Apparently, a clear conscience can be bought — that's how many airline passengers see it, anyway. In recent years, an ever-growing number of travelers are offsetting the CO2 emissions of their vacations by making a voluntary payments. The German carbon offsetting non-profit organization Atmosfair, for example, took in more than €16 million ($17.7 million) in voluntary climate protection contributions in 2021, up from €6.5 million in 2017. The non-profit organization Myclimate saw carbon offsetting payments raise from around €10 million to over €40 million in the same period.
Flying more sustainably with just a click
Airlines are also considering travelers' growing awareness of the climate-damaging effects of flying. It is now standard practice to offset CO2 emissions by paying a voluntary sum during the booking process. Lufthansa, for example, promotes its so-called "green fares" that it says are climate-friendly. The additional money raised from such fares goes to promote sustainable aviation fuels and fund climate protection projects, according to the airline.
However, many environmental groups are critical of the offsetting practice. The NGO Environmental Action Germany (Deutsche Umwelthilfe), for example, sharply criticizes Lufthansa's green fares, saying, "If Lufthansaseriously wants to offer more climate-friendly travel, it could stop domestic flights or offer trains."
The organization publishes a list of the "most brazen environmental lie of the year," and included Lufthansa's "Fly CO2 neutral" offer as one of the 2022 winners. Environmental Action Germany director Jürgen Resch says the offer misleads customers: "There is very, very brazen greenwashing in tourism, in that a trip is made neutral through compensation payments."
Environmental organizations say offsetting plays a small role
Other environmental organizations are also critical of the current offsetting system. "The concept is very complex, has major weaknesses and often does not lead to the desired support for climate protection projects," says Martina von Münchhausen, an expert on sustainable tourism at the Wold Wildlife Fund Germany (WWF). Most of the projects financed by payments made from airline passengers, for example, do not lead to offsetting, says Münchhausen. The Paris climate accord demands "significantly more in terms of the quality and integrity of climate protection projects to reduce emissions," Münchhausen said. "The majority of projects on the market no longer meet these new criteria."
From reforestation to efficient stoves
The offsetting business is handled mainly by non-profit organizations or social enterprizes such as Atmosfair, Terrapass or CarbonClick. They use travelers' donations to finance climate protection projects primarily in developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The organizations promise that the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere when traveling on a plane, cruise ship, or long-distance bus, for example, corresponds to the same amount of emissions which will then be cut elsewhere in climate change mitigation projects.
Some organizations choose to partner with reforestation and forest protection projects, since trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air as they grow, storing it. Yet this practice has also been criticized. Other projects revolve around renewable energy or improving energy efficiency. For example, Atmosfair is currently funding the increased use of more efficient stoves in Nigerian households. The stoves use 80% less wood for cooking and thus reduce indoor air pollution and deforestation.
No legally regulated minimum standard
However, critics complain that the control and specifications for the selection of the funded projects are inadequate. "Unlike state-awarded organic and ecological labels, there is no legally regulated standard for labeling CO2," points out Jürgen Resch of the Environmental Action Germany. "The labels awarded by private-sector companies are therefore not reliable, and, therefore, there is no uniform base on which to calculate emissions."
Atmosfair points to the international standards it meets when selecting projects to fund, such as the so-called "Gold Standard," which lays down strict rules for the approval and auditing of projects. The emission savings achieved in the projects are then credited and sold in the form of certificates.
But Atmosfair also admits that voluntary carbon offsetting is not a panacea: "Offsetting alone cannot be effective, but is complementary to the necessary CO2 reduction through innovation and dissemination of the necessary technologies and practices." It is merely a "makeshift solution," the organization added.
Avoiding emissions comes first
Professor Wolfgang Strasdas, head of research at the Center for Sustainable Tourism at Eberswalde University of Applied Sciences, agrees.
"Other options should first be considered and implemented to avoid emissions," he says. When no other option is possible, then offsetting can become a viable option. He says climate protection projects like those funded by Atmosfair are important, as long as they are certified and of high quality.
Jürgen Resch of Environmental Action Germany, sees a simpler solution than carbon offsetting: taxing CO2 emissions. "There must be a price put on harming the environment," he says, adding that those who fly should at least be aware of the consequences to the environment. "You can't redeem yourself by paying money."
This article was translated from German.