Green Wombat takes public transport to work, uses compact fluorescent light bulbs in the Berkeley burrow, and dries the washing on a clothesline. But when it comes to air
travel, the wombat is a carbon criminal. The conundrum of being an
environmental journalist for a national magazine with a global outlook
is that the more I write about green technology the more I fly. So
far this year, Green Wombat has logged more than 70,000 air miles, which
according to some carbon calculators means I’m personally responsible for about 30,000 pounds of CO2 emissions from my frequent flying. In contrast, the average Californian’s carbon footprint from all activities is 26,301 pounds, according to the San Jose Mercury News. Of course, that plane is going to take off for London or Sydney whether you or I are on it or not, and barring the emergence of a slow travel movement, the number of flights is expected to grow exponentially in the coming decades.
So when I recently booked a flight on Virgin Blue – Richard Branson’s Australian airline – I guiltily pressed the green "Offset Flight Here" button and paid $2.41 to, as Virgin puts it, "fly carbon neutral" on my 900-mile trip. With U.S. carriers like Continental (CAL) and Delta (DAL) planning similar programs to allow fliers to pay a small fee to be invested in projects to reduce greenhouse gases emissions, Virgin Blue offers a look at one approach to airline offsetting.
Carbon offsetting is controversial, slammed by some as a "papal indulgence" that allows consumers to ease their conscience for a pittance without actually changing their behavior. For their part, corporations get to look green without directly reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. (The "A Better Environment at the Push of a Button" on the Virgin Blue home page doesn’t exactly dispel that notion.) Carbon offsetting services are proliferating but remain largely unregulated as do the offset projects themselves, which range from investments in renewable energy to flaring methane gas in landfills to preserving forests. Defenders say carbon offsetting provides needed financial support to worthwhile projects that have a direct impact on global warming as well as raise consciousness about global warming.
Virgin Blue’s program is notable on a couple of counts. First, the airline had its emissions audited so it could calculate the carbon footprint of its flights. Second, Virgin Blue only invests in greenhouse gas abatement projects certified by the Australian and New Zealand governments. In Australia, most of those are gas-flaring operations that burn off methane – a potent greenhouse gas – from landfills. Other approved projects include forest preservation and energy efficiency programs. (Notably absent are renewable energy projects – some 86 percent of Australia’s electricity is generated from coal-fired power plants.) In New Zealand – which, unlike Australia and the United States – has implemented the Kyoto Accord – many of the approved projects involve renewable energy production.
Lastly, Virgin makes the carbon offset option a prominent part of its online reservations system and offers extensive details about what the program does and does not do. With typical Aussie bluntness, one question in the FAQ reads, "If I offset my flight, this doesn’t really address the fact that emissions are still being released into the atmosphere from the aircraft I am flying on. Surely your campaign is just a cosmetic approach to a much larger problem?"
These airline offset programs will likely have little impact on the growing problem of jet greenhouse gas emissions – it’ll take technological breakthroughs like those being pursued by Boeing (BA) and Virgin Fuels to do that. But given that U.S. fliers already pay a 9/11 fee on airline tickets, a mandatory carbon tax on air travel would go a long way to supporting such efforts.