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Travel emissions and carbon offsetting: Questions, dilemmas, and suggestions

Everything we do, from the food we eat to the things we buy to the way we travel, emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. However, some acts have significantly bigger consequences than others. Aviation accounts for around 2.4 percent of worldwide CO2 emissions. The aviation sector is responsible for around 5% of global warming, which leads to the question: are there ways to reduce these emissions?

First prevent, then compensate

Is it possible to stop contributing to global warming? Emissions from planes are rising rapidly. To combat climate change, it is best to use less energy and  travel less by car or plane. This prevents the emission of CO2. You can also opt for green energy, such as green electricity generated by solar panels or wind turbines, which does not emit CO2.  When travelling, it is also a good idea to make a long trip. Many short trips of a few days have a greater environmental impact than longer stays.

Also, fly as directly as possible: direct flights emit less CO2 than flights with multiple transfers. Besides that, it is prudent to avoid the aircraft at short distances. Taking the bus or train is often an option. Aside from the environmental benefit, it is frequently faster (consider the airport wait time) and less expensive! Emissions that you cannot or hardly avoid, you can compensate for and that is called carbon offsetting.

Travel emissions and carbon offsetting

What is the best war to offset your carbon footprint during travel?

Carbon offsetting ensures that in exchange for the CO2 emissions you cause, less CO2 is emitted elsewhere or CO2 is extracted from the atmosphere. This offsets your CO2 emissions. There are several ways to offset your CO2 emissions. The three most important are listed below:

  • Planting trees. Trees extract CO2 from the air and convert it into oxygen and biomass (such as wood, leaves and roots). They release the oxygen into the air. Trees mainly store extra CO2 as they grow. The CO2 is then captured in the increasing biomass of the tree. If the wood is burned or rotted away, the CO2 is released back into the air. That means the storage of CO2 in trees is only temporary. Therefore, many climate compensation providers ensure that trees are replaced once they have grown.
  • Replacing activities that are bad for the environment with environmentally friendly alternatives. For example: closing a coal-fired power station and replacing it with a wind farm.
  • Investing in projects that save energy. This prevents the emission of greenhouse gases.

How do travel organizations limit CO2 emissions?

The theme of sustainability is increasingly high on the agenda of many organizations. Where years ago it was a kind of mandatory topic on the website, you now see more and more organizations making the sustainability policy concrete. Airlines are investing in aircrafts that use less fuel and are more careful with plastic on board. They are also switching to more sustainable fuels where possible. More and more travel organizations and websites that sell airline tickets are also offering carbon offsetting.

Some airlines only offer CO₂ compensation, which is only part of carbon offsetting; an aircraft also emits other greenhouse gases. Of course, compensating part of it is always better than not compensating at all. In addition, the costs become clearer and more affordable by only compensating CO₂ and therefore more people will choose to compensate their flight.

How can you reduce your travel impact?

Thankfully, airlines value carbon offsets as well. Air France, for instance, will compensate for all CO2 emissions for domestic flights. Although it is much better to travel via another way when travelling domestically. They accomplish this through activities such as tree planting and forest preservation. Budget airline EasyJet even applies this to all of its flights. Other companies choose to leave climate compensation up to the passenger: when booking, you can indicate whether you want to travel climate neutrally and pay a small fee for carbon offsetting. As a traveler, you can also compensate through organizations that specialize in carbon offsetting. They then use a tool to calculate the approximate number of tons of CO2 you have emitted and charge you for it.

What does carbon offsetting cost?

To compensate a medium return flight between 1,500 and 4,000 km for two people will cost you between 10 and 50 euros. Depending on the organization you might be able to select which emissions to compensate for, such as CO2 or other greenhouse gases. Flights pollute the upper atmosphere with CO2, nitrogen oxides, soot, and other greenhouse gases. This adds to the greenhouse effect. If you have the money to compensate, choose the most comprehensive compensation. Cheap providers frequently only compensate for the CO2 emissions of the flight, rather than the entire climate effect (which is greater than just CO2). If you want to offset your carbon footprint, find a way to compensate for the entire climate effect.

Making a stopover increases your carbon footprint. Flying in business or first class instead of economy has the same effect because the lower passenger numbers in these classes result in a less efficient use of space. If you want to participate in carbon offsetting, make sure that the transfer flight is also included. Otherwise, there's a good chance you'll only be compensating for a portion of your trip.

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