Why Going 'Carbon Neutral' Doesn't Let Airlines Off the Hook

In recent months, airlines have been falling over themselves to announce that they're going carbon neutral. But how much would that actually help?
April 22, 2020, 8:30am
plane over rainforest
Photo: Cultura Creative (RF) / Alamy Stock Photo

On the 14th of February this year – shortly before airlines started grounding their planes, furloughing their staff and applying for government bailouts – Delta made a surprise announcement. From the beginning of March, their entire operation would be carbon neutral. One of the world's largest airlines was promising to spend $1 billion (£807 million) over the next decade, in "a commitment to mitigate all emissions from March 2020 forward". They weren't the first major carrier to make such an announcement – EasyJet had made a similar pledge back in November.


However, as with so many bold proclamations made on Valentine's Day, it quickly became clear that there were underlying issues with Delta's commitment. There was talk of "advancing clean air technologies" and "an ambitious fleet renewal program […] to increase efficiency" – but the central promise wasn't nearly as meaningful as the flowery language made it appear.

While achieving carbon neutrality sounds laudable, it doesn't necessarily require cutting out carbon. Oil giant BP, for example, has pledged to reach net-zero emissions by the middle of this century, and is not planning to stop extracting fossil fuels. Instead, like Delta, they're relying heavily on a practice that is, at best, problematic, and at worst, according to campaigners, a dangerous distraction: carbon offsetting.

"Offsetting came about as an idea maybe 20 years ago, but the time for that idea is now past," says Andrew Murphy, Aviation Manager at the think-tank Transport & Environment. "If we're to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, what we need are immediate and sector-wide reductions in emissions."

The principles behind carbon offsetting, which were codified in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, are pretty simple. You pay someone else not to emit carbon that they otherwise would have done, and that supposedly compensates for the carbon that you, as an individual, a company or a country, are continuing to produce. Like an accountant balancing income and expenditure, if the emissions you create and the emission reductions you pay for are equal, you can claim to have achieved carbon neutrality.

Even if this works perfectly, however, you're still pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. And in reality, carbon offsetting rarely works perfectly. One widely reported study published by the European Commission suggests that as many as 85 percent of carbon offset projects hadn't delivered the reductions they promised.

There are complex reasons why this might be the case. Typical offsetting initiatives include tree-planting, forest preservation projects or programmes that distribute energy-efficient cookstoves in developing countries, allowing people to burn less coal or wood. But accounting for these projects' impact is notoriously difficult.


For starters, you have to prove that the carbon saving you're paying for would not have been made anyway, regardless of your investment – a concept known as "additionality". Then there's the danger of "leakage". If you pay to protect one bit of rainforest, for example, how do you make sure that loggers don't simply hack away at the plot next door instead? Practical considerations abound, too. If you fund the planting of new trees, how can you be certain the company that planted them won't go bust, allowing them to be bulldozed before they've absorbed the expected carbon? And if you give people new cooking stoves, how do you ensure they're actually being used?

That's not to say these difficulties are totally insurmountable, and companies like Gold Standard (which, as the name suggests, prides itself on the rigour of its rules) have developed detailed, long-term evaluation processes with built-in redundancies to ensure that, as far as possible, the carbon reductions you pay for are the carbon reductions you actually get.

But the real danger of relying on carbon offsetting has nothing to do with the effectiveness of the experts' methodology, and everything to do with the general public's perception of its effectiveness. There's an all-too common belief that if you pay to offset emissions, you've done your bit for the environment; that carbon neutrality is the end goal, and that if you pay enough, you can somehow cancel out your carbon footprint.


When Prince Harry and Meghan Markle took a private jet to Elton John's villa on the French Riviera, for example, the singer defended them by explaining that he'd paid for carbon offsets and "ensured that their flight was carbon neutral". But in the same way that no amount of Hail Marys will cancel out a murder, paying someone else not to emit carbon doesn't mean you can continue to pollute with impunity.

"The phrase 'carbon neutral' is an awful piece of communication. It's basically fake advertising," says Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel, a company that prides itself on operating as sustainably as possible. Having initially offered carbon offsetting to its customers, his company stopped in 2009, "and actually came out publicly against [it]", believing the concept to be misleading.

His is not the only travel company thinking along those lines. Sam Bruce, the co-founder of Much Better Adventures (MBA), another sustainable tourism business, makes the point that "we can't expect customers to be experts about this stuff". He says that while carbon neutrality "makes for a nice headline, it's misleading, and a dangerous distraction from the critical work of actually reducing carbon emissions".

Even Sarah Leugers of Gold Standard says "we don't actively encourage organisations to go claiming carbon neutrality", and suggests that offsetting should always be undertaken in conjunction with carbon reduction efforts.


If airlines genuinely wanted to help solve the climate crisis, they should stop "wasting staff time" trying to make offsetting work, according to Andrew Murphy of Transport & Environment. Instead, they should invest the sums currently spent on offsetting into developing fossil fuel alternatives, and work with governments on initiatives like the European Green Deal, which will see aviation fuel taxed for the first time.

"There is no magic pill," is the way Justin Francis puts it. And despite running a travel company, he's clear that until cleaner fuel alternatives emerge, for climate-conscious individuals, the answer is simple: "You've got to reduce the amount you fly."

Of course, reducing the amount you fly isn't a problem many people have at the moment. But with most major airlines – including Delta and EasyJet – currently relying on taxpayer-funded state aid to stay afloat, there's never been a better time to examine their claims to climate responsibility. According to Andrew Murphy, the fact is that "the aviation sector needs to reduce emissions […] and offsetting does not achieve that".

Five Ways You Can Still Spend Your Money Usefully

Just because offsetting isn't going to cancel out your carbon footprint, doesn't mean donating to climate charities is a bad idea. Here are five non-profits taking different approaches to tackling the climate crisis.

Cool Earth
Much Better Adventures' chosen charity partner Cool Earth gives rainforest communities the tools and the means to halt deforestation in their own backyards. Sam Bruce of MBA explains: "What we love about Cool Earth is that it puts local communities back in control of their patch and hands them the power to decide how and where to spend funds. It's securing the long-term future of rainforests by providing some of the world's most vulnerable communities with sustainable livelihoods."


The Wildlife Trusts
Justin Francis of Responsible Travel donates in a personal capacity to The Wildlife Trusts, a British umbrella organisation that supports local charities protecting wilderness areas and encouraging re-wilding throughout the country. "Nature in the UK is in a damaged, fragmented state," the charity’s website states. "We protect and recover important habitats that lock carbon safely away and limit the effects of climate change."

Friends of the Earth
Established in San Francisco in 1969, Friends of the Earth is one of the longest-running environmental charities. Its local branches support hundreds of grassroots campaigns combating climate change around the world. In the UK, for example, their Climate Action campaign offers resources to help activists hold their town, district and county councils to account. "Councils up and down the country have declared climate emergencies," their website says. "[Now] we need them to turn their political promises into concrete action."

Climate Emergency Fund
Founded in July of 2019, the Climate Emergency Fund exists to channel money and resources to activists and movements "who demonstrate the intention and capability of disrupting the inadequate and immoral gradual approach governments around the world are taking to addressing the climate emergency". Climate Emergency Fund grants have helped fund Extinction Rebellion, among others.

Gold Standard
Just because offsetting carbon doesn't let individuals or airlines off the hook, doesn't mean the emissions reduction projects developed and certified by offsetting companies aren't working. Gold Standard have one of the strictest evaluation and monitoring methodologies of any non-profit out there, and their initiatives – from cleaner cookstove projects to biodiversity initiatives – offer ancillary benefits on top of emissions reduction.