22nd July 2021
Air travel has found itself at the centre of the debate on climate change.
There’s no denying that it’s carbon intensive: each passenger on a return flight from London to Singapore accounts for around three tonnes of CO2. That’s the equivalent of heating a family home for a year.
Flying less isn’t something everyone is able or willing to do. This has given rise to carbon offsetting schemes, which promise to make flights carbon neutral.
The idea is that we voluntarily calculate the CO2 we’re responsible for, then fund a project that reduces emissions by the same amount. Popular schemes include tree planting, wind farms and the distribution of fuel-efficient stoves in developing countries.
There are plenty of carbon calculators that ask you to input your flight route or an amount of CO2 in kg. They then calculate a suggested donation to offset the impact of your journey.
Around 2% of Which? members told us they always pay to offset their flights. That figure is actually higher than the national average of just 1%, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
The easiest way would be to opt in when paying for your flights online. However, when we checked, only four of the 11 most-used airlines were offering their own schemes – and the convenient option isn't necessarily the best.
For example, Ryanair’s projects include tree planting in Ireland and Portugal. Yet these initiatives would offset less than 0.01% of Ryanair’s emissions, according to Professor Simon Lewis of University College London. He has branded the scheme ‘woefully inadequate’ and a ‘green gimmick rather than a serious attempt to slow down climate change’.
Instead of using the airlines' schemes, those who want to offset their carbon emissions should go to non-profit . However, we have found that its calculator can overestimate contributions. Until a more reliable consumer tool is available, we advise comparing figures with and then choosing Atmosfair's 'donate directly' option to make a payment.
To make sure you choose an effective scheme, look for internationally recognised certification. VCS (Verified Carbon Standard) and Gold Standard are two you can trust.
• Have no negative impact on local communities – eg displacement to make way for a new wind farm or tree-planting project
• Be monitored to make sure carbon reductions are achieved
• Do more than simply switch one fossil fuel for another.
There are many reasons why people aren’t buying into carbon offsetting schemes. Responsible Travel argues that to tackle climate change we must actively reduce our carbon footprint, rather than trying to ‘cancel out’ the damage afterwards.
Sarah Leugers of the Gold Standard told Which? Travel: ‘Offsetting isn't the solution or the only thing we should be considering, but most of us can’t reduce our footprint to zero. Taking accountability for the remaining pollution is absolutely the right thing to do.’
Its search tool will highlight the greenest flight for your journey with a leaf motif, alongside the percentage of CO2 saved. by Which? Travel found that passengers can make a significant carbon reduction by changing which airline they fly with.
Look out for newer, more fuel-efficient models, such as the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner and Airbus A350-900 and A320neo.
Choose direct where possible. Taking off uses more fuel than cruising.
A heavier plane also guzzles more fuel.
Consider taking the train for short-haul journeys. The Eurostar emits around 90% less carbon than the equivalent flight.