How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint on Your Next Flight

Carbon offsetting isn’t a perfect solution, but it is an easy way to give back.

One of the most pressing issues we’ll face in our lifetime, the whole topic of climate change is extremely doom-and-gloom. That sense of dread and overwhelming helplessness is fully warranted—no matter how vigilant you are about recycling and turning off the lights when you leave a room, it begs the question: What can one person do?

If you like to travel, and often do so by plane, prepare yourself for more grim news: Air travel is one of the biggest perpetrators of climate change. According to the EPA, aircrafts contribute 12% of US transportation emissions, approximately 3% of the country’s total greenhouse gas production. Every time you hop on a plane, you contribute to that rising statistic.

On the one hand, you want to stop the glaciers from melting...but on the other, you kinda want to go to Iceland this summer (that’s a thing, right?). Assuming you aren’t willing to take a boat everywhere, you might look into carbon offsetting.

While by no means a perfect or holistic solution to climate change, carbon offsetting is a relatively straightforward, easy way to take a trip and give back to the planet at the same time. Here’s how it works.

What exactly are carbon offset programs?

As you probably know, every time you take a plane, it produces a certain amount of carbon emissions—also known as your carbon footprint. Essentially, carbon offset programs are one way to counteract that footprint. They employ a special calculator tool that determines how much carbon is produced on your trip, considering factors like miles traveled, number of passengers, type of aircraft, and seat class.

Next, the tool calculates a comparable dollar amount which you can then invest in a program that funds clean, renewable energy. The idea is that you “cancel out” your emissions by supporting conservation efforts around the world. 

How do carbon offset programs work?

Carbon offsetting can be done on an individual or corporate level. If you’d like to take matters into your own hands, independent organizations like Terrapass and Clear can calculate your carbon emissions using the Gold Standard and allow you to pay for offsets directly on their site. From start to finish, the process only takes about 5 minutes.

You can also purchase offsets directly through airlines like Delta, Qantas, United, Air New Zealand, and Qatar. For instance, Delta allows travelers to purchase offsets at checkout using their online calculator. After you plug in your trip details, it’ll automatically calculate your carbon footprint. For instance, the cost to offset that roundtrip flight from NYC to Reykjavik around $7.

Travelers can then select which project to donate to via the Delta website. (Some other airlines may predetermine which organization they’ll donate your offsets to.) Options include organizations such as the Southern Cardamom REDD+ Project, which fights deforestation, and the Guatemalan Conservation Coast Project, which helps foster sustainability in local communities. Ad of course, you can always use the calculator and then donate directly to a project of your choosing.

plane window
Unsplash/Marten Bjork

How reliable is carbon offsetting? 

Carbon offset programs aren’t perfect. They’re controversial because they aren’t widely regulated, and some offset organizations are actually for-profit. In response, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) created a set of standardized carbon offsetting guidelines, requiring its member airlines to pass a 40-point checklist that’s been independently audited and approved. Before you purchase offsets, double check whether or not the airline you’re offsetting with is QAS-approved. 

Alternatively, you can do your own research. Atmosfair, a German non-profit that helps mitigate carbon emissions in over 15 countries, released an Airline Index report in 2018 that ranks airlines based on their carbon reduction efficacy.

Other ways to cut back on your carbon footprint

Carbon offsetting has also faced criticism from environmentalists for giving people a sense of false comfort, or alleviating flight shame while failing to hold individuals and airlines fully accountable for the impact flying has on the environment. Still, it’s not super realistic to expect people to stop flying—nor is it realistic to expect any one solution to be the end-all, be-all of climate change prevention. 

So what else can you do? If you can, skip short domestic flights altogether (say, anything two hours or under) and take the train, or drive. And since money talks, take care to give your tourist dollars to hotels, tour operators, and destinations committed to carbon neutrality. For instance, Costa Rica is heavily focused on becoming the first carbon-neutral nation in the world by 2021. Travelers can support this initiative by using their carbon calculator to quantify the emissions from their visit and directly support the National Forest Financing Fund (Fonafifo) which helps forest conservation in the country. 

At the very least, carbon offset programs can help you stay mindful, contribute to a short-term solution, and do more good than harm. After all, doing a little for the environment is better than doing nothing at all.

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Leila Najafi is an LA-based travel writer. Follow her adventures around the world on Instagram at @LeilasList.