15.07.22 “Air travel is not climate-friendly” Interview with Juliette de Grandpré, climate expert at the WWF • Reading time: 5 min.

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Airlines now offer passengers low-cost CO2 offsetting via an additional click of the mouse when they buy their tickets. It seems appealingly simple and convenient, but experts such as Juliette de Grandpré are critical of this approach. She is a senior advisor in the climate and energy policy department of WWF Germany and explains that airlines such as easyJet use unrealistically low estimates of the climate impact of their flights in their CO2 calculators. 

Juliette de Grandpré, climate expert at the WWF

Juliette de Grandpré, to what extent does it make sense for people looking for climate-neutral travel to offset using climate certificates? 

First of all, I would not use the term “climate-neutral” in this context. According to the definition in the Paris climate agreement, climate neutrality means permanently reducing all the emissions caused by humans to such a low level that there is a balance between carbon emissions and the absorption of carbon from the atmosphere in carbon sinks. When companies or people describe themselves as climate-neutral, this is misleading, because climate neutrality can only be achieved in the future and on a global scale. Air travel in particular is not climate-friendly and it cannot be made climate-neutral by offsetting. But offsetting can contribute to combating climate change. We just need to get things in perspective. 

What should travelers do if they want to fly? 

Firstly, they should think very carefully about whether the flight is really necessary. I would strongly advise against short-haul flights in Europe. But if they still want to or perhaps have to fly – that is sometimes the case – and would like to offset the flight, they need to take a number of factors into account. They should also not offset directly via the airline – in other words, they should not use the airline’s optional offsetting offer. 

Can you explain that in more detail? 

The airlines do not calculate their CO2 emissions properly, because they fail to take all the climate impacts of their flights into account. I cannot explain it here in terms of physics, but we work on the assumption that the climate effects are at least three times as high as the emissions. This fact is often ignored in the airlines’ CO2 calculators. It is in their interest to calculate a climate impact that is as small as possible, so that they can give people the impression that flying is not such a bad thing. 

Then there is the price problem. The low estimates of the climate effects lead the airlines to set a very low price for their offsets, because again it is, of course, in their interest to offer cheap tickets. The German Environment Agency has calculated that one metric ton of CO2 emissions causes damage to the environment and society that costs 185 euros. Budget airlines often invest in offsetting certificates that amount to just over a hundredth of this cost. Something isn’t right here. In my view, it is also highly dubious for airlines to claim up front when a passenger buys a ticket that the flight has already been offset. On the one hand, that is based on the inadequate calculations of CO2 and, on the other, travelers are being tricked into thinking that flying does not cause much damage to the climate. 

What is the right way to offset a flight? 

I strongly advise people to offset using a reputable provider that will produce a realistic calculation of the emissions, including factors such as the ticket class and the aircraft type. The result will be reasonably accurate emission figures. It is then possible to invest in climate projects via the provider for the purpose of offsetting. I also recommend that people choose projects that follow the Gold Standard because it takes other aspects of sustainability into account alongside the climate targets. #

Not everyone travels by air. If you travel by rail, the train uses electricity and that does not always come from renewable sources. 

I don’t know whether I would advise train travelers to offset. The electricity used by the rail companies is either from renewable sources or part of the emissions trading scheme, and the CO2 certificates in European emissions trading have a high CO2 price. Rail travel is climate-friendly! As far as other sources of emissions go, gasoline cannot be offset, nor can a high level of meat consumption on vacation, because there are alternatives. If you choose not to fly and also give up your car, you are already doing some things right. 

The final question: There are people who claim that it would be best for us all just to stay at home and not travel anymore. What do you say to that? 

It’s a difficult question! I can’t decide for people and I don’t want to either. It is true that your carbon footprint is smaller if you stay at home, but in the long term that is not necessarily much fun. However, you don’t have to fly to Barcelona every weekend. You can go on vacation in your local region. And you can travel a long way in Europe by train. I don’t want to tell people what they should do on vacation!


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