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Guilty Pleasure: Offsetting Travel Emissions

Thursday, February 23, 2017 1:57
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Martine writes*

For some people, air travel is a source of joy, entertainment,
holiday-feelings or business-activities. However, this type of
transportation also creates environmental pollution and contributes
to climate change through its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which
is less joyful. Keeping in mind the recently adopted "nofollow" href=
target="_blank">Paris Agreement
 [pdf] where the United
Nations decided to cut GHG emissions and keep global warming under
2°C, we might need to rethink our traveling behavior.

In an ideal world, people would be able to enjoy air travel while
at the same time avoiding consequential environmental damage.
Environmentally-conscious travelers will quickly point to the
option to compensate for the environmental damage by offsetting
their flight’s GHG emissions, of which carbon (CO2) is one. An
organization, for example "" target=
, will reduce the same amount of
CO2-emissions elsewhere to get your carbon footprint to zero. A
one-way flight from Amsterdam to Australia emits 11.200 tons of CO2
and can be compensated by donating 9.24 euros to renewable energy
projects in ""
target="_blank">Uganda, India or Cambodia
. It’s cheap and feels
like the right thing to do, so shouldn’t we all do this?

Before giving away the answer, I’ll first quickly explain the
theory behind offsetting and the UN’s promise to keep global
warming under 2°C. Please bear with me, our environment is at

To keep their promise, the UN will need to invest billions of
dollars to lower their CO2-emissions with at least "nofollow" href=
target="_blank">26 GtCO2
per year [pdf]. The price to abate 1
ton of CO2 depends on the country where the investment goes to, its
phase of economic and social development and the already existing
energy structures. For this reason, the ‘price’ of CO2 "nofollow" href=
per country and industry, ranging
between US$1.3 and US$524 per ton CO2. Intuitively, it is best to
capture the cheapest forms of abatement first, the so-called
‘low-hanging fruits’, followed by other increasingly expensive ways
to reduce emissions. In economic terms, this is called ‘diminishing
marginal returns’, or ‘increasing marginal costs’. Figure 1 shows
the costs of abatement and the reduced GtCO2 per year. You can see
that some measures, like building insulation, are more efficient to
reduce CO2 emissions than other higher cost abatement measures,
like forestation or biodiesel.

"text-align:center; font-style:italic;" width="100%">
imageanchor="1" style="margin-left: auto; margin-right: auto;"
target="_blank"> ""
width="400" />
" text-align: start;">Figure 1: Global Cost Curve for Greenhouse
Gas Abatement ( ""
target="_blank">Enkvist, Nauclér and Rosander,

Of course, GreenSeat also knows this, and to keep the
travel-offsetting price the cheapest possible for their
environmentally-conscious consumers, they will invest in abatement
at the low end of the curve in figure 1. And this is exactly the
problem with flight-offsetting that I want to point out. Even
though GreenSeat does reduce CO2-emissions with their investments,
they do not contribute to the 26 GtCO2 per year reduction that is
needed to keep global warming under 2°C, because their consumers
emit the same amount of CO2 to the atmosphere during the flight
that they bought the CO2-offset for. My biggest concern with this
is that in the meantime, GreenSeat (or any other travel-offset
organization/company) takes away the low-hanging fruits, the
cheapest forms of abatement, while not solving the climate change
problem. As the marginal costs of CO2 reduction increases, it will
be even more difficult to invest efficiently to tackle global
warming. Offsetting carbon emissions may be cheap and feels like
the right thing to do, but environmentally-conscious travelers
would do better by not traveling by plane at all.

* Please comment on these posts from my environmental economics
students, to help them with unclear analysis, alternative
perspectives, better data, etc.

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