Editor’s note: This is a column for AFAR by Emily Nyrop, vice president of climate change solutions at Conservation International.
Air travel is back. After a three-year lull, global aviation traffic is expected to reach prepandemic levels by June; U.S. airports are bracing for over 4 billion travelers in 2023. Though these flights will only last hours, their carbon emissions will shape our climate for decades to come.
The airline industry’s ever-growing carbon footprint is enormous, larger than that of all but five countries. A one-way flight from New York to Los Angeles, for instance, releases one metric ton of carbon dioxide per passenger—more than a resident of Pakistan emits in an entire year, according to data from German nonprofit Atmosfair. And that seems unlikely to change any time soon because planes are uniquely difficult to decarbonize. The lithium batteries that power electric cars are too heavy for takeoff. Hydrogen power is promising, but still unproven. Biofuels made from plants or algae are still too expensive to power a full fleet.
Here’s the bottom line: It could be decades before we enjoy fossil-fuel-free flight. So, while researchers, businesses, and governments develop new technology, how can the rest of us do our part? Flying less is an option, and it’s an effective one. But I’m not naïve: I’ve devoted my career to climate solutions, and I’ll be the first to admit that taking a train, bike, or horse-drawn carriage to your destination isn’t always realistic. Fortunately, when circumstances require me to hop on a plane, I know there’s a well-established, scientifically sound method for shrinking my footprint: carbon credits.
As the world works toward a net-zero future, climate-minded individuals or companies can purchase a carbon credit through national and international markets. In certain cases, that credit finances the protection of a forest parcel, reducing emissions from deforestation, the second-leading driver of climate change. In exchange for keeping carbon-rich forests intact, communities—often Indigenous or rural, with limited economic opportunities—receive the money required to sustain conservation programs and create new sustainable livelihoods.
The most compelling argument for carbon credits is immediacy: These projects deliver rapid climate benefits, can be scaled easily, and cost the buyer about $30–$50 per ton of CO2 emitted. (By contrast, experimental carbon capture technologies, such as direct air capture, currently cost between $200 and $500 per ton.) The benefits aren’t solely limited to climate, either. Healthy forests also support biodiversity, help prevent animal-borne pandemics, and bolster food and water security. By attaching a monetary value to those social benefits, carbon markets help ensure those trees are worth more alive than dead.
Some critics argue that carbon credits mostly benefit big corporations, providing them with a low-cost “license to pollute.” I understand the cynicism, but, in this case, it isn’t rooted in reality. For one, research finds companies that buy carbon credits, on average, have more ambitious net-zero targets and larger investments in decarbonization than nonbuyers. Also, we know that high-quality carbon credits can promote redistributive justice, helping create opportunity in the world’s most climate-vulnerable communities.
Take, for example, Chyulu Hills, nestled within one of East Africa’s most storied landscapes. This once-lush region of Kenya has endured years of stubborn drought—at times, severe enough to kill 90 percent of livestock. As agricultural income evaporated, pressure mounted to cut down nearby forests. In 2017, Conservation International helped launch a credit-generating project in Chyulu Hills, carried out in partnership with local Maasai people. In just five years, the program has brought in millions of dollars—income that helped keep the community afloat when the pandemic devastated ecotourism. That revenue also funded salaries for 100 park rangers combatting poaching; scholarships for 500 students, as well as new teachers and classrooms; clean water infrastructure; and beekeeping supplies and training for women traditionally excluded from the workforce.
For almost a decade, airlines have embraced carbon credits, or “offsets,” as a way to compensate, in part, for emissions that are currently unavoidable. Some allow customers to purchase credits at checkout. Other carriers automatically offset flights, footing the cost themselves. In recent months, however, airline offsetting programs have endured intense scrutiny. One report, released in October 2022 by Carbon Market Watch, concluded that many of Europe’s largest air carriers relied on shoddy credits, some as cheap as €5 per ton. Those airlines got what they paid for: poor implementation, poor monitoring, and poor results.
But instead of improving vetting procedures, partnering with reputable nonprofits, or embracing third-party auditing from reputable nonprofits like Verra, several major airlines have disavowed carbon credits entirely. In December, JetBlue announced it will no longer offset domestic flights; instead, the airline will invest in sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). EasyJet recently made a similar announcement. The intent here is admirable, but widespread use of SAF is still many years away. JetBlue, for example, expects to convert only 10 percent of its fuel by 2030. While it’s entirely possible that a technical breakthrough accelerates this transition, that’s not guaranteed—and even with near-universal SAF adoption, there will still be substantial emissions associated with flying. High-quality offsets are a reliable supplement—and, at minimum, should be offered to passengers on an opt-in basis.
We can’t offset our way to climate stability, but carbon credits do give us an immediate, proven way to reduce the environmental impact of travel, while supporting vulnerable communities. Addressing climate change is the fight of our lifetime—one that requires an all-of-the-above strategy. Everyday acts of conscious consumption can make an enormous difference.