Clean Air Travel – An Environmentalist Hypocrisy

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Clean Air Travel – An Environmentalist Hypocrisy

I travel by air, and I’m an environmentalist. I feel like a hypocrite, but in our world, air travel is almost impossible to avoid. Maybe there’s a better way.

Clean Air Travel - An Environmentalist Hypocrisy. Image of a jet and contrail on a blue sky.
Clean Air Travel – An Environmentalist Hypocrisy. Image Unsplash

I really like to travel. There, I said it.

I love exploring new places and learning about the cultures, history, and natural environments of places I have never been to. This is part of the reason that I am currently living in England. My partner had a job offer here, and while she could have found another job somewhere closer to home, we both love the idea of a new adventure. I pledged to those I love that I would be home to see them (my elderly parents) 3x per year, but as an environmentalist, this makes me a hypocrite, and it sucks. 

There is a cost, especially with air travel, and it is more than just the ticket price. According to the Clear Offset calculator, one transatlantic flight produces 1.18 tCO2e (1.18 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent). To offset a one-way flight home to Vancouver from London, I would have to plant 35-40 trees. Aviation is known to make up about 3% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. If left unchecked, airline traffic could more than double from today’s levels by 2050. 

Yeah. It’s a lot. So I buy carbon offsets for every flight, and the organization I buy them from employs people in developing nations to plant them instead. The problem, though, is that all offsets are not equal. An almost year-long investigation by the Guardian, the German weekly Die Zeit, and SourceMaterial, found that 90% of the offsets certified by Verra, the leading rainforest carbon offset certifier were junk. 

In a nutshell, Verra’s reporting was flawed and overstated the carbon sequestration benefits of its programs. They also overstated the threat of deforestation to an area, thereby showing false achievements – of saving forests that weren’t in danger of being cut down. In other cases, human rights violations were recorded when so-called park rangers forcibly evicted residents from their homes in preparation for “reforestation” efforts.

So what to do? For years critics of offsetting have said these programs only help assuage the guilt of wealthy individuals and nations. Is this the proof? Should we stop buying all offsets and let the idea of offsetting carbon die on the vine? 

I do not believe turning our back on carbon offsets is the correct answer. Certainly, the process needs more oversight and scientific accreditation, but the principle is sound. We as humans will never go back to preindustrial levels of carbon emissions – at least not in the foreseeable future. Yes, we will reduce our emissions, but we also need to sequester the carbon in the atmosphere, and there is no better way to do it than by planting more trees. The people in developing countries that benefit from the programs need the support they provide. They need the opportunity to plant trees, create food forests and bring themselves out of poverty. The wildlife that lives in these areas needs the forests protected and replanted. Biodiversity is of critical importance to humanity, and international agreements at recent UN climate conferences have placed great emphasis on it. 

I have decided to find a list of reliable and verifiable offset suppliers and certifiers that can be trusted (I already know of a few). Eventually, I will publish them as a service to the people who read my blog, and hopefully, we can move the carbon needle a little further in the right direction.

It is not the entire answer, but it is a step in the right direction, and there is hope for the future when it comes to air travel. Some of the technology used to decarbonize the air transportation sector already exists, and some are being developed. For example, batteries can power planes for small flights and are already in use by some companies; in British Columbia, Harbour Air, a small airline that flies short commuter routes on the West coast, has run a battery-powered float plane on commercial routes. 

On longer routes, carbon neutrality might be the immediate way forward. Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) is a way that the industry could make the transition in an organized and less costly way. SAF is made from waste oils and fats, oils derived from biomass and fully synthetic e-fuels. Some are better than others, but just like all big systemic changes, it will take time and experimentation to identify a clear winner. The United States last year announced funding for the development of biofuels and associated infrastructure so it will be here soon. 

Hydrogen fuel cells might also have the potential to power longer flights. A recent test by UK-based ZeroAvia provides medium to long-range zero-emission flights, and recent testing shows it has promise. So much so it has gained $140 million in investment from the likes of United Airlines and American Airlines and Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Currently, they have more than 1500 pre-orders for its hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

But it’s not enough to have a piecemeal approach driven by forward-thinking small companies. Countries will lead the way, incentivizing their domestic airlines to find a way quickly using a carrot-and-stick approach. In her 2023 New Year’s address, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said she wanted to “make flying green” and announced a goal to make domestic flights fossil fuel free by 2030. The Scandinavian country is well on their way to achieving a 70% reduction in total country carbon emissions by 2030, compared to 1990 levels, and airlines will have to be a part of the mix.

If Denmark can do it, so can the rest of the world, which is reason enough for hope. You can help push the transition forward; write your elected officials to support a national clean aviation plan for your country. Take action. Know action.

 

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6 comments

  1. Travel home 3x/yr?? Why?? As someone who lives abroad…I’m thrilled if I make it home once a year, partially due to the environmental impact of flying.

    1. Thank you for the comment. That is a good point; I need to re-evaluate, but I have many reasons, including business obligations there.

  2. I’ve been wondering about donating to nonprofits that work on sustainable travel as a form of carbon offset. E.g. bike or transit advocacy organizations. If we had quality high speed trains powered by renewable energy in the US, we could reduce the need to fly as much.

    I hear you about flying to see people you care about. I live in the US and I am close to a lot of my family in India and travel there every 5 years or so.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Those are very good ideas, I am also looking at some form of slow travel across the ocean, such as by commercial marine freighter and then a train across the country. The only downside is the time commitment is just so significant.

      1. You’re welcome. Glad you like the idea. I, too, have looked into slower travel across the ocean. In addition to the time commitment, those options looks significantly more expensive.

        I try to travel less often and for longer periods of time to reduce my travel emissions, as JK noted above. I recognize that this is challenging, too.

  3. Thank you for your thought-provoking article. I too have read about the reforestation scams (and those actually doing environmental harm), and am concerned. I would appreciate a list of tree planting organizations that we can trust. Visiting family, especially aging parents, is really important.

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