Virgin Australia helps explain Carbon Offsetting

Virgin Australia Terminal Adelaide Airport (YPAD/ADL) taken by Bryan Pearce on 8 September 2017

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) Science Unit recently asked if it was worth selecting the Carbon Offset option when booking airline tickets.

The article goes on to say that aviation is responsible for 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions, aviation emissions aren’t covered by the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, and that Australia’s domestic and international civil aviation sector released the equivalent of 22 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2016.

Approximately one third of airlines offer some sort of carbon offsetting to help deal with the sectors emissions. Those airlines that offer carbon offsets vary in the way they calculate the cost. Some airlines such as the Qantas group (Qantas, QantasLink, Jetstar) and the Virgin Australia Group (Virgin Australia, Virgin Australia Regional Airlines [VARA], Tigerair Australia) will offset their staff travel, with Qantas also offsetting its ground vehicle operations.

ABC notes that an airline will usually “take the total carbon emissions produced by your flight, based on past fuel usage, and divide it by the number of seats on the plane. This is then multiplied by the cost of offsetting one tonne of carbon, according to their carbon offset scheme. So shorter trips are cheaper.”

The airlines also don’t keep any of the money for the carbon offsets that their passengers may purchase. Instead it goes straight to the offsetting programs, of which there are 2 main types – 1.) Forestry/land based offset, and 2.) energy efficiency/renewable energy type projects. The Australian Consumers Association’s magazine and website, Choice, said last year that the second type of program can bring valuable social, health, environmental and economic benefits to communities.

A Virgin Australia spokesperson told Airlive that, “[t]hrough our voluntary carbon offset program, we purchase Australian carbon units, which are generated through projects using various methods to capture / reduce carbon emissions. These projects support our local environment and help to provide jobs and stimulate local economic growth in regional areas.” Virgin also have a focus on fuel efficient aircraft and development of more sustainable aviation fuels in Australia.

Virgin Australia’s Fly Carbon Neutral Product has been available since 2007 and supports the Tasmanian Land Conservancy’s (TLC) New Leaf project. “The TLC use the avoided deforestation method (e.g. they ensure the native forest area is protected from invasive species and help to protect tree numbers in the area) to capture carbon, which helps to reduce carbon and provides significant biodiversity and conservation benefits.”

Tigerair, Virgin’s Low Cost Carrier, put in place a Fly Carbon Neutral Product in July 2017. “Tigerair purchases carbon offsets to provide support to the South East Arnhem Land Fire Abatement project in Northern Australia, which uses strategic fire management activities to reduce the fire-generated emissions of greenhouse gas.”

ABC also says that Qantas (including Jetstar), and Virgin Australia say that only about 10% of their passengers opt into carbon offsets when purchasing their tickets. The article says some reasons why passengers don’t opt into carbon offsetting include, global warming denialism, not wanting to pay the extra money, and mistrust of airlines. However, the number one barrier is that people don’t have the information about airline carbon offsets.

James Higham from the University of Otago in New Zealand told ABC that purchasing the carbon offset from an airline is better than doing nothing, even though it doesn’t stop the carbon from a flight from being emitted.

The forestry type carbon offseting will take up some of the carbon, but the trees then need to be maintained. “If you plant a tree, or plant a million trees, that doesn’t really solve the problem because the carbon has been emitted and it’s in the atmosphere. [The trees] may absorb some of the carbon dioxide, but then you have to maintain those trees. If they die, the carbon is released again and you’re back to square one.” Professor Higham told ABC.

Professor Will Steffen from the Climate Council told Choice last year, “Taking up carbon into land systems simply means we are putting back some of the carbon that was earlier transferred from land to the atmosphere. We are not reducing any of the new carbon added through burning fossil fuels such as aviation fuels.”

When asked about solar powered planes, Professor Higham said, “Not in our lifetime, I’m afraid. I’m sorry to say that technology ain’t going to save us on this one. People talk about electric and solar flight, but it’s just not going to happen, certainly not in the timeframes needed for urgent climate stabilisation.”

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the member states signed a deal in 2016 – Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) – that comes into affect in 2021. CORSIA will see “airlines offset carbon emissions over 2020 levels by buying carbon credits from environmental projects.” CORSIA is separate from any voluntary customer carbon offset. CORSIA does have some critics for being voluntary for the first 6 years. There is also some criticism saying there are too many loopholes contained in the agreement.

A Virgin Australia spokesperson has also told Airlive, “[w]e are also a proactive member of the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation’s Global Market-based Measures Taskforce and the Alternative Fuels Taskforce. The role of each Taskforce is to ensure that when the Scheme commences operation, the emissions units and the sustainable aviation fuels framework under the Scheme have appropriate sustainability standards.”

If flying with an airline that doesn’t have a reputable offset scheme, it is possible to use 3rd party not for profit sites to offset the carbon from the flight. Two such sites named by Professor Higham are the German based atmosfair and Swiss based myclimate.

atmosfair’s website has a calculator to determine the carbon created by a persons flight and they can choose to offset some or all of the carbon. atmosfair then spends the contribution on renewable energy and energy-saving projects in developing countries. They also offer offsets for other types of emissions such as cruises, or even normal households that wish to offset their own emissions. Offsets are bought in Euros. atmosfair also releases a ranking of airlines based on their system of efficiency points.

myclimate says it has 70 projects in 30 countries centred on renewable energy, energy efficiency measures and reduction of methane emissions. They also “evolve reforestation”. Their calculator offers their offsets in Euros, Swiss Francs, British Pounds and US Dollars.

The Australian government has put in place a voluntary code called the National Carbon Offset Standard (NCOS). The Australian Department of the Environment and Energy says, “NCOS is a voluntary standard to manage greenhouse gas emissions and to achieve carbon neutrality. It provides best-practice guidance on how to measure, reduce, offset, report and audit emissions for organisations, products & services, events, precincts and buildings. The NCOS can be used in a number of ways. Organisations can use the standard to better understand and manage their carbon emissions, to credibly claim carbon neutrality and to seek carbon neutral certification.”

Under the NCOS Carbon Neutral Program, “certified organisations products and services are measured against the standard. To achieve carbon neutral certification for organisations, products and services, events and precincts, entities must measure emissions, reduce these where possible, offset remaining emissions and report on their carbon neutrality.” The reports are available publicly on the Department’s website.

According to the Department of the Environment and Energy, four of Australia’s major airlines, and an aviation fuel supplier are certified under this program. The Department’s website says:

1. “Qantas, Australia’s largest domestic and international airline, has been certified carbon neutral under the NCOS Carbon Neutral Program for its customer carbon neutral flight option, from 1 July 2010. Qantas offers customers the opportunity to offset the carbon emissions generated by their flight. Qantas continues to implement measures to reduce emissions by increasing fuel efficiency. The airline passes on all funds collected through its carbon offset program and does not profit from the scheme.”

2. “Jetstar has been certified carbon neutral under the NCOS Carbon Neutral Program for its customer carbon neutral flight option, from 1 July 2010.
Jetstar offers customers the opportunity to offset the carbon emissions generated by their flight. The airline passes on all funds collected through its carbon offset program and does not profit from the scheme. Jetstar continues to implement measures to reduce emissions by increasing fuel efficiency.”

3. “The Virgin Australia Airlines, and Virgin Australia Regional Airlines, are certified carbon neutral against the National Carbon Offset Standard for their Fly Carbon Neutral product.
The Virgin Australia Group has a dedicated fuel efficiency team focussed on the reduction of fuel and emissions. The Virgin Australia Group offers the opportunity for its customers to purchase carbon abatement through the Fly Carbon Neutral program to offset the emissions impact of their flight. When booking through the Virgin Australia website, customers can opt in to purchase carbon offsets when booking their flight and can also use their Velocity Frequent Flyer points to purchase offsets.”

4. “Tigerair Australia has been certified carbon neutral against the National Carbon Offset Standard since July 2017, for its Fly Carbon Neutral product. Tigerair has programs to facilitate the reduction of carbon emissions throughout its business and offers the opportunity for customers to purchase carbon offsets through Virgin Australia’s Fly Carbon Neutral program.
When booking through the Tigerair website, customers can opt-in to purchase carbon abatement to offset the emissions impact of their flight.”

5. “Air BP is the specialised aviation division of BP and provides high-quality aviation fuels and services including technical, safety and equipment support. Air BP operates from an extensive network of locations throughout Australia and around the world. Air BP has become the first aviation fuelling provider to achieve carbon neutrality for its global into-plane fuelling service across its own operated locations. This includes achieving carbon neutral certification against the National Carbon Offset Standard for Air BP operated refuelling services across Australian airports. Airport authorities, shareholders, local communities and customers are increasingly focussed on the environmental impact of airports and their associated operations. The global aviation industry has set ambitious carbon reduction goals and Air BP is committed to supporting the industry to achieve those objectives. Air BP has made a 10-year commitment to carbon neutrality on into-plane fuelling which includes a Carbon Reduction Plan.
Air BP has been supported in this journey by BP Target Neutral, BP’s not-for-profit carbon reduction and offsetting program. BP Target Neutral played a key role in providing carefully selected carbon offset projects. Projects such as investments in hydropower stations in less developed rural areas and reduction of deforestation in critical conservation areas have benefited from Air BP’s carbon credits.”

Virgin Australia’s full statement to Airlive:

“The Virgin Australia Group is committed to working with members of the aviation industry to reduce carbon emissions. We have implemented a range of initiatives that are dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including: operating a fuel efficient fleet of Boeing 737, Boeing 777, ATR 72, Airbus A320 and Airbus A330 aircraft; supporting the development of sustainable aviation fuels; and reviewing our operational efficiencies to minimise emissions.

Through our voluntary carbon offset program, we purchase Australian carbon units, which are generated through projects using various methods to capture / reduce carbon emissions. These projects support our local environment and help to provide jobs and stimulate local economic growth in regional areas. We are also focused on implementing initiatives that reduce fuel emissions, such as taking a leadership role in expediting the development of a sustainable aviation fuels industry in Australia.

We are also a proactive member of the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation’s Global Market-based Measures Taskforce and the Alternative Fuels Taskforce. The role of each Taskforce is to ensure that when the Scheme commences operation, the emissions units and the sustainable aviation fuels framework under the Scheme have appropriate sustainability standards.

On background:

Through the Federal Government’s Carbon Farming Initiative, there are over 20 different methods to reduce/ capture carbon emissions, including one for aviation specifically. Many of these methods have benefits beyond carbon capture/ reduction.
In March 2007, the Virgin Australia Group established the Fly Carbon Neutral product, which supports the Tasmanian Land Conservancy’s (TLC) New Leaf project. The TLC use the avoided deforestation method (e.g. they ensure the native forest area is protected from invasive species and help to protect tree numbers in the area) to capture carbon, which helps to reduce carbon and provides significant biodiversity and conservation benefits.

In July 2017, Tigerair launched its own Fly Carbon Neutral product, whereby Tigerair purchases carbon offsets to provide support to the South East Arnhem Land Fire Abatement project in Northern Australia, which uses strategic fire management activities to reduce the fire-generated emissions of greenhouse gas.

When measuring carbon units, one carbon unit is equivalent to one tonne of carbon dioxide.”

Qantas was approached for comment, but didn’t respond before the publishing date. This post will update if Qantas responds.

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