Is sustainable air travel a thing? Ways out of a dilemma | Julia Zhu

Members of the WEAll Amp Team offset flights with atmosfair when we need to travel – so we asked Julia to explain more about what they do and explore the tricky subject of offsetting carbon.

By Julia Zhu, atmosfair

In a recent article for WEAll, Jennifer Wallace of the Carnegie UK Trust talked about different dimensions of wellbeing – personal versus societal – and pointed out how they sometimes sit uneasily atop each other. Nowhere is this more urgent than when it comes to environmental preservation and climate change. Fundamentally, wellbeing for humans depends on having intact natural surroundings, both to enjoy and to provide essential services such as clean air, water, and nourishment. Move up Maslow’s pyramid, however, and wellbeing is also informed by a sense of autonomy, of being able to choose one’s own way of life. For many people in Western countries, this includes visiting faraway countries, experiencing other cultures, keeping in touch with friends and family scattered across the globe.

It is deeply ironic that the technologies that allow us to admire the richness of our earth also actively poison it, making it less likely that future generations will have a chance to enjoy what we now have. When someone in Germany flies to the Maldives to experience beautiful nature, they also contribute to the sea level rise that endangers the islands. And the damage doesn’t stop there: a round trip flight from Berlin to Malé has the warming effect of 4 tonnes of carbon dioxide per passenger, on average – that’s more than twice the per capita emissions in India. A country whose inhabitants mostly have never flown and never will, but who are impacted by climate change anyway. From heatwaves to droughts, floods, and cyclones: the most severe dangers of global warming will hit those countries the hardest which have contributed least, and they have the least resources to protect themselves.

Offsetting: the second-best solution is the best we have

Let’s be realistic: it might be the best option, ecologically, but we will not stop flying altogether. Even with technological advances that will make aviation climate-friendly in the future, we have to do something now to keep the earth from overheating. Offsetting offers a temporary and limited way out. What is meant by offsetting is a fairly simple principle: if carbon emissions go up in one place and down in another, the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere remains the same. By enabling another person to cut their carbon emissions, I can mitigate the effects of my own increase. Let’s return to our example of the Maldives tourist: the environmentally best solution is that they spend their vacation at a destination close to home. But who are we to say they can’t take the vacation of their dreams? In the second best scenario, the traveler will visit www.atmosfair.de to calculate the amount of carbon emitted by their flight and pay a suggested amount of money, which will be spent in one of our climate mitigation projects to reduce emissions.

These projects tap into potentials for carbon savings that are easy and cost-efficient to realise, mostly in developing countries. This comes with the perk of combining climate action with sustainable development. At atmosfair, our preferred technologies are efficient cookstoves and micro biogas plants that replace or reduce the use of fire wood for cooking. Users enjoy benefits on multiple levels: they need less wood to cook, and thus less time and money to buy or collect fuel. The stoves are much cleaner than open fire, which improves respiratory health. On a larger scale, reduced demand for wood means less deforestation, land degradation, and carbon emissions. Moreover, our stoves and biogas plants are assembled locally, creating jobs and transferring know-how to host communities.

By the way: you might be wondering why we talk about wood as a non-renewable source of energy. That’s because in many regions, it’s exactly that. 98 percent of trees that are cut down in Rwanda are not replanted – they are permanently lost, releasing carbon dioxide into the air as the wood is burned, and turning once-lush forests into steppes and deserts.

The not-so-subtle differences and why you should care

Some critics argue that offsetting just buys a clean conscience and lets us off the hook too easily. But the moral high ground won’t save anyone from drowning when the sea level rises. For a flight that you have already taken, the best option is to offset.

For a flight you’re yet to take, the best option is to not take it, followed by offsetting. In both cases, the worst option is to do nothing.

That doesn’t mean that you should stop thinking about climate change at this point. Apart from cutting down on flying, there are many ways in which we can reduce our carbon footprints, including switching to electric cars, public transport or bicycles to get around, eating less meat, using heating and warm water more wisely, etc. Offsetting is the last resort when there really aren’t any viable alternatives. Think of it as a Band-Aid: when you have cut yourself, it might be the best option to keep the bleeding in check. But you still want to go see a doctor and maybe get stitches.

Let me continue with the metaphor: if you hurt yourself, you’ll want to make sure the Band-Aid is clean and safe. Likewise, you should care for the quality of your carbon offsets and that your money is actually working to improve the climate and living conditions. This is where atmosfair has a leg up on other offsetting providers. We run our climate protection projects ourselves, cooperating with organizations in the host countries to make sure we meet the needs of the families we’re working with. The technologies we use are tested and high quality, so they continue to save carbon for a long time. And while anyone can claim that their product is the best, we have it in writing: we have consistently been ranked as the No. 1 offset provider in all industry benchmarks. Our projects are reviewed yearly by auditors who vouch for their quality. And we are extremely efficient – 9 out of 10 donor dollars go towards projects.

Another key aspect that makes for an effective carbon mitigation project is that it’s additional – without funding from offset contributions, those projects would not have been implemented. So any offset money going into large scale wind parks or hydroelectric plants is likely to just improve the developers’ bottom line, as they were almost certainly already planned and funded anyway, with climate change mitigation projects providing another stream of revenue. Likewise, we do not invest in afforestation projects. One issue is that due to the inherent economic value of timber, it’s very hard to guarantee that the newly planted trees won’t be cut down before they start storing enough carbon dioxide. That is especially true when the trees are grown in large plantations. Another risk is human rights violations and displacements frequently associated with afforestation.

Tl;dr: avoid, reduce, offset – and look out for quality

Offsetting carbon emissions is part of a general strategy that strives to mitigate the negative effects of our lifestyle on the climate. While it is effective at preventing earth from overheating even faster, we like to think of it as a bridge leading to a future in which sufficiency and technological advances will allow us to live more sustainably. To make sure your financial contributions towards climate change mitigation actually make a difference, be aware of the differences between offset projects. For more information on quality criteria and to see our projects at work, visit www.atmosfair.de/en.

Image: atmosfair

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