Climate change: Half world's biggest airlines don't offer carbon offsetting
- 9 May 2019
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Less than half of the world's major airlines are giving passengers the opportunity to offset the carbon dioxide produced from their flights, BBC research found.
When airlines do offer such a scheme, generally fewer than 1% of flyers are choosing to spend more.
Carbon offsetting enables passengers to balance out their carbon footprint by paying towards environmental projects.
Aviation accounts for 2% of global human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.
Prices vary but a return flight from London to Malaga, Spain, would cost around £4 to offset.
The BBC contacted the world's biggest airlines in terms of numbers of flights and numbers of passengers.
Out of the 28 approached, less than half offered a carbon offset scheme and the majority declined to provide data on the number of passengers offsetting their flights during a one year period - often saying their figures were too low to report.
Michael Gill, a director from the international aviation trade body Iata, said: "We strongly recommend all passengers to use high-quality projects to offset their own CO2 emissions as an individual contribution to addressing climate change."
What is carbon offsetting?
Carbon offsetting allows passengers to pay extra to help compensate for the carbon emissions produced from their flight.
The money is then invested in environmental projects - like planting trees or installing solar panels - which reduce the carbon dioxide in the air by the same amount.
Passengers can pay the additional charge when they buy their ticket from participating airlines, but independent offsetting companies also exist.
The price varies between airlines, but a return flight from London and Cape Town, South Africa would cost roughly £20 to offset, according to ClimateCare.
The CO2 emissions per passenger from that flight is roughly the same as those produced from heating the average home for a year.
Some activists have criticised carbon offsetting as an excuse to continue polluting, arguing that it does little to change behaviour. Advocates defend offsetting just as vociferously.
How do the big airlines compare?
- British Airways does not run a carbon offsetting scheme. Instead, it gives customers the opportunity to contribute towards carbon reduction and community projects
- Lufthansa offers a carbon offsetting scheme, but uptake from passengers is less than 1%. Following the BBC's enquiry, the company said it would now make the offer more visible to customers during the booking process
- Ryanair does offer a carbon offsetting scheme, but the company refused to disclose the uptake by passengers
- American Airlines, the world's biggest airline, does not offer an offset scheme. The company says it has taken "many meaningful steps to reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions", including buying new, more fuel-efficient planes
- Emirates does not offer a scheme, but will be participating in an international carbon offset scheme from 2021
- Qantas bucked the trend with 10% of passengers opting to offset
What are airlines doing to combat emissions?
More people are flying than ever and over four billion passengers fly every year.
All international carriers must now report their CO2 emissions on an annual basis and the sector as a whole is aiming to halve its carbon footprint by 2050.
From next year, airlines will be required to offset any increase in emissions beyond their 2020 levels by reducing emissions elsewhere.
The new international system, known as Corsia and established by the United Nations, is the first time a single industry sector has agreed to a global measure to tackle climate change.
Prof Neil Harris, head of atmospheric informatics at Cranfield University, UK, says carbon offsetting "is a good idea but it's not working". He feels airlines and governments need to do more.
"All opt in schemes tend to have low take-up," he explained.
"Secondly I think there's a lack of clarity on what the scheme is. You want to know the money is being well spent."
Prof Kevin Anderson, who researches energy and climate change at the University of Manchester, said the most important thing was changing consumer behaviour.
"Most people just fly occasionally but there's this small group who are very frequent fliers. And these people cannot be using offsetting to allow them to carry on business as usual," he said.
"If we are serious about climate change, it is not a business-as-usual world, we will have to change how it is we operate. And until we accept that we're going to continue to fail on climate change and the emissions will continue to rise."
Interactive content: Upgrade your browser for the full experience. Alternatively, click here for a list of climate change terms and what they mean.
Climate change translator
What do all the terms mean?Skip to main story
Keeping the rise in global average temperature below 1.5 degrees Celsius will avoid the worst impacts of climate change, scientists say. That’s compared with ‘pre-industrial’ times. The world has already warmed about 1C since then.
The original target for limiting the rise in global average temperature. Recent research points to 1.5 degrees being a far safer limit.
The current likely rise in average global temperature by the year 2100 if countries keep their promises to cut emissions of greenhouse gases, which are driving climate change.
A prediction of the likely rise in average temperature by 2100 if no further action is taken. This would see major sea-level rise, with many coastal areas becoming uninhabitable, as well as regular severe heatwaves and massive disruption to agriculture.
An action that helps cope with the effects of climate change - for example building houses on stilts to protect from flooding, constructing barriers to hold back rising sea levels or growing crops which can survive high temperatures and drought.
Stands for 'Anthropogenic Global Warming', which means the rise in temperatures caused by human activity like the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil. This produces carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere and cause the planet to become warmer. This is in addition to changes in the climate which happen because of natural processes.
The Arctic Ocean freezes in winter and much of it then thaws in summer, and the area thawing has increased by 40% over the past few decades. The Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet.
Attribution is the process by which scientists try to explain whether climate change has made a particular weather event - like a heatwave - more likely.
The average temperature of the world is calculated with the help of temperature readings taken from weather stations, satellites and ships and buoys at sea. Currently it stands at 14.9C.
Stands for 'Bio Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage'. It's the name for a system in which crops are grown (which draws in carbon dioxide from the air) and when they are burned to make electricity, carbon emissions are captured and then stored. Scientists see this is a key way to keep the lights on while not adding to global warming, but the technology is in its infancy.
A fuel derived from renewable, biological sources, including crops such as maize, palm oil and sugar cane, and some forms of agricultural waste.
Biomass is plant or animal material used to produce energy or as raw materials for other products. The simplest example is cow dung; another is compressed wood pellets, which are now used in some power stations.
Carbon is a chemical element which is sometimes described as a building block for all life on Earth because it is found in most plant and animal life. It is also found in fuels like petrol, coal and natural gas, and when burned, is emitted as a gas called carbon dioxide.
The trapping and removal of carbon dioxide gas from the air. The gas can then be reused, or injected into deep underground reservoirs. Carbon capture is sometimes referred to as geological sequestration. The technology is currently in its infancy.
Carbon dioxide is a gas in the Earth's atmosphere. It occurs naturally and is also a by-product of human activities such as burning fossil fuels. It is the principal greenhouse gas produced by human activity.
The amount of carbon emitted by an individual or organisation in a given period of time, or the amount of carbon emitted during the manufacture of a product.
A process where there is no net release of carbon dioxide (CO2). For example, growing biomass takes CO2 out of the atmosphere, while burning it releases the gas again. The process would be carbon neutral if the amount taken out and the amount released were identical. A company or country can also achieve carbon neutrality by means of carbon offsetting. The phrase 'net zero' has the same meaning.
Carbon offsetting is most commonly used in relation to air travel. It allows passengers to pay extra to help compensate for the carbon emissions produced from their flight. The money is then invested in environmental projects - like planting trees or installing solar panels - which reduce the carbon dioxide in the air by the same amount. Some activists have criticised carbon offsetting as an excuse to continue polluting, arguing that it does little to change behaviour.
Anything which absorbs more carbon dioxide than it emits. In nature, the main carbon sinks are rainforests, oceans and soil.
Stands for ‘Carbon Capture and Utilisation’. This consists of using technology to draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into products like biofuels and plastics.
A pattern of change affecting global or regional climate, as measured by average temperature and rainfall, and how often extreme weather events like heatwaves or heavy rains happen. This variation may be caused by both natural processes and by humans. Global warming is an informal term used to describe climate change caused by humans.
Climate models are computer simulations of how the atmosphere, oceans, land, plants and ice behave under various levels of greenhouse gases. This helps scientists come up with projections for what Earth will be like as global warming continues. The models do not produce exact predictions, but instead suggest ranges of possible outcomes.
Climate negotiations take place every year as the United Nations brings governments together to discuss action to stop climate change. The goal is usually a collective agreement to reduce carbon emissions by certain dates. The latest of these is the Paris Agreement of 2015 which set the targets of limiting warming to 2C or 1.5C if possible. Negotiations are always difficult because many countries are heavily dependent on fossil fuels and worry about the effects of any change on their economies.
Means carbon dioxide, a naturally occurring gas which is also a major product of human activity such as burning fossil fuels. Increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means more heat is retained, causing the planet to warm up.
Stands for 'Conference of the Parties'. It is the name for the annual UN negotiations on climate change under what is called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (see UNFCCC). The aim is to prevent dangerous human interference with the climate.
A UN climate summit was held in Copenhagen in 2009 which descended into acrimony and ended with countries only agreeing a non-binding accord that climate change was "one of the greatest challenges of the present day". The event is widely regarded as one of the least productive since climate negotiations began.
Coral bleaching refers the change in colour of coral reefs when the ocean temperature rises above a certain level, forcing the corals to eject the algae they normally co-exist with - this turns them white. Coral can recover if the water cools, but lasting damage can be done if it remains too hot.
The clearing of forests to make way for farming such as soy crops to feed livestock or palm oil for consumer products. This releases significant levels of carbon dioxide as trees are burned.
Climate deniers believe that climate change is only taking place because of natural processes and that human activity has no role. They dispute the work of many thousands of experts around the world, whose research has been peer-reviewed and published and is based on research stretching back more than a century.
Emissions are any release of gases such as carbon dioxide which cause global warming, a major cause of climate change. They can be small scale in the form of exhaust from a car or methane from a cow, or larger-scale such as those from coal-burning power stations and heavy industries.
Extreme weather is any type of unusual, severe or unseasonal weather. Examples could be major heat waves, with temperature records broken, extended droughts as well as cold spells and heavier than usual rainfall. Scientists predict that extreme weather will become more common as the world becomes warmer.
In a feedback loop, rising temperatures change the environment in ways that affect the rate of warming. Feedback loops can add to the rate of warming or reduce it. As the Arctic sea-ice melts, the surface changes from being a bright reflective white to a darker blue or green, which allows more of the Sun’s rays to be absorbed. So less ice means more warming and more melting.
Fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas were formed when tiny plants and animals flourished in the ancient past, absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, before dying and being crushed over millions of years. When burned, they release carbon dioxide.
Geo-engineering is any technology which could be used to halt or even reverse climate change. Examples range from extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it underground, to more far-fetched ideas such as deploying vast mirrors in space to deflect the Sun's rays. Some scientists say geo-engineering may prove essential because not enough is being done to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Others warn that the technologies are unproven and could have unforeseen consequences.
Usually a reference to temperature averaged across the entire planet.
The steady rise in global average temperature in recent decades, which experts say is mostly caused by human-produced greenhouse gas emissions. The long-term trend continues upwards with 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 being the warmest years on record.
Green energy, sometimes called renewable energy, is generated from natural, replenishable sources. Examples are wind and solar power as well as biomass, made from compressed wood pellets.
Natural and human-produced gases that trap heat in the atmosphere and warm the surface. The Kyoto Protocol restricts emissions of six greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, perfluorocarbons, hydrofluorocarbons, and sulphur hexafluoride.
The Gulf Stream is a warm ocean current which originates in the Gulf of Mexico and flows up the east coast of the United States and across the Atlantic Ocean. Scientists believe Europe would be significantly cooler without it. There is a fear that the stream could be disrupted if rising temperatures melt more polar ice, bringing an influx of freshwater.
A hydrocarbon is a substance consisting entirely of hydrogen and carbon. The major fossil fuels - coal, oil and gas - are hydrocarbons and as such, are the main source of emissions linked to climate change.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a scientific body established by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization. Its role is to examine and assess the latest scientific research into climate change. Its report in 2018 warned that the rise in global temperatures should be limited to 1.5C to avoid dangerous impacts.
A jetstream is a narrow band of fast-flowing air at high altitude which acts as major influence on the weather. Jetstreams could be disrupted by warming in polar regions, and this may make extreme weather like Europe’s hot summer of 2018 more common.
A set of rules agreed at Kyoto in Japan in 1997, in which 84 developed countries agreed to reduce their combined emissions by 5.2% of their level in 1990.
A term used to describe people who believe that climate change is real, and being driven by human activity, but that its effects will not be as bad as predicted by scientists.
Methane is a gas which traps about 30 times more heat than carbon dioxide. It is produced by human activity from agriculture – cows emit large amounts – as well as waste dumps and leaks from coal mining. Methane is also emitted naturally from wetlands, termites and wildfires. One big concern is that carbon held in frozen ground in arctic regions will be released as methane as temperatures rise and the ground thaws. This could cause extra, unpredictable global warming.
Action that will reduce human-driven climate change. This includes reducing greenhouse gas emissions by switching to renewable power, or capturing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere by planting forests.
A term used to describe any process where there is no net release of carbon dioxide (CO2). For example, growing biomass takes CO2 out of the atmosphere, while burning it releases the gas again. The process would be net zero if the amount taken out and the amount released were identical. A company or country can also achieve net zero by means of carbon offsetting. Net zero processes or manufactured items are sometimes also describbed as being 'carbon neutral'.
The ocean absorbs approximately a quarter of human produced carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, which helps to reduce the effect of climate change. However, when the CO2 dissolves in seawater, carbonic acid is formed. Carbon emissions from industry in the last 200 years have already begun to alter the chemistry of the world’s oceans. If this trend continues, marine creatures will find it harder to build their shells and skeletal structures, and coral reefs will be killed off. This would have serious consequences for people who rely on them as fishing grounds.
The ozone layer is part of Earth's high atmosphere which contains a large concentration of gas molecules comprising three oxygen atoms called ozone. Ozone helps filter out harmful ultraviolet light from the Sun, which can increase the risk of skin cancer. In the 1980s and 1990s, industrial gases called chlorofluorocarbons (or CFCs) were banned because they damaged the ozone layer. These gases are also potent greenhouse gases, contributing to global warming.
PPM / ppm
An abbreviation for 'parts per million', used to describe the concentration of a gas such as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggested in 2007 that the world should aim to stabilise greenhouse gas levels at 450 ppm CO2 equivalent in order to avert dangerous climate change. Some scientists, and many of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, argue that the safe upper limit is 350ppm. Modern levels of CO2 broke through 400ppm (at the Mauna Loa Laboratory in Hawaii) in 2013, and continue to climb at about 2-3ppm per year.
Scientists use a baseline with which to compare the modern rise in temperatures on Earth. The baseline often quoted is 1850-1900, and global temperatures have risen by about 1C since then. The reality, of course, is that industry actually got going much earlier, but there is nonetheless a perceptible uptick in the levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by 1850-1900 and the period is deemed therefore to be a useful marker.
Normally refers to energy sources such as biomass (such as wood and biogas), the flow of water, geothermal (heat from within the earth), wind, and solar.
Runaway climate change
Describes how the climate change may suddenly change after passing a 'tipping point', making it even harder to stop or reverse. In 2018, the IPCC said that global emissions must be reduced by 45% by 2030, and to net zero by 2050 to have 50% chance of limiting temperature rises to 1.5C this century.
Sea-ice is found in polar regions. It grows in extent and thickness in autumn and winter, and melts in spring and summer. The amount of sea-ice in the Arctic is seen as a key indicator of climate trends because the region is warming faster than most other locations on Earth. The smallest ever extent (in the satellite era) of Arctic sea-ice was recorded in September 2012. The 3.41 million square kilometers was 44% below the 1981-2010 average.
Sea level rises
Rising sea levels are predicted to be one of the most drastic impacts of climate change. In this context, there are two main causes for sea-level rise: (1) the expansion of seawater as the oceans warm; and (2) the run-off into the ocean of water from melting ice sheet and glaciers. Current sea levels are about 20cm higher on average than they were in 1900. Year on year, sea levels are presently going up by just over 3mm.
Sustainability means consuming the planet's resources at a rate at which they can be replenished. It's sometimes known as 'sustainable development'. Types of renewable energy such as solar or wind power are described as sustainable, while using wood from managed forests where trees are replanted according to how many are cut down is another example.
Describes how the climate may suddenly change after passing a ‘tipping point’, making it even harder to stop or reverse. Scientists say it is urgent that policy-makers halve global carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 or risk triggering changes that could be irreversible.
Stands for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This is an international treaty, signed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, which stated that countries should work to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere to avoid dangerous climate change.