Would you pay to offset your air travel emissions?
Another plane comes in at Sydney Airport. Emissions
growth concerns are casting a shadow over a growing
airline industry.
Photo by Matthew Scherf.

Australians can now offset the environmental impacts of their air travel – but how many will want to? Gillian Kendall asks the question of airline carbon levies.

With more affordable fares on offer because of competition, more Australians than ever are flying. But until recently, most may never have considered their travel impacts on the environment. Now, awareness and attitudes are changing.

As fares have dropped, more flights are being booked, and emissions and other impacts from jet and airplane travel have increased exponentially. Short-hop passenger flights contribute disproportionately.
The Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics predicts that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from domestic aviation will reach nearly 110 000 gigagrams by 2020 – one of the fastest growing contributors to transport-related emissions.

Overseas, programs to offset air travel emissions are already underway. They fall into two categories. One approach requires passengers to fund environmental initiatives, usually by paying levies on tickets or airport departure taxes. For example, since 1 February 2007, all passengers leaving from British airports have paid an additional emissions tax as part of the Air Passenger Duty – now £40 (about $100 AUD) for economy class, long-haul flights.

The second approach to offsetting emissions is technological. Airlines are studying how jets can be more environmentally efficient through better engineering and less fuel – for instance by limiting the use of back-up engines, shortening taxi distances and reducing weight of aircraft. Air New Zealand, as an example, has reduced fuel burn in its long-haul fleet by changing procedures on the ground and by reducing the weight of its aircraft, measures that have included limiting the water and paper that have to be carried on board. Unlike some airlines, Air New Zealand is not imposing an emissions tax on fares.

Meanwhile, in Australia, the federal government is acting on environmental impacts by initially taking steps to offset emissions caused by government officials’ travel. The Department of the Environment and Water Resources announced reductions in departmental travel, and are giving consideration to a carbon-offset program.

On 21 March, national carrier Virgin Blue Airways launched a carbon-offset program to allow both passengers and business operations to reduce their share of emissions. When buying fares, passengers can now choose to buy carbon offsets in accredited abatement projects.

The company itself has committed around $2.5 million over the next five years to mitigating the emissions from staff travel.

According to Colin Lippiatt, Manager Public Affairs at Virgin Blue Airways, other steps to increase sustainability include using a new generation of fuel-efficient aircraft, more efficient flight routes and profiles, minimised waste and increased recycling, and a green procurement system.

Although Qantas’s Media Relations office refused to confirm or deny plans, other sources say the airline is considering implementing an optional fee for passengers wishing to offset emissions from their travel, as does Qantas partner, British Airways (BA).

BA now allows passengers to calculate the approximate carbon emissions cost of their travel through a ClimateCare calculator. For instance, BA passengers travelling from Sydney to Heathrow may pay £28.83 (about $71 AUD) to offset their 3.84 tonnes of emissions.

Similarly, Climatesure is a new travel insurance that includes a carbon offset in policies, but it is currently available only in the UK.

Even Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, companies that for decades touted the joys of cheap global roaming, are now supporting sustainable travel. Last year their respective founders Tony Wheeler and Mark Ellingham made a call for travellers to fly less far, less frequently, and stay longer at destinations while using ground transport, after realising their advocacy for travel adventures may be indirectly contributing to climate impacts. They now encourage travellers to donate to carbon-offsetting schemes.

So, even if not forced to pay a government or airline fee, Australians might choose to look up their own carbon footprint and donate to offset it.

But with offset calculation being a new science, variations are inevitable. According to the calculator at UK site www.climatecare.org/index.cfm, a return flight from Sydney to Perth creates 0.72 tonnes of emissions, which can be offset for £5.32 (with direct exchange rates, about $13.35). Another Australian calculator (www.greenfleet.com.au) calculates their impact at 1.04 tonnes – which can be offset by planting four trees for a tax-deductible quote of $9.41.

Editor's Note: First published in the May 2007 issue of ECOS Magazine. For permission to reproduce this article please contact ECOS.