Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for November 18th, 2009

Paying More for Flights Eases Guilt, Not Emissions

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There is a hard hitting article in the New York Times this morning, that rubbishes current carbon offset programs linked to flying.

“The carbon offset has become this magic pill, a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card,” Justin Francis, the managing director of Responsible Travel, one of the world’s largest green travel companies to embrace environmental sustainability, said in an interview. “It’s seductive to the consumer who says, ‘It’s $4 and I’m carbon-neutral, so I can fly all I want.’ ”

Offsets, he argues, are distracting people from making more significant behavioral changes, like flying less.

Except that all the airlines that I have seen reports from recently are noticing greatly reduced demand for air travel. Due to the recession, of course, and probably not that many people are deciding to fly less to save the planet. Though some clearly are.

Guy Dauncey in promotional material promoting his new book observes

Flying represents 2.5% of the cause of climate change. The global livestock industry has a 700% greater impact, causing up to 18% of the warming.

I did not buy any carbon offsets for my bacon sandwich, but I did buy some for my trip to UK in February. It seems clear I did not pay nearly enough:

offsetting the emissions of a flight from London to New York would probably require an extra fee of $200 to $300, far above what any airline is now charging.

But this is what I was told

Your Zerofootprint Offsets purchase represents 1.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

The Zerofootprint team would like to thank you for your carbon purchase. Thinking about your lifestyle in terms of its carbon footprint and doing something about it is an important step towards living a sustainable lifestyle and fighting climate change. The $25.60 you have contributed to offset your flight from Vancouver, Vancouver to London, Heathrow will help sustain the important work of supporting Canada’s forests.

Carbon priced at $16 a tonne seems to be a bit cheap – given the cost of repairing the damage that it is going to cause. The effects we are seeing now are not due to current CO2 emissions but those of twenty years ago, and thanks to the “tipping points” we are now seeing the marginal cost of each additional tonne of CO2 is going to be much more expensive in its impact.

But even knowing that, and being environmentally aware, does not make me decide to give up the opportunity of seeing my sister. Just as I still drive a car for trips that could be made by transit but only at double the time and much inconvenience. And I have started the practice of a weekly meatless day – but as much out of concern for my health as for its effect on methane emissions from Alberta steers.

In other places on the web, and not so far very much on this blog, there is a heated debate going on about how much we are going to have to cut back to avoid not the 2℃ of warming  we have been hoping to restrain ourselves for, but the 6℃ that now seems likely by the end of the century if we don’t get our act together at Copenhagen. Much discussion revolves around how people can be persuaded to change their behaviour – and how effective that might be in a country that is determined not to see any reduction in our GDP or production of oil from the tar sands. My choice to go home for my birthday seems trivial compared to Stephen Harper’s choice to do all he can to prevent any agreement on carbon emission reductions which might hurt his friends’ pockets. But I bought the offset ayway. No, I do not view that as a some equivalent to a Papal Indulgence that allows me to sin. Any more than my giving money to Oxfam or Unicef  over the years has changed the ongoing problems of starvation and child poverty. There is some impact – but I acknowledge that it is small and no doubt I could more. Which I think must be a very common view, since the sort of people who voluntarily impoverish themselves in order to take care of others are indeed very rare.

Justin Francis may well be right in his assessment of the effectiveness of the carbon offsets currently available – but simply cancelling the program is not going to make it any better. Children are still dying in Africa every day. Does that mean we should shut down Oxfam and Unicef?  Of course there needs to be better offset programs. Those who can afford to pay for seats in the front of the plane should be paying much more for their offsets – and then price of offsets is obviously going to rise. If it is cap and trade or carbon tax it is going to have to be draconian if it is to have enough impact in time to save humanity. But those who damn current efforts as too little and too late do not help at all to get more people on board voluntarily.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 18, 2009 at 1:55 pm