and should absolutely be regulated.

    2. [6]
      Nmg (edited ) Link Parent
      Except, when I buy a plane ticket, I am paying for jet fuel that is derived from those companies' products...and if I didn't fly, the oil wouldn't burn to carry me. Furthermore, I can't tell Exxon...

      Except, when I buy a plane ticket, I am paying for jet fuel that is derived from those companies' products...and if I didn't fly, the oil wouldn't burn to carry me.

      Furthermore, I can't tell Exxon Mobil to do anything... But I can ensure that I don't buy from them if I don't want to.

      Many people want these companies to be held responsible but how many would be okay with their gas costing twice as much as a result? Trick question: see the yellow vest movement in France...

      I would be a proponent of cap and trade or similar strategies. In the end of the day, people will have to pay for their emissions somehow however. I made this post because I am willing to be accountable to my emissions today. I don't want to wait for some green utopia to be less guilty.

      Edit: wording

      10 votes
      1. [5]
        suspended Link Parent
        My point was that the 'green-washing' propaganda campaign, initiated and upheld by the 1%, has been highly effective. Take a few moments to realize that these crooks have, systematically and...

        My point was that the 'green-washing' propaganda campaign, initiated and upheld by the 1%, has been highly effective.

        Take a few moments to realize that these crooks have, systematically and psychologically, shifted the blame onto you and I.

        Fuck them. They are complicit.

        6 votes
        1. [3]
          joelthelion Link Parent
          These corporations wouldn't exist if it weren't for "you and I". It makes no sense to discuss whether the blame is on corporations or individuals. It's both, and regulations need to target both....

          Take a few moments to realize that these crooks have, systematically and psychologically, shifted the blame onto you and I.

          These corporations wouldn't exist if it weren't for "you and I". It makes no sense to discuss whether the blame is on corporations or individuals. It's both, and regulations need to target both. Individuals need to buy less crap and consume less, and corporations need to be more efficient at what they do, and pay for the damage they make.

          6 votes
          1. [2]
            alyaza Link Parent
            this implies that somehow people are willing (or in some cases are able) to shift their consumption habits, which is absolutely not the case. if you look back at all the times people have had to...

            Individuals need to buy less crap and consume less, and corporations need to be more efficient at what they do, and pay for the damage they make.

            this implies that somehow people are willing (or in some cases are able) to shift their consumption habits, which is absolutely not the case. if you look back at all the times people have had to shift their consumption habits on a massive scale, the only times it ever happens are when things are made so hard to acquire that people are forced to do so by war or famine or whatever else. people pretty much never do this voluntarily on a meaningful level, and the reality is that you are not going to be able to make them voluntarily do it on a scale large enough for it to make the difference it needs to in the time we have available to do so.

            1 vote
            1. joelthelion Link Parent
              I didn't mean to imply that. When I say that individuals need to consume less, that can be achieved voluntarily or through regulations: carbon taxes, restrictive laws...

              I didn't mean to imply that. When I say that individuals need to consume less, that can be achieved voluntarily or through regulations: carbon taxes, restrictive laws...

        2. Nmg Link Parent
          Maybe so, but you tell me whether or not it would be politically suicide to tell Americans that they should reduce their red meat consumption and vehicle usage. No one is going to do it, and not...

          Maybe so, but you tell me whether or not it would be politically suicide to tell Americans that they should reduce their red meat consumption and vehicle usage. No one is going to do it, and not necessarily because of the 1 percent. With regards to meat consumption, many senators represent rural agricultural states. Most grain grown in the US is for animal feed. Meanwhile, think about the sentiment of industrious manufacturing jobs in the rust belt along with freedom of movement that is associated with car usage.

          Like I said, few politicians are going to do anything about these "inconvenient truths." At least, not until a few storms or wildfires nearly wipe some cities off the map.

          4 votes
  3. [4]
    vakieh Link
    Get snipped. The most environmentally friendly thing anyone can possibly do is not have kids.

    Get snipped.

    The most environmentally friendly thing anyone can possibly do is not have kids.

    7 votes
    1. [3]
      teaearlgraycold Link Parent
      I agree, but it's not quite so simple. It's possible for someone to have a negative carbon footprint. Granted, if you don't plan to have a negative carbon footprint yourself then it's unlikely...

      I agree, but it's not quite so simple. It's possible for someone to have a negative carbon footprint. Granted, if you don't plan to have a negative carbon footprint yourself then it's unlikely your children will.

      1 vote
      1. [2]
        vakieh Link Parent
        I would be very, very surprised if anyone in a Western country (and most developing) who pays taxes is carbon neutral, let alone negative. Stunned, even.

        I would be very, very surprised if anyone in a Western country (and most developing) who pays taxes is carbon neutral, let alone negative.

        Stunned, even.

        1 vote
        1. joelthelion Link Parent
          Depends how you count emissions. I'd argue a climate scientist or a good politician promoting policy changes to curb emissions have a very negative carbon footprint.

          Depends how you count emissions. I'd argue a climate scientist or a good politician promoting policy changes to curb emissions have a very negative carbon footprint.

          2 votes
  4. [9]
    Gyrfalcon Link
    One solid option is to eat less meat, particularly beef. Meat accounts for the majority of the environmental impact due to agriculture by many metrics, and beef is far and away the worst offender....

    One solid option is to eat less meat, particularly beef. Meat accounts for the majority of the environmental impact due to agriculture by many metrics, and beef is far and away the worst offender.

    I don't think it would be necessary to go completely vegan, but substituting chicken, pork, fish, or turkey for beef, and eating meatless somewhat more often could go a long way.

    6 votes
    1. [8]
      Nmg Link Parent
      Already am vegan :-) working towards zero waste as well. Trying to convince my girlfriend to let me get a worm bin...I bike every where I can and take public transit. I buy renewable energy...

      Already am vegan :-) working towards zero waste as well. Trying to convince my girlfriend to let me get a worm bin...I bike every where I can and take public transit. I buy renewable energy credits to offset my home Energy. But I need to travel, and flying is a huge part of that. My question isn't how to reduce my impact in other ways. It is how to directly reduce my impact from flying. Are there any actions that I can pay for that resequester carbon, and keep it contained?

      7 votes
      1. [6]
        Gyrfalcon Link Parent
        Hmm well I think one could argue that compared to the average, you probably already more than offset a plane ticket. And I don't think we can industrially sequester carbon (yet). That said, you...

        Hmm well I think one could argue that compared to the average, you probably already more than offset a plane ticket. And I don't think we can industrially sequester carbon (yet).

        That said, you could donate to something like Eden Reforestation Project, or another similar program of your preference. Or volunteer some time for a local environmental organization if that is more your style. I'm not sure you can directly and precisely offset your plane ticket, but certainly some kind of volunteering or charitable giving would probably be your best bet.

        3 votes
        1. [2]
          joelthelion Link Parent
          The problem is that a vegan that flies even two or three times a year is probably already emitting more than an average person should. You can't pick and choose. We only have a very tight carbon...

          one could argue that compared to the average, you probably already more than offset a plane ticket.

          The problem is that a vegan that flies even two or three times a year is probably already emitting more than an average person should. You can't pick and choose. We only have a very tight carbon budget.

          5 votes
          1. Gyrfalcon Link Parent
            This is a good point, and I know I personally need to do more to reach where I'd like to be in terms of impact.

            You can't pick and choose.

            This is a good point, and I know I personally need to do more to reach where I'd like to be in terms of impact.

            1 vote
        2. [3]
          spctrvl Link Parent
          We absolutely can, but it's not done because there's nobody paying for it.

          And I don't think we can industrially sequester carbon (yet).

          We absolutely can, but it's not done because there's nobody paying for it.

          1. [2]
            joelthelion Link Parent
            I think current technologies are unbelievably expensive and not practical at scale.

            I think current technologies are unbelievably expensive and not practical at scale.

            2 votes
            1. Gyrfalcon Link Parent
              That's more what I was going for, yeah. I am pretty sure it can be done, but I don't know of anyone you can pay to do it on your behalf, or of any way to do it yourself. Additionally, though it's...

              That's more what I was going for, yeah. I am pretty sure it can be done, but I don't know of anyone you can pay to do it on your behalf, or of any way to do it yourself. Additionally, though it's possible to pull carbon out, I'm not sure we've totally worked out the logistics with storing it, let alone the question of whether manufacturing and running sequestration equipment creates less carbon than it sequesters. That said, I've not followed the field very closely so perhaps we are closer than I'm aware of. Either way, it's hard to go wrong planting a tree.

              1 vote
      2. lazer Link Parent
        I have had a worm bin for a while - unfortunately while I had a ton of worms and I don't eat a lot of food somehow it was still not efficient enough to process everything as quickly as I needed,...

        I have had a worm bin for a while - unfortunately while I had a ton of worms and I don't eat a lot of food somehow it was still not efficient enough to process everything as quickly as I needed, and then I was worried about the welfare of the worms as well! It ended up being too stressful and I gave it up.

        1 vote
  5. joelthelion Link
    It's funny, I was asking myself the same question the other day. I don't think you can really compensate emissions, so the best thing to do is still to avoid flying. That said, if you're going to...

    It's funny, I was asking myself the same question the other day. I don't think you can really compensate emissions, so the best thing to do is still to avoid flying.
    That said, if you're going to fly anyways, I'm pretty sure "compensating" is better than not doing anything at all. Unfortunately I don't know much about the companies offering this service. I'd like to learn more about it as well.

    2 votes
  6. CrazyOtter Link
    How often do you fly and how far? Assuming that you can't avoid flying the impact on your personal carbon emissions and energy usage is large and will likely dwarf anything else you do. The only...

    How often do you fly and how far?

    Assuming that you can't avoid flying the impact on your personal carbon emissions and energy usage is large and will likely dwarf anything else you do.

    The only way to counter this is to pay for carbon offsets. However I don't really know much about how reliable those schemes are so can't recommend anything specific.

    1 vote
  7. tomf Link
    Frankly, it sounds like you're on the right track to offsetting as best you can. Going zero-waste isn't too difficult once you get into the swing of it, assuming your area has the proper programs...

    Frankly, it sounds like you're on the right track to offsetting as best you can. Going zero-waste isn't too difficult once you get into the swing of it, assuming your area has the proper programs in place for recycling (plastics, styrofoam, etc.)

    Being vegan is great. If you have a yard, rip up that grass and put in a garden and live off of that as much as you can. While this is growing, look into CSA shares.

    If you haven't already, get into making bath and body products. If you can get your friends into it, one can make a lot of soap, another shampoo, etc. Its not difficult for the most part. If you can get a crew into this, might as well do the same with canning while you're at it. Food gangs are great.