I love to travel. Whether it’s to backpack in Patagonia, ski in the Alps, or visit friends on the East Coast, I am always excited for my next trip. But what do all of those trips have in common? Airplanes. Lots and lots of airplanes.

The Impact of One Trip

The trouble is, airplanes burn a lot of fuel, which in turn releases a lot of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Making matters worse, airplane contrails result in a more pronounced warming effect than the burning of fossil fuels alone. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the aviation industry is responsible for 11% of transportation-related emissions in the U.S. A single cross-country roundtrip flight emits just under 1 metric ton of CO2 per person (three times more for business class and nine times more for first class), which equates to one-fifth of the average person’s yearly CO2 emissions or 10 times the average annual emissions for a Nepalese citizen. Ooof, that’s tough to stomach, especially for me working at an environmental advocacy organization.

So what to do? Well, the only surefire way to avoid emitting greenhouse gases is to travel less. Taking one fewer long flight a year is ultimately the single biggest action an individual can take to reduce their carbon footprint. However, we will always still need and want to travel – whether for work, to visit family or friends, or to play. And unlike cars, airplanes do not have the same promise of full electrification on the horizon. How can we even begin to balance our need and desire to travel with the health of our planet? It’s a very tough question, but carbon offset programs provide us with a starting point.

What Are Carbon Offsets?

A carbon offset is a purchased reduction in greenhouse gas emissions made in order to offset an emission made elsewhere. The simplest example would be to pay to plant a tree to offset emissions from a short flight. Since trees remove CO2 from the atmosphere over time, the end result would be a net zero in greenhouse gas emissions (if balanced correctly).

In reality, the process is a bit more complicated than that. Offsetting doesn’t neutralize the emissions from your travel – once the greenhouse gases are released, you can’t "take it back.” Instead, what you are actually doing is helping offset emissions elsewhere. Another complication is these offset calculations are actually estimates that incorporate many assumptions, such as how many passengers are on a given flight, how much CO2 each tree will absorb in its lifetime, and so on. Lastly, the relationship between your travel choices and aviation emissions is not as cut and dried as the offset model implies. The plane will still fly if you’re not on it, but the idea is that cumulatively less demand over time will reduce the number of planes flying.

Picking the Right Program

In the early days of carbon offsets, the market offered many different programs but they lacked independent verification or much in the way of transparency. However, the industry today is much more legitimate due to independent verification of programs and better project specificity. To ensure that your carbon offset is legitimate, look for the following qualities when picking a program:

  • The offset project is certified by the Verified Carbon Standard. This program has a rigorous set of rules and requirements that a project must pass to be VCS certified.
  • The tree being planted or the forest being conserved wouldn’t have been planted or conserved anyway without your contribution. That is, you are actually causing additional carbon offset with your contribution.
  • You know exactly which project your contribution is going to and specifically how it will reduce CO2 emissions.

Lastly, a truly gold-standard carbon offset program will also support local communities through job creation and/or improving biodiversity.

What Programs Are Out There?

Several large airlines have worked with nonprofit organizations to offer carbon offset programs. For example, Delta Airlines partners with the Nature Conservancy to give travelers the option of offsetting their trip through a contribution to one of three forest conservation programs. The other major domestic airline to offer carbon offsets is United, which partners with Sustainable Travel International to offer carbon offsets via either a wind energy or forest conservation project. A full list of the nearly 1,500 projects with the Verified Carbon Standard can be found here. Another excellent resource for carbon offset projects is the Climate Action Reserve.

Shrinking Your Footprint

At the Idaho Conservation League, we are committed to addressing the threats of climate change to Idaho’s treasured flora, fauna and landscapes by protecting those areas, moving Idaho’s energy system away from fossil fuels, and promoting energy efficiency on a state, local and individual level. While we do not currently partner with any carbon offset programs, we recognize the importance of shrinking our collective carbon footprint when possible. Offset programs are by no means a silver bullet for combating climate change; ultimately, they are a small stopgap approach until we address the root of the problem – the burning of fossil fuels. That’s why the first step should always be to reduce your own emissions. But the next time you fly cross-country, know that there are high-quality, verified carbon offset programs available.

I’ll be purchasing carbon offsets for my next trip – will you?