To deal with the climate costs of flying, we need to talk about growth and carbon offsetting

To deal with the climate costs of flying, we need to talk about growth and carbon offsetting

Last week Harold Goodwin’s blog laid out his reasons why the aviation industry’s approach to addressing its ongoing growth in emissions is inadequate. This week, I want to look at what should be done about it.

First, we have to reduce the overall rate of growth, through addressing demand. As I see it, there are two socially and environmentally positive ways of doing this.

You make the alternatives more attractive.

More people go by train between London and Paris these days because it is a more enjoyable, more convenient experience. It’s as easy to book as a flight, and can be booked sometimes more cheaply, sometimes for about the same, and sometimes for a bit more. But all in all, when making the decision about which option to choose – regardless of the huge carbon emissions saving – the train often wins. Likewise it is much more pleasant to take the train to the Alps than to fly.

But these are exceptions rather than the rule – generally it takes travellers a considerable amount of time and effort to even work out how to get places overland, and that is before they have factored in the additional cost and time it will take. Very few tourism websites – be they hotels, tour companies, destinations or whoever – do very much to encourage or support tourists coming by less emitting forms of transport such as the train. Websites provide helpful how to get to the hotel from the airport, but rarely how to arrive by train.

You support these alternatives by making the cost of flights fairer.

The New Economics Foundation has developed a scheme called the Frequent Flyer Levy. As they explain, under the current situation, “Frequent fliers are causing untold environmental damage – and being rewarded for it with generous tax breaks which all of us pay for.” Under their proposed new model, everyone would get one untaxed flight a year. Tax would be charged at a low rate from the second flight, and then increasing for each extra flight taken in that year. This would be social redistributive, as, “Some people on low incomes would be helped to fly for the first time by this reform. But the modelling shows that by applying a progressively rising tax rate for each flight beyond the first, this small increase would be hugely outweighed by the reduction in demand growth at the top end of the market.”

There’s much more that can be done by all sectors of the industry to promote alternatives to holidays that necessitate flying – writers and bloggers extolling the joys of low carbon holidays, tour companies designing their websites to promote low carbon alternatives, hotels providing incentives to travellers who arrive by train. All of these options and more exist and are being implemented here and there, but they remain at the margins where they need to be the norm.

Beyond reducing growth, the second thing we need to do is ensure that whatever flying takes place is done as efficiently and with as few emissions as possible. We are a very long way from electric planes or a sustainable form of producing biofuels. Norway has recently announced that it plans to make all domestic flights from the country electric by 2040. It’s a start, but to put it in perspective – the state operator Avinor has just bought a two-seater electric plane capable of staying in the air for one hour, and hopes to test a 19 seater equivalent by 2025. Meanwhile, a report at the end of last year revealed that global fossil fuel subsidies are around five trillion dollars a year, representing 6.5% of GDP. Rather than investing this much money in destroying our environment, we have to invest it in saving it. Have a look at the work of Project Drawdown (described as ‘the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming’) to see the most cost-effective and efficient ways of achieving a carbon balanced and livable world.

Offset what’s left

Thirdly – and this is where I diverge from many of my responsible tourism colleagues – we have to offset what’s left. I agree with the former director of Friends of the Earth and Chair of the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission, Jonathon Porritt, who wrote in the introduction to a report on how best to implement offsets: “I have only one question: when you’ve done everything you can to reduce your own carbon footprint through changing your lifestyle and being super efficient at home, work and play, what are you going to do about the rest? Ignore it – or deal with it by finding the best possible offset product on the market?”

Offsetting should never be – as it is with CORSIA – our first or main approach to addressing our climate impact. But it should always be our last. In the Netherlands, the tour operator Better Places ‘compensates’ what is has measured (and declared) to be the entire carbon impact of its customers trips – their flights, accommodation and everything else. It uses the money to fund clean cookstoves in Ghana, which not only reduce carbon emissions, they provide improved benefits for health and wellbeing. Through collaboration with the Dutch trade group ANVR, its approach has now been implemented by 13 other Dutch tour operators. In the Maldives, the eco-luxury hotel group Soneva imposes a 2% climate levy on the cost of all visitors to its hotel, knowing full well that its location means that people will have flown. Both companies are streets ahead in terms of transparency when it comes to reporting their climate impact and are doing far more to attempt to address the problem.

I see these two companies – and a few others – as providing necessary leadership in trying to address an incredibly difficult issue. I know many others don’t agree – they are concerned that carbon offsetting provides people and companies with a sense that they have let themselves off the hook and can avoid changing their behaviour. And they worry that many offsets have failed to deliver their claimed benefits. I reckon both of these challenges are surmountable. The first is a matter of communication. The second of efficient monitoring. Currently, however, positions are so entrenched that there is next to no discussion in responsible tourism circles about this topic.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the ‘food waste hierarchy’ which prioritises approaches to dealing with that issue. There is a similar hierarchy when dealing with energy and carbon emissions. First, you save energy by reducing use and demand. Second, you deliver the service in the most energy-efficient way possible. And third, you mitigate that which – having done everything possible for stages one and two – you were unable to avoid.

The industry doesn’t pay enough attention to the first part of this process. Those of us campaigning for the industry to be more sustainable need to pay more attention to the third.

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Jeremy Smith is a writer, speaker and sustainable tourism consultant. He is co-founder of Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, an initiative that supports tourism organisations in declaring a climate emergency and working together to reduce their carbon emissions in line with the Science Based Targets. He is the author of Transforming Travel - realising the potential of sustainable tourism (2018), and co-founder of, the travel industry sustainable tourism website news site. He consults widely on sustainable tourism strategy and communication, with recent clients including Bruges Ommeland, GSTC, English National Parks, Tripadvisor, the Travel Foundation, and the European Travel Commission. He is a member of Travalyst’s Independent Advisory Board and was a member of Rotterdam’s International Advisory Board in 2019, helping develop a new vision for the city’s tourism.


  1. John Williams says:

    Hi Jeremy,

    Offsetting is fraught with minetraps. One of the largest challenges being to deal with additionality. Furthermore, some basic research will reveal many of the scams practiced by the industry in the past.

    The COP21 Paris Accord recognises that to achieve their goals there will need to be carbon sequestration technology deployed.
    This is type of offsetting is transparent, for every tonne of greenhouse gas you would pay for the equivalent of CO2 to be removed from the atmosphere. It would happen soon after or before your greenhouse gas emissions. It doesn’t rely on trees surviving or communities not buying low carbon solutions without offset funding, when the cost of low carbon solutions gets cheaper and cheaper. Removing carbon dioxide will get cheaper and cheaper if there is demand. Let’s hope it is adopted. In the meantime I find it is cheaper to reduce my high carbon activities in the first place as your article points out.

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