Planes, like all gas-dependent machines, emit carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air when they fly. As the number of flights have increased, so too has the amount of damage we’re doing to the atmosphere through these emissions.
While some machines have developed significant environmentally friendly options (the ability to choose an electric car over a gas vehicle for example), flying remains an activity that currently lacks a wide-reaching green option.
Carbon offsetting allows flyers to put a monetary value on their impact and to support initiatives that counteract that damage, says Christine Carter of carbon-offset provider Less.ca, which is focused on addressing air-travel emissions.
“You’re taking an equivalent amount of CO2 out of the atmosphere to equal what you produced from taking your flight,” she says.
How does it work? Put into simple terms: "Those dollars from purchasing your carbon offsets are going to a project that wouldn’t have happened under business as usual and that helps avoid carbon emissions or take emissions out of the atmosphere,” Carter says.
One example: While many developing countries rely on woodstoves to boil and sanitize water, carbon offsets have been used to replace woodstoves with solar cookers that don’t emit carbon. (The exact calculations involved in measuring CO2 are as daunting as you’d imagine, but can be found online if you wish to dig deeper.)
Another important thing to know: Purchasing carbon offsets is not as expensive as it once was.
According to the Less.ca online calculator, a return flight between Toronto and Vancouver emits about 1.3 tonnes of carbon. To offset your carbon emissions from that flight you’d need to pay about $26. The company also offers the chance to support what they call “Gold Standard” projects by paying a little more. Even then you’re looking at about $31 on a flight that is likely running you about $600.
That price includes the customer opting to double their payment to account for an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finding that flights (such as the Toronto-to-Vancouver one) operating at higher altitudes do twice the carbon-emission damage originally thought.
Of course, Less.ca isn’t your only carbon-offset option. Choosing which outfitters you work with in planning your trip can make a difference too. Intrepid Travel joined Offset Earth this year to match the funds of travelers who pay a monthly subscription toward carbon offsets. And Natural Habitat Adventures, which has been offsetting trips for 15 years, recently announced a plan to offset a year’s worth of carbon output for anyone who joins one of the 2020 trips from the company’s new 35th anniversary series, Climate Change & the Wild World.
Court Whelan, Natural Habitat’s director of sustainability and conservation travel, says companies in the travel space have a responsibility to lead the way and offer consumers options to make it easy.
“It’s up to us to vet the potential and help showcase it to the world through the influence we have in conservation travel,” Whelan says. “We all must take individual responsibility that in aggregate makes meaningful, powerful difference.”
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