Could voluntary carbon offsets see a comeback?

By Stefan Gössling

Stefan Gössling

April 2018

Since the late 1990s airlines offer voluntary carbon offsetting schemes. These started to gain significant interest around 2005 (see Gössling  et al., 2009) when providers – not-for-profit as well as commercial outfits – began to offer a wide range of offset certificates. Such certificates represent an amount of CO2 ‘saved’ through a project, exchangeable with an amount emitted during a flight. The character of these ‘offsets’ would usually represent one of three options, i.e. a forestry project, an investment in energy efficiency, or the development of a renewable energy source. Calculated against a baseline, all of these projects would either sequester carbon (afforestation or reforestation), avoid emissions through efficiency gains, or replace fossil fuel-based technology.  

Three problems continue to characterize carbon offsetting in aviation contexts. First, the question as to what constitutes a credible carbon offsetting strategy. For example, forest projects are cheap, but uncertain as long-term biological (carbon) sinks are increasingly at risk from, for example, forest fires. Second, there is the issue of verification. Offset providers develop different types of certificates, which may be non-verified, verified by third parties, or verified and registered with the United Nations. There are also different quality standards, with Gold Standard offsets placing greater weight on sustainable development benefits. Third, any flight entails emissions of CO2 as well as short-lived ‘non-CO2‘ emissions (specifically NOx and cloud formation). While the former can be relatively easy assessed, there is no consensus as to how non-CO2 emissions should be included and compared to CO2.

The complexity of the market, along with widespread newspaper reporting on misguided or failed projects and the credibility of offsetting per se, induced considerable doubt by potential consumers as to whether offsetting is a strategy to pursue.  Offsetting involves a considerable private cost to address a problem that will affect all of humanity. Humans are rarely altruistic in their actions to start with, and we are ready to look away when in doubt. This is essentially what happened after negative headlines became increasingly common during the initial growth phase of the offsetting sector about a decade ago. Airlines made the problem worse by announcing that they would resolve the problem of climate change with technology (Gössling  et al., 2009). Ten years on, there is no evidence of such technology, and emissions from aviation have grown consistently. As a result, it is mostly companies choosing to offset their activities today while the privately funded voluntary offsetting market seems in decline.

In this situation, a question is whether voluntary offsetting can be ‘re-introduced’, and perhaps even boosted. There is little doubt that high quality offsets make positive contributions to sustainable development, while also reducing emissions. As outlined, the general public seems reluctant to follow suit, however. Results from a choice experiment in Australia present interesting new insights in this regard (see Choi et al., 2018). Perspectives on offsetting were recorded during a period under which a carbon tax was active in Australia. Findings indicate that air travellers do attach a personal responsibility for carbon emissions to domestic flights, but not so much to intercontinental flights. This is possibly a result of two interrelated processes. First of all, a carbon tax is a strong signal that a country is serious about tackling climate change. This makes travellers more aware of their contribution to climate change, and the need to mitigate emissions. Second, government action does prompt travellers to also support mitigation privately, i.e., where climate policies are significant, people are more likely to support voluntary carbon offsetting. Responsibility is however mostly attached to domestic flights. This again is possibly an outcome of perceptions of being responsible for national emissions from aviation, not the international situation, as well as the fact that international emissions are considerably larger, hence entailing more considerable offsetting costs.

Results indicate that in order to address emissions from aviation, mandatory climate measures should be introduced nationally, and be combined with voluntary offsetting.  There is no credible strategy by the aviation sector to tackle climate change (Lyle 2018), and it is unlikely that one will emerge in the short-term future. In the absence of global strategies, as well as at the European level, national action on emissions will be paramount, and can possibly be based on air passenger duty models as introduced by the UK, Sweden, Norway and other countries. Governments can then promote mandatory and voluntary climate measures in tandem. Airlines, for instance, should consider to offer their voluntary carbon offsets at fixed levels, at €5, €10, or €20, depending on distance and flight class. Such offers are more likely to appeal to passengers. Offers must be credible, and airlines should thus only promote Gold Standard Certified Emission Reductions. They should also rethink communication strategies, i.e. highlight individual responsibility, rather than to continue telling their customers that the problem will be resolved (Peeters et al., 2016).

Choi, A. S., Gössling, S., & Ritchie, B. W. (2018). Flying with climate liability? Economic valuation of voluntary carbon offsets using forced choices. Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment, 62, 225-235.

Gössling, S., Broderick, J., Upham, P., Ceron, J. P., Dubois, G., Peeters, P., & Strasdas, W. (2007). Voluntary carbon offsetting schemes for aviation: Efficiency, credibility and sustainable tourism. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 15(3), 223-248.

Gössling, S., Haglund, L., Kallgren, H., Revahl, M., & Hultman, J. (2009). Swedish air travellers and voluntary carbon offsets: towards the co-creation of environmental value?. Current Issues in Tourism, 12(1), 1-19.

Lyle, C. (2018). Beyond the ICAO’s CORSIA: Towards a More Climatically Effective Strategy for Mitigation of Civil-Aviation Emissions. Climate Law, 8(1-2), 104-127.

Peeters, P., Higham, J., Kutzner, D., Cohen, S., & Gössling, S. (2016). Are technology myths stalling aviation climate policy?. Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment, 44, 30-42.

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