Offsets Promise to Cut Carbon Footprints but Critics Raise Questions

Here’s how to know what’s behind the credits your flight provider is selling you.

Carbon offsets are the primary vehicle for countering the environmental impact of your private jet flights. Also known as carbon credits, they play a key part in business aviation’s commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

Lift providers say customers are increasingly focused on environmental and social issues surrounding the use of private aircraft. And their concerns are helping to drive demand for offset programs adopted by many flight departments and charter, jet card, and fractional providers. Individual aircraft owners are concerned, too, as pop star Taylor Swift demonstrated by buying twice the carbon credits needed to offset emissions from her Dassault Falcon 7X during a recently concluded Asian concert tour.

But the efficacy and claimed benefits of carbon offsets and the projects they underwrite have come under fire from several quarters. Widely reported investigations published in 2021 by the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper, for example, concluded that offsets offered by major airlines and other corporations came from decarbonization projects whose credits are “based on a flawed system” and “did not represent genuine carbon reductions.”

Meanwhile, environmental advocates like Greenpeace reject carbon credits for offsetting flights on ideological grounds, seeing them as permission to further pollute. Greenpeace “strongly rejects all attempts by the aviation industry to argue that flying is acceptable as long as the emissions are offset,” spokesperson Klara Maria Schenk tells Business Jet Traveler.

Even offset boosters acknowledge the challenges involved in quantifying some carbon offset project benefits and say that confusing terminology and standards further cloud the subject.

“It's getting difficult to understand what a high-quality carbon credit is and how to differentiate them,” says Antoine Diemert, program director at International Carbon Reduction and Offsetting Accreditation (ICROA). That’s the Geneva-based UN organization that sets standards and certification protocols for the voluntary carbon market, which includes business aviation offsets.

How Offsets Work

Given all this, business jet travelers would be right to question how offsets work, where their money for purchased credits goes, and whether, as some critics contend, they amount to mere greenwashing.

Carbon offsets are financial instruments created under the 2015 Paris Agreement to fund projects designed to counter rising CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions and limit global temperature increases. Some industries and emitters are subject to mandatory limits established by governmental and international organizations, ranging from the European Union to the state of California.

Commercial airlines must adhere to emissions limits mandated by the International Civil Aviation Organization, though the passenger offsets they offer customers are voluntary.

Meanwhile, many unregulated industries and businesses have adopted voluntary emission limits, moved by environmental, social, or governance policies or other factors. But on both the commercial and private sides, offsets are just part of aviation’s decarbonization plans, which include emission reductions via sustainable aviation fuel, more efficient engines and air traffic operations, and new propulsion technologies.

Thousands of qualified offset projects are ongoing around the globe, sponsored by NGOs, development agencies, governments, for-profit entities, and others, and these efforts cover a wide range of decarbonization activity: renewable energy, waste and landfill management, community services developments, and perhaps most critically, forest preservation and reforestation.

A carbon credit corresponds to one metric ton of CO2 that a project has or will sequester, eliminate, or reduce from the atmosphere. A project’s offset credits are individually registered, tracked, bundled, and sold on the global market. Many of the promised carbon reductions from these projects will come in the future, but as the credits can be sold now, they are recognized as a critical funding source for decarbonization efforts that all sides consider necessary. In business aviation, one offset typically costs $15 to $60 (a super-midsize jet emits about 2.5 metric tons of CO2 per hour), the range reflecting in part the variable quality of the underlying projects and benefits their credits deliver.

Measuring the Impact

Calculating a flight’s carbon footprint and the credits needed to compensate for its emissions is relatively straightforward. But validating the credits that some projects claim to produce can be complex and open to interpretation. Measuring the impact of a wind farm vs. building a coal-fired plant, for example, is fairly straightforward but the benefits of forestry protection efforts— considered the most critical of global decarbonization projects—are difficult to assess. That’s because determining their value requires predicting the future.

The issue is called additionality: How does one know whether saving a forest in one place doesn’t mean an equivalent acreage will be harvested elsewhere? Can a reforested area survive long enough to achieve its offset goals? Are the surrounding development pressures driving some protection projects overstated? And the ultimate question: Are the credits being claimed actually adding to greenhouse gas reductions over what would have happened in their absence?

The Guardian investigation focused on 10 forestry projects behind the carbon credits offered to passengers by six major airlines, and in addition to other charges, the report declared that many were “phantom credits” that may in fact add to global warming. As some of the organizations noted in their strong refutations of the article’s claims, the examination was done in partnership with Unearthed, the investigative arm of Greenpeace, which fundamentally opposes carbon credits, rather than by an unbiased third party. Additionally, according to the responses, the investigators cherry-picked results and failed to mention the positive conclusions of research they cited.

They also ignored that the standards under which the projects investigated had been approved have since been significantly strengthened and updated. These ongoing changes are one factor behind the variability of carbon credit prices, falling under the heading of a credit’s “vintage”: once issued, a credit remains valid even if it would not qualify under current standards. Thus, older credits tend to be less expensive, and likely less effective in achieving their stated purpose, than more current offsets.

Advantages for Bizjet Travelers

The value of voluntary airline programs aside, however, business jet travelers have key advantages in making offset purchase decisions, as many business aviation offset programs offer more flexibility in choosing credits and projects. The aforementioned ICROA is at the foundation of VCM standards. Formed in 2008 under the UN’s International Emissions Trading Association, the regulator of global carbon offset trading, ICROA was charged with setting baseline requirements and best practices for the burgeoning and unregulated VCM. Its code establishes a framework for stakeholders to ensure “transparency, credibility, and environmental integrity” in offset projects and credits, according to the agency.

More than two dozen organizations that provide offsetting services have ICROA accreditation, which must be renewed annually, with applications vetted by independent auditors. The latest update to its code was issued this February.

At the customer-facing end of the voluntary market, a handful of registry organizations with their own proprietary rating systems and evaluation tools built upon ICROA’s code bring the projects and their credits to offset consumers. The four largest registries—American Carbon Registry, Carbon Action Reserve, Gold Standard, and Verra—generate almost all the world’s voluntary offsets, including business aviation’s, together overseeing more than 5,000 projects. (The University of California at Berkeley’s eponymous Carbon Trading Project provides detailed information on each, including credit vintages, issuances, and retirements.)

All the major carbon crediting standards “have really good additionality measurement tools,” says ICROA’s Diemert. “They’re very well defined and transparent.”

Updates to the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions for Deforestation and Forest Degradation) methodology used to determine the impact of such projects have also been recently implemented; last fall, Verra announced major changes to its protocols, which will include having project baselines set by contracted groups rather than their developers. (These critical forestry credits come under the voluntary market because international disagreement regarding mandated compliance measures has stalled their adoption under the Paris Agreement.)

Less Confusion, More Transparency

But considering the choices amid different brands of credits and ill-defined terminology facing consumers—such as “carbon neutral,” “climate neutral,” and “climate positive”—Diemert says that what the market needs is “a lot less confusion and a lot more transparency.”

Fortunately, the offset ecosystem includes advisory firms that can help clients target sectors and projects that their organizations support, as well as consultancies that design organization-wide sustainability programs that include additional emission-reduction initiatives.

One such consultancy, 4AIR, founded in 2020, claims to be “the first and only rating system focused on sustainability” for private and commercial air travel, providing “increased transparency and comparability for those who own, operate, and fly on jets.” It’s part of Cleveland’s Directional Aviation, whose portfolio includes the Flexjet fractional program, Sentient Jet jet cards, and online charter platform PrivateFly.

The key to becoming a smart offset consumer, says 4AIR COO Nancy Bsales, is “understanding what your emissions are, and then how you can mitigate them.”

Indeed, there’s much more to aviation emissions than CO2. Water vapor, contrails, aerosols, and NOx together account for some two-thirds of an aircraft’s emissions, and the cost of a carbon credit doesn’t cover them.

Whether you’re purchasing offsets or developing a mitigation strategy, the second key, Bsales says, is to “partner with someone who’s performing due diligence and researching every project to ensure that it's verified to a stringent standard.”

Flexibility and Customization

Programs that 4AIR has created with and for its clients illustrate the flexibility and customization available to business aviation travelers. In January, for example, Textron Aviation, in partnership with 4AIR, launched the SustainableAdvantage offset program for Cessna, Beechcraft, and Hawker turbine aircraft owners. The purchases are optional, and offsets come from just four projects: cookstoves to replace open-fire cooking in developing countries; a pair of solar power initiatives in India; and forestry protection in the Pacific Northwest. Participants receive personalized annual reports about their purchases.

Sentient Jet is a client of its sister company 4AIR, and together the two selected “a diverse portfolio of many project and technology types, using various verification standards, but always using emission reductions that have been independently verified by leading carbon registries,” says Flexjet co-CEO Andrew Collins.

They include wind-power projects in the U.S. and South America, renewable energy in Turkey and India, cookstoves in Malawi, and forestry preservation in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Massachusetts. Sentient Jet funds the offset purchases, baking them into the price of the service and its cost of operations. It has also opted for 4AIR’s elevated “emission neutral” status, aimed at mitigating all emissions, not just CO2, which requires purchasing three times the offsets needed under its Tier 1 “carbon neutral” rating. Jet card holders can track their carbon footprints and emission offset records via desktop and the company’s mobile app.

Any lift provider that has an offset program should welcome the opportunity to provide information about the projects behind the credits it offers. If you’re not satisfied with the choices available through yours, you can engage an offset advisor, or assemble your own offset package directly through a carbon registry or accredited ICROA organization.

Looking ahead, it’s likely that the cost of offsets will increase, as evidenced by rising prices of newer credits and their more stringent verification requirements, and the growing recognition that all emissions, not just carbon, require compensation. The subject has been addressed by the FAA and the European Union and studied at MIT and Cambridge University, according to 4AIR, which expects that emission-neutral, rather than carbon-neutral, will become the baseline of the future.

Business jet travelers who choose to opt out of using offsets can wrap themselves in the cover provided by blanket condemnations issued by some environmental groups, but then they’d have to fly commercial. Greenpeace, says spokesperson Schenk, “demands a ban on private jets.”