Carbon offsets hold back change

By Justin Francis, CEO Responsible Travel

In 2015, the Pope describedcarbon offsetting schemes as hypocritical. He said that if it was taken to its logical conclusion, the offset concept would lead to armaments companies building children's hospitals for those maimed by their bombs.

A look back at history will help us understand why the Pope feels quite so strongly. As early as 1095, the Catholic Church offered indulgences - remission against future sins - sometimes in return for a contribution to the Church.

The "indulgences" were effectively a licence to sin They were really little different to a voluntary carbon offsetting - which enables a business or person to go on polluting as before, while paying a little in an effort to reduce pollution elsewhere.

plane
Photo credit: tsuna72

Indulgences came to a sticky end. Martin Luther objected to them in his '95 Theses' and although reformers had many complaints about the 16th century Catholic Church, the practice of selling indulgences caused the most concern. It basically split the Church.

When we dropped carbon offsets in October 2009 we called them a 'dangerous distraction' from the real job of reducing emissions. Sadly, in aviation the offset concept lives on. Despite being a major and growing cause of CO2 emissions (emitting as much as Germany and likely to account for 25 percent of the world’s remaining carbon budget by 2050) aviation has been exempt from all international deals seeking to limit greenhouse gases. However, last year the first deal to include aviation in CO2 reduction was signed. Any increase in emissions from 2020 will need to be offset by activities like tree planting to soak up CO2. It’s indulgences all over again.

Aviation's record in developing new fuels, and technology to reduce carbon emissions, is lamentable compared to other sectors and industries. We need to ask why.

After vast investment, some Northern European countries’ energy needs are met by more than 50 percent renewable fuels, and they are moving towards 100 percent targets. Within 10 years most new cars will be electric. India has promised that the only cars sold there by 2030 will be electric and the UK plans to ban diesel and petrol vehicles by 2040.

Meanwhile aviation is almost totally reliant on highly polluting kerosene. Investments in new technology and fuels are small and decreasing, with the manufacturers still focused on making aircraft more efficient and cost effective to run. A carbon fibre 787 still needs two huge kerosene burning engines on the wings to fly.

Given aviation's obsession with offsets, and the sector’s dramatically slow progress in renewable fuels, one has to wonder whether carbon offsets have indeed been a 'dangerous distraction' from the job at hand.

To really get the aviation industry focused on the future it would be better if we learn lessons from the past. "Indulgences" and offsets don't change behaviours; rather, they have disastrous consequences.

We need to remove the barriers to the aviation sector investing in electric planes, about which several commentators are optimistic. Ditching offsets would be a good start.

plane
Photo credit: Gralo
Rather than the aviation sector spending money on carbon offset schemes that won't change long term behaviours (and which the EU believes rarely work anyway), it would be better to invest in new fuels and technologies.

By removing the 'fig leaf' of offsets, governments would see just how polluting aviation has become, and perhaps better support the move from kerosene to renewable fuels more strongly. In the UK the tourism industry could finally get real and accept that no heavily indebted government is going to drop one of its cheapest and easiest to collect taxes – Air Passenger Duty. Instead, the lobbying should shift to encouraging the government to at least use some of the £3bn raised by APD to incentivise genuine carbon reduction by the aviation sector in the same way that electric and hybrid cars are subsidised.

The lesson from history is that we must all take responsibility for our actions, and that we can't pass that off to someone else. For the church, the ultimate effect of selling indulgences was the reformation and the irrevocable split of the Catholic Church. What will the ultimate effect be for the planet if we continue to fly as much as we want to (or feel we are entitled to), with only a few of us even bothering to pay for the carbon offset indulgences?

Read more about Air Passenger Duty.

Read our views on overtourism to learn about more consequences of not taxing aviation.

Find more of our blog posts.
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