There's no two ways about it. When we fly we invariably impact the environment in a negative way. Carbon offsets offer a solution but few passengers are embracing them and the question remains as to whether airlines are doing enough to promote them. Richie Kenzie and Emma Mackenzie investigate.
Carbon offsets are nothing if not established in the market today. In fact, they have been available in Australia since pioneering airlines began to offer them to environmentally conscious passengers back in 2007. The cost of offsetting your individual carbon output in terms of aviation fuel based carbon dioxide emissions is also surprisingly low, with a flight between Sydney and Melbourne averaging around $1 on top of the ticket price. Even a flight from Sydney to the west coast of the US would only set passengers back around $13 extra.
The natural assumption to draw, then, would be that many people would opt to offset their flight. But it remains a choice only taken by a minority of passengers, despite several mainstream carriers offering the option.
Airlines insist that it is entirely up to the consumer whether they offset their flights and the accepted wisdom seems to be that by simply offering the option they are demonstrating their green credentials adequately – after all, there is no legislation that requires airlines to provide the offer.
Each airline has a slightly different take when it comes to offsets, however.
Qantas launched their Fly Carbon Neutral program in 2007, allowing passengers who book through their website a choice regarding the offsetting of their carbon emissions. The website automatically calculates how many kilograms of carbon your flight would emit, as well as how much you would have to pay to equalise this.
Although opting to offset a domestic flight within Australia would generally cost less than the price of a coffee in Sydney's CBD, only 5% to 8% of consumers actually click yes, according to a Qantas spokesperson.
The number of passengers who choose to offset their carbon emissions fluctuates from month to month, however the airline saw one of its highest percentages in 2009. This was coincidentally the same year as the climate change conference in Copenhagen. "Since then, the annual trend has been closer to the lower end of the range [5%]," the spokesperson said.
Despite a lower percentage of passengers opting for the scheme, the program is here to stay. Qantas believes travellers are becoming increasingly aware of climate change and the environmental impact of flying. While it would be encouraged if the percentage of passengers opting to offset increased, Qantas believes providing the option for their consumers is the "responsible thing to do".
In affiliation with Qantas and its Fly Carbon Neutral program, Jetstar also provides passengers with the option of paying the extra fee for their carbon emissions. When booking through the Jetstar website many add-ons are automatically chosen such as baggage, insurance and donations to Jetstar's chosen charity. But interestingly the carbon offsetting option is left blank. Passengers literally have to choose which course of action they want to take, reiterating the notion that carbon offsetting is entirely voluntary.
In 2007 Virgin Australia was at the head of the pack in launching its carbon offsetting scheme, now also called Fly Carbon Neutral. Once again the program was designed to be voluntary for the customer.
Although Virgin has chosen not to divulge its statistics relating to its Fly Carbon Neutral program, manager of Virgin corporate communications Jacqui Abbott said the percentage of people opting to offset has remained steady over the past three years. Due to the carrier's other environmentally focused programs, carbon offsetting appears to have taken something of a back seat. "We have a number of other programs in place which are designed to improve efficiency and reduce direct emissions," Abbott explained.
"We have a cross-divisional fuel efficiency team in place. More than twenty initiatives were introduced during the last year that will result in tens of millions of litres of fuel saved annually into the future. These include single engine taxi procedures for the entire fleet, reducing the onboard weight by loading less water and reducing catering packaging, utilising ground power when aircraft are at gates, and the continued implementation of Performance Based Navigation procedures." Abbott also added that Virgin is the sole airline partner of a University of Queensland study with the Queensland Sustainable Aviation Fuel Initiative, which has modelled several feedstock sources to test their potential as biofuels.
By contrast, both Tigerair and Regional Express (Rex) have demonstrated other methods of reducing their carbon emissions that don't involve offsetting. In 2010 Tigerair claimed to be the greenest airline domestically thanks to its small and fuel efficient aircraft and the fact it still has one of the smallest fleets in Australia.
When booking with Tigerair there are various add-ons such as baggage costs that encourage passengers to travel light, reducing the weight of the aircraft, thus keeping emissions down. But whether a carbon offset program is part of Tigerair's future plans remains uncertain. "While the airline doesn't currently have a carbon offset program, we will review this, as with many other things as part of our forward strategy," Tigerair head of communications Vanessa Regan explained.
Where Qantas and Virgin have carbon offsetting programs, Rex approaches carbon emissions in a different manner. "Rex believes it would be more efficient to have carbon taxed at the source with funds managed nationally, instead of having passengers and airlines involved in a carbon offset scheme," a Rex spokesperson stated. Additionally, since it is a regional carrier, Rex doesn't employ the larger jet aircraft Qantas and Virgin use. Instead, it points to its use of turboprop aircraft, which pollute considerably less than the jet aircraft used by other airlines.
An interesting contrast to airlines' carbon offsetting schemes can be drawn in the wholesale space. Intrepid Travel, for instance, take a more hands on approach to offsetting than the mainstream airlines. Intrepid, widely known for its environmental focus, build in carbon offsets to the price of the vast majority of land components in its clients trips. "Climate change is one of the biggest issues facing our world today. As a global travel company, we recognise that we contribute to the problem so we have a responsibility to ensure that negative impacts to the environment are minimised as much as possible. Our commitment to tackle climate change is undertaken through a variety of measures," Intrepid Travel managing director James Thornton said.
"The average offset cost on an Intrepid trip is around 35 cents per passenger per day. Even with the offset included, our trips are still competitive and our passengers are pleased to know that they will be undertaking a fantastic grassroots adventure with a reduced environmental impact.
"Intrepid also offers all customers the opportunity to offset their flights when they book their air travel with us. While this is optional, we encourage our customers to choose this option and many do – over 45,000 tonnes of carbon emissions have been offset since 2007. This is the equivalent of 11,139 economy class flights between London and Sydney," Thornton said.
You could draw the conclusion that Australia's mainstream airlines are upholding their green duty of care in their offerings, with both Qantas and Virgin offering clients the option of a carbon offset. But it seems unlikely that they will test the fealty of passengers with compulsory carbon offset fees anytime soon.