Airlines Are Offering Carbon Offsets to Combat ‘Flight Shame’

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When Swedish environmental advocate Greta Thunberg first stepped onto American soil in late August after more than two weeks of travel, it wasn’t on the carpeted floor of an airport. It was on the wooden dock of a marina in Lower Manhattan.

Thunberg had sailed for 15 days from the U.K., pointedly choosing to travel by water in keeping with Europe’s flight-shame movement, of which she is a vocal proponent. And while the concept of flying less to help combat climate change has yet to take off in the States, it’s also no longer a distant possibility.

American consumers are increasingly aware of the harmful effects of climate change. And that, in turn, has created a marketing challenge for the global airline industry, which has been embracing carbon offsets in order to appeal to environmentally minded consumers.

Much like paying extra for travel insurance or an additional checked bag, a passenger can buy a carbon offset and the airline will channel the money toward a clean energy project, such as programs that plant trees or capture methane gas near landfills. The amount you pay for your carbon offset depends on how long the flight is. For a cross-country flight in the U.S., it would set you back $5 to $10.

“The consciousness of the impact of climate change has increased substantially over the last year,” notes Anders Fagernæs, head of sustainability at Norwegian Airlines. “We want to contribute to something positive, and this is a way to do that right here and now.”

Carbon denominator

Airlines make up 2.4% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation, an increase of 32% over the last five years. That figure is expected to triple by 2050, as air travel becomes more accessible globally.

Some airlines, like Delta, Norwegian and United, offer travelers an option to purchase an offset at their website. Others pay for the offset themselves.

In November, the European budget carrier easyJet announced that it would start offsetting every one of its flights to become the world’s first carbon “net-zero” airline. On Monday, JetBlue followed in EasyJet’s footsteps, becoming the first major American airline to announce that it too would offset every flight, starting in July.

“Across the board, we see a rising interest in proactive, pre-regulation addressing of climate change,” said Sophia Mendelsohn, head of sustainability and environmental social governance at JetBlue. “We are watching the climate crisis unfold in real time…. This is a problem. It’s something we need to address as a business problem in order to keep the industry in a healthy place.”

Delta, the first airline to let travelers offset their flights, starting in 2007, celebrated Earth Day in 2019 by offsetting the emissions of domestic flights in its major hubs. At its website, under a banner titled “Sustainability,” it invited consumers to purchase an offset and “partner with us to offset the environmental impact of your flight by protecting forests and supporting communities.”

Delta CEO Ed Bastian announced today during a keynote speech at CES in Las Vegas that the airline would offset every flight to and from Vegas the week of the conference. That will cost the airline more than $100,000, which will go toward a program helping farmers in Kenya and Uganda reverse the effects of deforestation.

“There is just no substitute for the power that travel has to change lives and make the world a better place,” Bastian said in a statement. “We continue to reduce our footprint and invest in natural climate solutions as well as projects that support local economies worldwide.”

This story first appeared in the Jan. 6, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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