Considerable confusion exists amongst airline passengers about carbon offsetting, finds study
Fri 25 May 2008 – Carbon offset schemes aim to compensate for carbon emissions by investing in carbon saving initiatives such as wind farms and reforestation. However, customer uptake of offset services for aviation has been low and questions have been raised over the accuracy of carbon calculators and the efficacy of emissions saving projects.
Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) carried out a 12-month study, the Omega Carbon Offset Project, to investigate air passengers’ preferences towards carbon offsetting, including their willingness to pay. The study was headed by MMU’s Dr Paul Hooper and comprised three elements: a review of offset literature; a review of various offset schemes provided internationally; and a survey of passengers at Manchester Airport.
The findings uncovered a lack of transparency among those providing offset schemes in areas such as how the offset levy was calculated, and where the money raised was being invested. This, says the study, undermines the credibility of offset schemes as a whole – a factor which was further exacerbated by the variance in offset charges which ranged from 31 pence (60 cents) right up to £12.95 ($25) on a short-haul flight.
Results from the 487 passengers surveyed at Manchester Airport in January and February 2008 indicated that whilst most respondents had heard of offsetting and more than three quarters accept air transport contributes to climate change, less than a tenth were willing to change their behaviour about flying or to purchase offsetting. One of the main reasons why uptake was not greater, suggests the study, may be that people do not regard limiting the climate impacts of flight as their responsibility. Instead, passengers look to airlines or the government to deal with aviation’s environmental impacts.
Overall, there were high levels of uncertainty among the passengers surveyed about many aspects of carbon offsetting. Passengers were unclear how the money is used and how the schemes actually deliver benefits in terms of climate change mitigation. Some were sceptical that the environmental impacts of aviation are significant, while others viewed offsetting as simply another tax.
However, the small minority of passengers (less than 10%) who are strongly supportive of efforts to mitigate the climate impacts of flying is generally willing to pay the full cost of offsetting for a given flight. The study has developed a profile of these ‘lead-edge’ aviation carbon offset consumers and has identified some of the features associated with this small but important segment of the market.
The study’s authors propose that further debate could usefully occur in the public arena to clarify issues of responsibility and influence in relation to offsetting the climate impacts of flights. In addition, they say, more work could be undertaken to highlight the links between individual choices about flying and climate impacts, and to emphasise the opportunities that offsetting offers to consumers who are concerned about the climate impacts of aviation.
They conclude that efforts are required to present the benefits and purpose of offsetting the climate effects of aviation much more clearly to the public if uptake is to be increased. In addition, greater transparency and accountability of the schemes could help to build consumer confidence in offsetting. The authors suggest that greater standardization between offsetting providers – together with much clearer methods of communication of common standards and good practice to consumers – should be developed within the voluntary carbon market.
The offsetting project was funded by Omega, an independent, publicly funded partnership of nine UK universities that “offers impartial, innovative and topical insights into the environmental effects of the air transport industry”.
Omega is currently talking to Defra, the UK government department responsible for environment, to ensure that these findings inform their best practice guidance. Defra is currently developing a Code of Best Practice for consumer carbon offset schemes and accreditation is due to start later this year (see story).