46.3 Carbon Offset Schemes for Aviation: Inconsistent Supply and Weak Demand, What Hope for the Future?

Paul. D. Hooper , Environmental and Geographical Sciences, Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, United Kingdom
Holly Preston , Environmental and Geographical Sciences, Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, United Kingdom
Callum Thomas , Environmental and Geographical Sciences, Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, United Kingdom
Extended Abstract

Carbon offsetting is a mechanism for compensating for greenhouse gas emissions generated by a particular activity by paying for equivalent emissions savings or reductions to be made elsewhere in the economy.  This paper presents the findings of an OMEGA funded study[1]designed to clarify the role, effectiveness and credibility of offsetting for air travel and to investigate attitudes towards the offset concept amongst airline passengers.  It involved two primary empirical activities; a review of carbon offset providers and a survey of passengers travelling through Manchester Airport.Review of offset Providers

The review of voluntary offset providers describes and evaluates the key elements and structure of such schemes.  Web sites of 42 online providers of aviation offset services were examined in November 2007.  This revealed:

·         Significant differences in the cost charged for offsetting the same flight on different web sites (the cost of offsetting London (LHR) to Paris (CDG) varied between £0.31 and £12.95).
·         While offset providers demonstrated consistency in the calculation of flight distances, they differed significantly in the sophistication of their assumptions and emissions calculations and not all provided details of how costs were estimated.   
·         Variability in the unit cost of carbon savings (this ranged from £2.00/tCO2e to £18.00/tCO2), which significantly affected in the cost to offset a given flight. 
·         Offset products available on different web sites varied considerably in terms of transparency of systems, the quality of accounting, risk of double accounting and ‘leakage’ (emissions displaced to other activities), and the capacity to confirm ‘additionality’.
·         Efforts are separately underway at a UK level (through DEFRA) and at an international level (ICAO) to standardise methods of calculating emissions from flights to be offset and to  achieve verification of offset products themselves.  Nonetheless, convergence in methodologies and greater consistency in assurance procedures is still needed to raise confidence levels.
·         The process of purchasing offsets creates an opportunity for providers to inform consumers and thereby promote attitudinal change and increase public engagement with the climate change challenge.  There was considerable variability in the extent to which this opportunity was exploited by different providers.

Survey of Passenger Attitudes to Offset Provision

A questionnaire was designed in consultation with stakeholders from government, industry, NGOs and research institutions and a survey of 487 passengers undertaken at Manchester Airport in January and February 2008.  

The principle results of the survey indicated that:

·         Almost 8 out of 10 people questioned had previously heard of offsetting but less than half were aware that such schemes could be used to reduce the climate impacts of their flight.

·         While more than three quarters of passengers accept that air transport contributes to climate change, relatively few (less than 10 per cent) are willing currently to change their behaviour about flying or to purchase offsetting.

·         One reason for this lack of conversion between attitudes and behaviour may be that many passengers believe that they are not primarily responsible for the climate impacts of their flights.  They look instead to government or to airlines to address those impacts. 
·         Low uptake of offset schemes arises also from lack of awareness of their existence and little understanding of their purpose or how they operate.   
·         The preferences expressed by respondents suggest that the uptake of offsetting schemes could be increased by ensuring that their benefits are transparent and well publicised, that they support both projects in developing countries and projects in the UK local to the travellers and that they meet UN quality standards.
·         A small minority of passengers (less than 10 per cent) are strongly supportive of efforts to mitigate the climate impacts of flying. 
·         These ‘lead-edge’ aviation offset consumers were characterised as expressing strong agreement with statements that climate change is a genuine threat, air transport has an influence on climate, individuals can limit the impact of air transport on climate through their actions, and that individual passengers are primarily responsible for offsetting the climate impacts of flying.
·         A much larger proportion of passengers (of the order of about one third of all passengers surveyed) appear willing to make some contribution to climate mitigation; however, dramatically improved consumer confidence (particularly about guaranteed benefits) is required if passenger uptake is to be significantly increased. 
·         Many passengers are concerned at the lack of standardisation in carbon markets and in institutional (government and industry) responses to climate change. 


Offsets can be purchased by individuals wishing to compensate for their choices and in this regard they represent one of the few opportunities for immediate and direct action to minimise climate change by the consumers of products and services.  This is important in respect of air transport because of the magnitude of climate change emissions associated with flights and because, there is often no suitable low carbon alternative to aviation for long distance high speed travel. 

Given that offset schemes are currently voluntary, if a greater uptake is to be achieved then much more needs to be done to raise awareness of the existence and benefits of such schemes.

Standardisation of methods of calculating the CO2e emissions from particular flights and of emissions savings made by particular offset schemes is necessary to minimise confusion and mistrust and build the credibility of the offset industry amongst consumers. 

This paper identifies a core of passengers who wish to offset the full climate change emissions of their flights but a much larger proportion who wish simply to make a compensatory payment.  Clear and transparent systems catering for different customer demands are therefore required.  This can extend to providing details of the social co-benefits that can arise from particular offset activities that may make them more attractive to consumers.

Finally, the process of engagement with the consumer provides an opportunity for awareness building that can further influence attitudinal change that can support the move towards a low carbon society.   

[1] Omega is UK Government funded £5M partnership of 9 UK universities developing and transferring knowledge to support aviation sector and Government work to strengthen the sustainability performance of air transport.