ECO received an invitation a few days ago to make its travel to COP23 “climate neutral”, by calculating the emissions of round trip air travel in tonnes of CO2 and compensating them. We decided to look into it a bit more and we have come out with more questions than answers.
First, is the calculator giving a real idea of someone’s carbon footprint? The invite says the calculator produces “conservative estimates of the climate footprint in tonnes of CO2”, which would give the impression that all the pollution is covered. But then, it refers to another tool for “more accurate calculation”. Additionally, the footprint does not take into account the impacts of non-CO2 pollutants such as aerosols, contrail formation and nitrogen oxides, which the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) has estimated to have 2 to 4 times the climate impact of CO2 emissions alone.
Second, is there double counting? If passengers buy credits that are already counted towards meeting a country’s climate target, then the offset credit does not neutralize anything as the emission reductions were already planned elsewhere. The newest UN Environment Emissions Gap Report, points out that in the case of Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects initiated several years ago that have not sold their credits, the reductions might be included in the emissions trajectory a country commits to in its NDC. If those credits are finally being sold to offset aviation emissions, they would be double-counted. This is becoming tricky.
Third, what offsets are being used? Even if offsets are not double counted, most do not represent real emissions reductions. The “Climate Neutral Now” initiative proposes only CDM offsets – but various studies have shown that some CDM projects are highly questionable.
Most importantly, can we get to 1.5°C by telling everyone they can be carbon neutral? Because at the end of the day, aviation is expected to grow to 1.1 billion tonnes of CO2 per year by 2030. That’s 22% of the global carbon budget in 2050, and that’s not very neutral for the climate.
It’s important that everyone takes the time and effort to gather here to discuss how the world should fight climate change. However, if we are going to be transparent about our transportation footprint, we need to consider long term strategies that actually reduce emissions. Offsetting is not a real route to climate neutrality and does not erase the impact that aviation (we are looking at you too, shipping) has on the global carbon budget. Limiting air traffic is still the surest way to cut emissions. Policies should support these solutions as well as further technological advances to boost efficiency.