Airlines Selling Catholic Indulgences To Passengers Worried About Environmental Impact

Airlines get an outsized portion of blame for carbon emissions. While global air travel represents perhaps 4% of emissions, half of that is cargo. In response to the criticism airlines are pledging to do better and reduce emissions. Long-term that may be real, but short-term measures are largely greenwashing.

A new report finds that European airlines are misleading customers about carbon offsets. There’s a lot more criticism of airlines and their carbon footprint in Europe than in the United States, though U.S. airlines are jumping on the reduced emissions bandwagon (and want sustainable fuel subsidies from the federal government). In Europe it’s a matter of survival. Already Air France had to commit to reducing domestic flying, in favor of trains, as a condition of pandemic subsidies. And KLM is criticized for short flights as well.

So they offer carbon offsets and claim the opportunity to fly without the guilt, but those carbon credits are “highly suspect.”

Airlines are selling passengers false hope that they can cancel out their flight’s negative impact on the environment, according to a new report. It probed eight of the biggest airlines in Europe and found that many of them funnel money into highly suspect carbon offset projects that might not actually reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

…The report examined easyJet, Ryanair, Lufthansa, British Airways, Air France, KLM, Wizz Air, and Scandinavian Airlines (SAS). It found that all but SAS support “low-quality offsetting projects.” And SAS isn’t completely in the clear — the airline just didn’t provide much information on carbon offset credits it purchased.

There two two key things to know about carbon offsets.:

  • Carbon offsets frequently don’t offset carbon.

  • But that’s ok because almost no airline passengers buy them anyway, 1% – 2% for the cheapest ones.
  • If people actually bought these Catholic indulgences, and they weren’t doing anything but served as permission for emissions, then the offsets would be counterproductive for the environment. If anyone chose to fly Delta more because of its greenwashing that would mean more net emissions.

    Environmental non-profits might own land, which won’t be developed. They sell a promise not to develop the land, and say that reduces carbon compared to clear-cutting a forest, and therefore the credits offset pollution. That’s a best-case scenario – the carbon offsets don’t actually offset anything, they just raise revenue for the seller. But in some cases a promise not to cut down forests, or to plant trees, isn’t actually fulfilled.

    The United Airlines investment in direct carbon capture may wind up far more important, and technology solutions to the environment more generally will matter more.

    Even U.S. government policy under the Biden administration has gone in this direction, I suspect business investment matters far more but the Inflation Reduction Act was largely about putting dollars into environmental technologies – a political conclusion to the debate over whether technology or de-industrialization is the answer to environmental challenges.

    (HT: Paul H)

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