Friday, 27 August 2010

To offset or not to offset?

photo: BBC News

Everyone has a priority list when they book a flight. You may filter your search by direct routes only, or show loyalty to an airline for the miles; perhaps focus on safety record.
Personally, I have one tick-box only: price. I’m an airline tart. I am loyal to no company and will fly from whatever airport and with whichever airline charges me less. Since the day I’ve started paying for my own holidays (I still can’t quite believe my parents had the audacity to cut that privilege when I hit adulthood), this has always been money I resent spending. You're not actually buying something to take home with you; it is generally a hugely uncomfortable experience; you’re treated like a child in that you’re not allowed to do what you want (when was the last time they let you have a seventh minuscule bottle of wine of play with that giant door handle in the back?); the food is a scandalous tragedy.
(yes, I am aware that business and first classes tell quite a different story, but – shockingly! – the Ethically Challenged is not yet being waltzed around the world for much sought after lectures on how to be a model ethical consumer. We're strictly Economy folks.)

Ah, the pre-climate change times of inappropriate air stewards' uniforms!
And yet before your holiday has even started, you already spent a small fortune on: flights, cab to the airport, astronomically priced airport drinks, and often a few hidden surprise check-in charges.
Which is why I will do anything in my power to avoid any extra fees I’m presented with before actually being on holidays.
But what about the option to pay a premium for carbon offsetting your flights?
Is it fair to jump at every irresistible EasyJet offer, but not clean up after your carbon footprint mess?
How much environmental damage do we cause by flying a few times a year, and does it make our holidays less sinful to contribute to a carbon offset programme?

No straight answers there. Figures and opinions vary considerably according to which calculator or analyst you decide to trust.
To work out how much carbon dioxide you’re leaving behind when flying, the main considerations are distance covered and weight. The weight factor of this equation is the tricky one, as calculators take into account which side of the plane you’re heading to: the bit to the right as you board (popularly known as cattle carrier) or the left turn, leading to an imaginary promised land paved with emeralds. I had a hard time understanding how come passengers on the same plane are responsible for varying amounts of CO2 emissions, but the going logic is nicely summed up by Duncan Clark, from the Guardian Environmental blog:

It seems fairly obvious that the more you pay for a square metre of cabin, the more profit you give to the airline and the more you subsidise the cheaper classes of tickets. Put another way, if no one flew business or first class, the price of economy travel would have to rise, leading ultimately to lower occupancy rates, fewer flights and less global warming.”

Despite the lack of precision and ongoing disagreement between analysts, I still believe in the concept more than I do in the alternative of reducing air travel. Bjorn Lomborg , author of the controversial – and excellent - book Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide To Global Warming , defends the theory that global warming cannot be fought by focusing so heavily on cutting carbon emissions. He argues that funds and resources should be channeled instead into developing greener alternatives to fossil fuels that would enable us to still run cars, fly planes, rely on central heating and keep the world moving.
This approach would also be infinitely more realistic and fairer on the part of the world which is not quite moving yet. Some developing countries, with healthy economic growth rates several notches higher than most countries in Europe and North America are quite right to feel short changed by these cutting targets. After all, there was never a world summit demanding that England cut down on the old coal burning when it was busy going through its industrial revolution.
Lomborg argues that investment in greener energy is much more cost-effective than committing to almost unreachable carbon cutting targets.
He also reminds us that, since the motivation behind fighting global warming comes from wanting to do the right – and necessary - thing for the planet, all the enormous efforts and funds should be shared between the big Global Warming cause and less costly, more pressing world problems such as combating malaria and providing clean water to miserable corners of the planet we should be ashamed still exist.

I’d love to continue with more insights on how carbon offsetting works and how airlines and passengers can be part of it. However, it is Friday, I have to get cracking on the tears-of-joy-to-your-eyes chocolate mousse, and I don’t want to get in the way of your early journey home.
So, why don’t you come back on Monday, when I will be all facts and figures and pros and cons of carbon offset and if you're lucky, may even share some photos of the mousse.
Have lovely green weekends!

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