Airlines want you to think they’re serious about the climate crisis. They’re not [The Guardian, 04/02/20]
An offer to plant trees to offset carbon emissions isn’t a solution – it’s a licence to continue with business as usual
As environmentally conscious holidaymakers, inspired by Greta Thunberg’s Atlantic boat crossing, begin to book their no-fly Easter breaks, there are already signs that the aviation industry is feeling the pinch. In Sweden – home of the “flight shame” concept – there was an unprecedented 9% fall in domestic flights and a 4% drop overall in 2019.
Today, in a bid to clean up their image, a coalition of airlines, airports and manufacturers called Sustainable Aviation has announced a 2050 net-zero carbon emissions pledge. In an effort to reach this target, the coalition is proposing that a third of the reduction in net emissions will come from carbon offsetting. This is the idea that emissions released from a flight can be balanced out by funding new renewable energy projects or planting trees.
If it all sounds too good to be true, it is. Offsetting’s real power is to provide not a climate solution, but a social licence to continue with business as usual. In this case, it provides airlines with an excuse to plan for a 70% increase in passenger numbers. While offsetting may pay for things that have value in themselves (I’m all for planting trees, or installing solar power in the global south), it works against the essential imperative of the climate emergency: that emissions, and therefore the number of flights, must fall.
The validity of offsetting rests on the claim that if we remove an amount of carbon from the atmosphere equivalent to that previously released, then the resulting change in atmospheric carbon is zero. But there’s no magic technology that can instantly draw carbon out of the atmosphere and then store it safely, securely and indefinitely.