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Should you choose to offset your emissions, and where does the money go?

Covering Climate Now: ‘Click here to offset your emissions.’ It’s an appealing, guilt-assuaging idea. But what does it really amount to, asks Mirjam Guesgen.

New Zealanders travel overseas a lot, with trips totalling close to 3 million a year. And every time a Kiwi takes flight, tonnes of earth-heating gases spew into the atmosphere.

One option to ease the climate blow is to offset the emissions from flying. But it’s proved difficult to keep track of where the money goes and how effective the projects are, leading to offset programmes being labelled everything from dodgy to downright fraudulent.

Wariness around offsetting flights shows. According to our national carrier’s statistics, only around 4% of flights booked through the airline’s New Zealand website are offset, compared to close to 10% on their UK, US or Canada sites.

So how does offsetting actually work and how does our national carrier’s programme stack up?

Carbon offsetting 101

The basic idea behind carbon offsetting is that a person can compensate for the greenhouse gases from their flight by helping fund projects that reduce emissions. You fly someone and your plane spews out greenhouse gases, somewhere else in the world someone plants trees that soak those gases back up. Ideally, it’s a one-for-one exchange.

Airlines and green projects deal in carbon credits. They’re the currency of emissions, with one carbon credit unit equal to one tonne of greenhouse gases, and let both parties quantify exactly how much of an impact they’re making.

Green projects earn carbon credits by absorbing or reducing greenhouse gases. They then sell those credits to airlines for real money through the internet-banking of emissions, carbon registers. The whole process is facilitated by middle-person organisations, who also pull together a portfolio of projects for an airline to support.

The programmes described here are voluntary, meaning they’re separate from any obligations airlines have under their government’s carbon reduction schemes or international agreements. This is about individual flyers doing their bit to cover their share of emissions from a flight.

Some cheated the system

Sounds straightforward, but there’s an A380’s-worth of room for cheating the system or misleading people.

For example, in 2010 the Christian Science Monitor revealed that some carbon offset projects were never completed, instead the intermediary organisations tasked with passing the money along never did. In another case, forests in Brazil were logged soon after they were planted to make room for cattle farms, meaning all that stored carbon was let out again. And a 2015 study found that 37% of projects it analysed were happening in already-protected forestry areas, so conserving those trees would have happened regardless of any offset money.

In an attempt to reign in the manipulation of traveller’s guilt, the United Nations and some independent organisations created standards. Standards make sure offset projects meet several criteria, particularly that they’re:

  1. Additive, meaning the green project does something more than would happen without offset funding.
  2. Permanent, meaning forests can’t be cut down once they’re grown.
  3. Not doubling up, so not applying for multiple accreditations or using the credits to meet any emissions obligations from the government.
  4. Actually happening, that is they’re filing reports to show action.

Slapping an accreditation sticker on a programme is an easy way for flyers to know offset programmes are doing what they’re supposed to. Also, an independent audit of their dealings can’t hurt.

Does Air New Zealand’s programme stack up?

All of Air New Zealand’s projects under their FlyNeutral programme are verified nationally through Te Uru Rakau (Forestry New Zealand)’s Permanent Forest Sink Initiative (PFSI) and internationally through Gold Standard. They don’t however state whether they’ve been independently audited like other international airlines have.

At home, projects have to meet strict eligibility criteria set by the government, including that the land wasn’t already existing forest and there’s enough space for the trees to grow to maturity. When land-owners sign on to PFSI, those trees are locked into a contract saying they can’t be cut down for 99 years and not removed from the project for 50 years, which is their legal definition of permanent.

When it comes to transparency, Air New Zealand has a detailed FAQ outlining most of their programme. However some of the finer details are hard to decipher without some serious browser-tab-opening. Clicking on links to learn more about the PFSI, for example, takes the user to a lengthy Te Uru Rakau website which states the scheme is to be discontinued. The PFSI website was updated after The Spinoff inquired with Air New Zealand.

Air New Zealand’s international consultant, ClimateCare did not respond to requests to comment on the airline’s overseas projects. However, the ones listed as examples on ClimateCare’s website are all Gold Standard verified. It is unclear how many other projects the airline supports, and whether they’re verified.

Air New Zealand would also not confirm how the offset funds are divided up between national and international projects.

There are a few other snags too.

Someone takes a cut

The downside of having a well-oiled offset machine organised by intermediary organisations is that those middle-people take a cut of the money you pay. Ollie Belton, Air New Zealand’s national carbon offset consultant, would not comment on exactly how much that is but says “our margin is about a quarter of other parties in New Zealand. There’s not a hell of a lot in it for us.”

Not all green projects are created equal

Sopping up carbon isn’t always as cut and dry as planting trees. Carbon offsetting can fund projects that trap gases before they reach the atmosphere, like sucking up methane made by landfills, or help finance renewable energy, like building wind turbines in developing countries.

It’s questionable how much of a climate impact some of the airline’s international projects have. One, a solar cooker project in China, essentially gives rural households giant mirrors to boil water and cook food. The project purports to reduce carbon emissions by moving people off burning coal to cook and lessens their need to drive into town for fuels.

Air New Zealand’s head of sustainability, Lisa Daniell, notes that projects shouldn’t just be about carbon emissions but should also have a social or health angle. “Some of the things that have been really important in the climate policy space, and certainly something that the Gold Standard looks for, is actually that carbon reduction programmes do no harm socially or economically in the communities in which they operate,” she explains.

She goes on to say that some electrification projects bring light to households that would normally shut down after dark, enabling kids to do their homework instead of running out to get wood for a fire.

The social impact is clear. What’s not is whether a few mirrors are enough to cancel out a flight across the Pacific.

A math and forest problem

All of FlyNeutral’s six domestic projects involve growing or restoring forests. However the way carbon credits are assigned to those projects under the PFSI seems to disincentivise growing large carbon-sapping groves.

Jo Grigg runs the Tempello Biodiversity Project near Blenheim with her husband David. She says as soon as their patch of trees got bigger than 100 hectares, her funding through the sale of carbon credits dropped by more than a third from around $177 per hectare annually to around $48. That’s because below 99 hectares, land owners can use tables to estimate the amount of carbon dioxide their trees absorb. According to Grigg the tables are generous in their estimates.

The Grigg’s case highlights one of the critics of carbon offset programmes: they rely heavily on accurate estimates and those estimates can be “a lot of guesswork” according to researchers.

On top of that Grigg must pay a consultant close to ten thousand dollars a year to assess her land and comply with PFSI rules. That leaves little at the end of the day for restoring native forests. “Our carbon sequestration doesn’t pay for the work that’s required. It helps a little bit,” she says.

Griggs also expressed concern that growing trees for credits and promoting biodiversity can be at odds with one another. “We would be better to either plant pine trees in the areas around this bush or put eucalyptus in and amongst the regenerating bush if we wanted to make more money,” she says. FlyNeutral’s consultant Ollie Belton has given similar advice in the past.

The Grigg family decided against planting pines, choosing instead to regenerate native forest that harbours Rifleman, Tomtit and South Island Robin — one of only a few sites in the region to do so. “We need to actually reward people who are putting a higher value on indigenous permanent forest sinks,” she argues.

Planting swaths of pines in the name of soaking up airline emissions could put New Zealand’s lush native landscapes at risk.

The rules are changing

What’s more, the current PFSI system is set to be discontinued at the start of 2021, instead falling under the umbrella of New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme. In a document to PFSI participants, Te Uru Rakau admit that the transition may be complex and that some landowners may have to pay back carbon credits they’ve already earned.

Because of rule changes within the system, at least one FlyNeutral project, the Native Forest Restoration Trust, will no longer be taking part in the airline’s carbon offsetting programme. In an email with The Spinoff, trust manager Sandy Crichton said changes made by the government drastically reduce the number of credits the trust can sell. “Losing the funds that were coming through FlyNeutral has meant we’ve had to find other ways to fund the ongoing work that we do,” he wrote.

Aside from losing its participants, changes to the PFSI could mean it loses its teeth. The 50-year locked-in period may change, meaning trees might be cut down sooner. The government has indicated it would prefer to keep the current fifty year timeframe and are currently working out how it will enforce the rules around carbon offset projects. According to Ministry for the Environment (Manatū Mō Te Taiao) spokesperson Lauren Kelly, “the changes to the PFSI are largely to simplify participation in the scheme and its operation.”

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The ministry are also close to finalising guidelines around voluntary emissions offsetting, due to be released in the next few weeks. The guidelines will help organisations who want to offer carbon offsetting programmes ensure they are credible, transparent and permanent, Kelly says.

The bottom line (TLDR)

There are offset programmes, including Air New Zealand’s, that support projects with some serious carbon-sucking power. But separating the effective and credible from the token and opaque can take quite a bit of homework – usually more than the average person is willing to spend when they get the option at the checkout.

The bottom line, according to experts, is that your best bet for saving the planet is cutting down on air travel by at least one flight a year. If that’s not possible, then offsetting is a good way to go if the programme is legit.


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