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Will air travelers be required to pay for the carbon their flights emit?

An Delta Airlines jetliner takes off. (Photo: Getty Images)
An Delta Airlines jetliner takes off. (Photo: Getty Images)
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Taylor Swift, Floyd Mayweather, Jay-Z, Blake Shelton, Kim Kardashian, Travis Scott, Oprah Winfrey and Mark Wahlberg all have something in common, and activists are not happy about it.

Those celebrities rank as the worst offenders for private jet CO2 emissions, according to a Yard study analyzing data on the CelebrityJets Twitter page. It found celebrities emitted an average of more than 3,370 metric tons of CO2 emissions, just in their private jet usage this year alone. They emit roughly 482 times more than the average person’s yearly emissions.

Publicists for the high-profile individuals have criticized the findings, pointing out there’s no way to determine if the celebrities were on all the recorded flights or who owns the jets. And the list doesn’t include the biggest offenders of emissions, although private jets are the worst offenders for emissions per passenger. Politicians, government officials, athletes and wealthy executives also rely on private jets.

But the analysis reignites debate about not only private jet emissions, but all aviation emissions and their ongoing damage to the environment. CO2 makes up 76% of global greenhouse emissions, and global aviation accounts for 1.9% of greenhouse gas emissions (not only CO2); 2.5% of CO2 emissions; and 3.5% of “effective radiative forcing,” which measures its impact on global warming.

According to the International Air Transport Association, this is only projected to increase. Officials estimate demand for air passenger journeys in 2050 could exceed 10 billion. The predicted 2021-2050 carbon emissions on a “business as usual” trajectory is roughly 21.2 gigatons of CO2. Emissions from flying increased by 26% since 2013 alone. The Carbon Independent Organization estimates for every hour of a flight, 90 kilograms (0.09T) of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. Companies and airlines have started to develop carbon calculators, where passengers can enter their flight information and see how much carbon their flight is emitting. According to MyClimate, a one-way economy flight from LAX International Airport in California to JFK International Airport in New York emits 0.662 metric tons of carbon.

But, ultimately, people want to travel by plane, and it’s unlikely demand will decrease any time soon, especially after the privilege was largely unavailable during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are new technologies for aviation in the pipeline. Sustainable aviation fuel, hydrogen or electricity stored in batteries work to decarbonize the energy supply, but that could take several years or even decades to test and implement, and it’s expensive. In the meantime, airlines are trying to increase efficiency in the form of reducing weight, carrying more passengers, using tailwinds and reducing distances through air traffic control.

A solution gaining popularity among European and American airlines is carbon offsetting. These are voluntary schemes where passengers pay to “offset” the emissions their flights produce elsewhere. Of course, this doesn’t get rid of the CO2 the flight will emit, but it reduces it somewhere else instead. Airlines, or outside nonprofits, measure how many tons are produced by each flight and charge whatever it costs to invest in a project that reduces CO2 levels by the same amount.

Some investments go to forestry projects, which either prevent cutting down trees or planting new ones. Other projects reduce fossil fuels used by companies by investing in energy-efficient products and renewables. The projects are required to meet certain criteria. They have to be permanent, i.e. it can’t be a forest with a scheduled demolition or forest fires threatening it. And they can’t have any leakage, meaning protecting one part of the forest can’t “leak” emissions to another place.

Airlines in the U.S. have started offering these offsetting programs to customers who can choose to opt-in and pay extra, including Alaska Airlines, Delta, JetBlue and United. Their average rate to offset 1,000 miles is $1.70, $2.09, $1.70 and $1.49, respectively. They join several other international airlines like Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Austrian, Brussels, China, Japan, Lufthansa and more. Calculations are wide ranging, considering every company does it differently, and every flight is different. Most calculators take into account the type of aircraft, distance traveled, average wind speeds, number of passengers, baggage and cargo.

The programs have received their fair share of criticism over the years. Older data from the IATA says because the programs are voluntary, only about 1% of flyers opt to offset their journeys. A survey provided a more optimistic outlook, saying some 18% of respondents planned to offset their trips. But experts estimate it’s not a common practice, especially in today’s environment of skyrocketing ticket prices and inflation, along with high travel demand.

Bruce Usher is a professor of professional practice at Columbia Business School, and used to head the EcoSecurities Group, which has designed emissions-reduction projects in developing countries. He said it’s common for individuals to struggle to see their contribution when it comes to small measures to reduce personal contributions to climate change.

I’ve read anecdotally that number’s really small,” Usher said, referring to people who offset their flights. “And you know what? That doesn’t surprise me. Why should I offset my flight if other people aren’t? And even if everybody on my plane does, what about all the other planes? Even if everyone in the U.S. does, what about all the other countries?”

Aside from participation, climate advocates have pointed out other realities, like, it’s better to just not travel at all, and that’s not what these programs encourage. Critics say offsetting distracts from better emissions-reducing efforts, and it shifts responsibility for emissions from rich individuals, corporations and countries onto those with lesser financial means. And planting trees takes decades to make a significant difference, because trees don’t reach their average carbon storage capacity until 15 to 25 years after planting.

Though the programs are fairly new, reports and studies have found numerous flaws that could indicate they don’t really work. A Guardian investigation last year found predictions on deforestation and land clearing were inconsistent, and in some cases, threats to trees were overstated. A European Commission survey found 85% of offset projects had no environmental benefits, and a ProPublica investigation into deforestation offsets in Brazil projects found they didn’t offset the amount of carbon they were intended to, were quickly reversed or couldn’t be accurately measured.

“Because it’s voluntary, it’s unregulated,” Usher said, adding this doesn’t mean no one is looking into these projects. To get a carbon credit for an airline to use, nonprofits and NGOs have to apply to a registry, and they manage their own data.

“They measure what’s being done on the ground and how much emissions were reduced," Usher said. "They’re valid and they’re credible, but there’s no consistency among the different registries and how they’ve done it. And many of these projects are in very remote placesin very hard-to-verify places in the world.”

Some argue airlines themselves should be the ones to offset their carbon, not the passengers. The United Nations “Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation” (Corsia), developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization, aimed to require airlines to buy emissions reduction offsets from other sectors to compensate for any increase in their own emissions, or use lower carbon “Corsia eligible fuels.” The concept of compliance on reducing emissions hasn’t really reached the U.S. yet.

But, Usher said, until it’s compliance credits and not just volunteer credits, he doesn’t think much will get done.

I don’t think that’s what solves climate change,” he said. “Unless everybody in the world all did at the same time, it’s not really going to be effective. That’s why, ultimately, the voluntary process has to be replaced by compliance.”

He doesn’t think passengers will end up paying for the carbon offsets involuntarily, but he doesn’t rule out an added “carbon fee” to flight tickets someday.

“It wouldn’t be uniform. [If an] airline flies a more efficient plane and burns less fuel, [it will] have a lower fee,” Usher said. “The goal here is not to stop people from doing what they want. People want to fly, people want to drive, people want air conditioning. These are modern things, not just conveniences. They’re really important to our life. The goal here is to be able to continue to offer those products to get us to grow the economy while reducing emissions at the same time. We want [airlines] to have the incentive to do it with less emissions and more efficient airplanes.”

Overall, experts largely agree carbon offsets aren’t a bad thing. Scientists have repeatedly said the world needs to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 to avoid the worst effects of climate change. But Usher said the debate surrounding carbon offsets is similar to the overall debate over action to combat climate change — some people deny it’s happening and some people already feel defeated by it.

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We know very clearly what the problem is, and we actually have a pretty clear path to solving that problem. We have some great products out there that allow us to reduce emissions and still be growing economies and doing really well. We’ve just got to go do it,” Usher said. “When people ask me this question that comes up a lot in my work, ‘Can we address climate change?’ The answer is, in my work, we can. But that doesn’t mean we will.
“And the difference between can and will really comes down to the role of government. If we just rely on reducing voluntarily, it’s not going to get better. We need government, both in the U.S. and globally, to sort of step up and say, ‘OK, we agree there’s a problem. Let’s agree on a path to reduce that problem, and let’s just go do it.”
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