Aviation makes up less than 3% of global carbon emissions. But for many of us, flying is one of the most carbon-intensive choices we can make.
How intensive? A single return flight from LA to NYC creates 1.4 tons of CO2e per passenger – similar to what the average person living in the Philippines emits in an entire year.
Flight emissions play a key role in global carbon inequality. Most people on Earth (around 90%) will never get the chance to fly, while 1% of the world’s population produces more than half of aviation emissions.
If you want to reduce your flight footprint, flying less is your best option. But sometimes you have to get on a plane. When this happens, limit your impact by skipping layovers, flying economy class, and taking fewer, longer trips. (Learn more about flying sustainably.)
After we’ve taken ownership of the emissions within our control, we can buy carbon offsets for flights. There’s a bit of a learning curve – but it’s not as scary as you think!
What are carbon offsets for flights?
Carbon offsets help businesses, governments, and individuals compensate for the emissions they produce. When we purchase carbon offsets for flights, we invest in climate-friendly projects to counteract our share of a flight’s emissions.
A carbon offset credit represents one metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) removed from the atmosphere. In theory, this helps neutralize emissions produced in one place - like a flight - by reducing or removing the equivalent amount elsewhere.
In practice, carbon offsetting is far from perfect. The carbon offset market is notoriously poorly-regulated, and many projects don’t actually provide the benefits they purport. In fact, one EU study found 85% of offset projects it examined were “unlikely” to achieve their reduction claims.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t buy carbon offsets for flights. Carbon offsetting can be effective when paired with practices to reduce emissions in the first place. But it really matters which projects you support.
How to find high-quality carbon offsets for flights
It can be tempting to check “offset flight emissions” when you buy your ticket – and get on with your day. Unfortunately, there are a lot of questionable offset programs out there. It’s not always easy to tell the good from the bad, but it helps if you know what to look for:
Transparency: Businesses that rigorously vet their offset vendors will make it easy to find information about the specific projects they support, including how they verify reduction claims and exactly how they use your offset dollars.
Verifiability: Reputable certifications like Gold Standard and Verra are a good starting point, but they’re not enough on their own. Look for companies that also perform their own rigorous evaluations and are transparent about their specific criteria and processes.
Additionality: Offsets must provide a benefit that wouldn’t have happened otherwise – i.e., reducing, removing, or avoiding additional emissions. Otherwise, projects get credit for environmental benefits they didn’t create, and greenhouse gas levels continue to rise.
Permanence: A high-quality project’s carbon reduction or removal is hard to reverse. An offset program should demonstrate how their projects maintain a long-term impact.
Enforceability: If a vendor sells a carbon credit to multiple parties, you won’t actually neutralize your emissions. Offset programs should provide evidence the credits they buy are sold once and then retired.
Transformative Potential: Beyond compensating for today’s emissions, offset projects should contribute to a future where all life can thrive. Look for environmental and social co-benefits and solutions that could help advance global decarbonization efforts.
The aviation industry has embraced carbon offsetting in recent years. Many airlines even offer flight emissions calculators so customers can offset their travel footprint right at checkout. Unfortunately, while airline offsets can help ease flightskam - or flight guilt - some are pretty ineffective.
A 2021 investigation by the Guardian, for instance, found forest protection schemes used by major airlines do not provide emissions reductions consistent with their predictions. In other words, some airlines get the green credentials – and leave our emissions in the air.
We reviewed carbon offset programs from the six largest US airlines, using the same criteria we use to analyze projects in Joro’s Carbon Portfolio. Here’s everything you need to know.
Joro's evaluation of major US airline offset programs
Our Take: When it comes to airline carbon offset programs, transparency is key – and American outperforms the competition. American makes it easy to review their partner and the projects they support, access historical reports and verification details, and find information about exactly where your offset dollars go.
One area of caution: American prices carbon at around $12/ton, which is lower than several other airline programs.
Our Take: The UA program is a good example of the pitfalls of carbon offsetting. It supports two long-standing projects, offered through a reputable partner rooted in social and environmental justice. Yet, it’s not easy to find historical documentation or information about how Carbon International evaluates and monitors projects. This is notable, as the Alto Mayo project has received come under criticism regarding the validity of its reduction claims, as well as equity issues within the local community.
Cumulative Rating: 3.2/5
Jet Blue partners with Carbon Fund to offset fuel emissions for all domestic flights. Passengers on international flights (or those who want to purchase additional carbon credits) can offset via Jet Blue's consumer offset program. These purchases support three types of projects: renewable energy; energy efficiency; and forestry.
Our Take: At face value, Jet Blue’s offset program checks all the right boxes. However, Carbon Fund appears to lead heavily on third-party certifications and provides limited project documentation and information about its internal review processes.
Cumulative Rating: 3.2/5
Alaska Airlines partners with Good Traveler to offer carbon offsets. Offset purchases support a portfolio of 10 verified forestry projects, including improved forest management and avoided forest conversion.
Our Take: Alaska’s consumer offset program provides carbon credits that adequately reflect the cost of carbon, and Good Traveler makes it easy to find historical documentation for all projects. However, we’re left wanting when it comes to information about its internal due diligence processes.
Our Take: While Southwest’s offset program is a start, it fails to adequately assure each project has been reviewed with due diligence. While all projects are certified by a major carbon standard, CHOOOSE provides very little information on how it verifies project claims. Instead, the consumer must wade through project documentation in third-party databases. Moreover, carbon pricing is lower than average among other major airlines (~$7/ton).
Cumulative Rating: N/A
As part of an effort to prioritize decarbonization over offsetting, Delta Airlines has discontinued its consumer offset program. In 2020, Delta pledged $1 billion over ten years to achieve net zero emissions. This included a $30 million investment to offset a large portion of its 2020 emissions.
According to Delta, it plans to invest the majority of the remaining $1 billion in climate solutions like sustainable aviation fuel (SAV) and aircraft efficiency – with a smaller spend on offsetting.
Our Take: Delta’s focus on decarbonization is commendable, and could help reduce future emissions throughout the entire aviation industry. On the other hand, offsetting will still play a role in Delta’s net zero strategy, and there is limited information about which projects it has and will support and how it verifies offset claims.
Which airlines are most sustainable?
Carbon offsetting is not a silver bullet for climate change. Airlines (and everyone) need to reduce their environmental impact in the first place, too.
According to the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), American and United consistently outperform other major US airlines in addressing climate risks, while other
Jet fuel exhaust makes up the vast majority of emissions in the aviation industry. Other operational improvements matter – but reducing flight emissions is by far the most important. The most sustainable airlines are working to improve aircraft efficiency, as well as investing in sustainable aviation fuel development and other technology to cut their in-air footprint.
CDP Climate Change scores for major US airlines
With Joro, buy carbon offsets for flights with confidence
Analyzing carbon offsets on your own can be daunting. At Joro, we know firsthand the meticulous research it takes to do it right. As carbon offset skeptics, we call up developers, pore over reports, and cross-check verifiers for every offset provider we evaluate to ensure your dollars go to a worthwhile cause.
The result? Joro’s Carbon Portfolio supports the highest-integrity carbon reduction and removal projects on the market. There’s no silver bullet for climate change, and our portfolio invests in the mix of climate solutions we need to get our world to net zero emissions by 2050.