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Carbon offsetting: reducing the impact of air travel

01 November 2019 - By Tracey Cormack

Flying is damaging the planet. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicates that flights account for 3% of global carbon dioxide emissions. And according to the International Air Travel Association, every year many millions more people fly than did the year before. No wonder then that the number of commercial aircraft in the world has grown from 3,700 in 1970 to more than 21,000 today. These are facts to ponder if you frequently travel by air.

One way to reduce the impact of your air travel is to purchase emission reductions from environmentally beneficial projects – known as carbon offsetting.

Carbon offsetting

Claire Keeling is the Community Partnerships Coordinator of ekos, an international non-profit enterprise that provides carbon offsetting services for individuals as well as carbon footprint measurement and certification services for businesses. Ekos is pioneering innovative approaches to financing a sustainable future, by also creating their own unique supply of regenerative carbon offset projects in New Zealand and the Pacific. She says that while all humans have a carbon footprint, how big that impact is will depend on the activities they take part in and the frequency in which they do them.

“Voluntary carbon offsetting involves taking responsibility for the carbon emissions we produce. We do this by measuring the amount of carbon pollution we produce from activities like flying – burning fossil fuels – and then compensating for these emissions by causing an equal volume of carbon to be taken out of the air by establishing new forests and protecting old ones. This is because forests take carbon out of the air through photosynthesis – a process of capturing and storing the sun’s energy in the form of sugar and wood.

View from a plane window

“A carbon credit is used to deliver a carbon offset. One carbon credit represents one tonne of carbon dioxide that has been taken out of the atmosphere by a forest. If our carbon pollution is equal to ten tonnes of carbon dioxide, we can offset this by purchasing 10 carbon credits. These carbon credits are then cancelled in a carbon registry so that they cannot be used by anyone else.

“If we are going to work together as a global community to stay under the 1.5 degrees target of warming agreed to at the Paris Climate Agreement, then we are all going to have to do our bit,” says Ms Keeling.

The Paris Agreement’s central aim is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5ºC.

“The biggest focus needs to be on reducing the emissions we are creating in the first place. In the interim the next best thing is to offset with carbon credits that also ensure the regeneration of our land,” Claire Keeling says.

She says flying is one of the highest emitting activities. For example, a single return flight to Europe will create more emissions than an average New Zealander emits driving each year.

We desperately need more trees – not only to perform the amazing act of sequestering carbon, but also to enhance and protect soils, water, biodiversity and communities. This is why ekos carbon forest projects specialise in protecting and planting new forests in Aotearoa and the Pacific,” she says.

“Indigenous forests provide the added value of providing even greater soil moisture, greater biodiversity, greater flood protection and greater stream protection than exotic monocultures. All of these benefits are enhanced when a forest is allowed to grow old, rather than being harvested.”

Apart from forest-based sequestration projects which tackle climate change there are specific emission reduction projects such as bio energy, clean non-emitting electricity generation – wind, solar and hydro power. These provide investment in renewable resources and reduce our long-term reliance on fossil fuels.

Project standards

Stewart McKenzie, Senior Technical Advisor and Verifier at environmental certifier Enviro-Mark Solutions, says that carbon-offsetting projects can not only deliver mitigation for climate change, they also deliver value-added services, essentially to make the world a better place. For example, one of the projects they source credits from, Hinewai Reserve on Banks Peninsula, not only sequesters carbon, it also promotes biodiversity, erosion control, and water quality and is a valuable site for research projects. Another project, Pigeon Bush, is a reserve between the Rimutaka and Tararua Conservation parks which helps provide a corridor for wildlife.

He says Enviro-Mark Solution’s carbonNZero programme summarises carbon credit criteria considered in the due diligence approval process for offset projects, based on international best practice and over a decade of experience operating the carboNZero programme. This is to ensure credibility and integrity in the carboNZero certification claim, which also requires organisations to commit to continual reduction in their carbon emissions.

Airlines

One option is to offset directly with the airline when you book flights, so that you just pay a fee when you book the flight.

Air New Zealand’s FlyNeutral programme supports New Zealand travellers to offset their carbon emissions associated with their Air New Zealand flights. For business travellers, FlyNeutral shows how emissions are calculated, the price of carbon credits and the projects generating those credits. The emissions for each flight are divided among the passenger seats on that flight. Air New Zealand has permanent native forest restoration projects which are managed by Permanent Forests NZ Ltd.

Nett funds received by Air New Zealand go toward the purchase of carbon credits and no fees are taken to fund the operation of the scheme.

Meanwhile, the Jetstar Fly Carbon Neutral Programme has been certified under the Australian Government’s National Carbon Offset Standard (2015 from website).

Last updated on the 1st November 2019