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Can we buy our way out of the climate crisis?

Prince Harry championed saving the planet – until he wanted a holiday. So if you throw enough money at carbon offsetting, are you excused from contributing to the climate crisis?

The Amazon rainforest is on fire – a blaze so big that the smoke is visible from space. Iceland just held a funeral for the first glacier to be killed by the climate crisis. Indonesia is building a new capital because its current one Jakarta, home to 10 million people, is fast succumbing to rising sea waters. The UK is reaching temperatures of 20 degrees Celsius in February, and almost 40 in summer.

“These are things that are happening now. We are already living in it… Which is terrifying,” said Prince Harry in a Q&A for Vogue in July, vowing that he and wife Meghan Markle would only have two children for the sake of the environment.

“I’ve always thought: this place is borrowed,” he explained. “And, surely, being as intelligent as we all are, or as evolved as we all are supposed to be, we should be able to leave something better behind for the next generation.”

A noble sentiment – but one that was the following month somewhat negated by the prince boarding four private jets in 11 days. On 6 August the Duke and Duchess of Sussex flew from Hampshire’s private Farnborough Airport to Ibiza, where they celebrated Meghan’s birthday with six days in the sun. On 14 August, two days after returning to London, the couple hopped back in a jet, and set off for a three-day break at Elton John’s villa in Nice.

As the crow flies, these flights total around 4,872 miles. The BBC reports that flying such a distance by private jet releases around 19.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Since this, accumulated in less than a fortnight, is more than three times the average Briton’s carbon footprint for an entire year, it is unsurprising that the backlash was fierce.

“Eco-lecturers Meghan Markle and Prince Harry board their private jet with baby Archie for fourth gas-guzzling flight in just 11 days as they leave the south of France 'after visiting Elton John's $18m mansion' on three-day jaunt, ” read the MailOnline’s ever-succinct headline. The Sun went down a similar route: “‘Eco-warriors’ Meghan Markle and Prince Harry fly on private jet again to France after gas-guzzling Ibiza trip”. “Prince Harry and Meghan Markle dubbed hypocrites after fourth private jet in 11 days,” was the more toned-down response from the Mirror.

It was enough to lead Elton John to describe himself on Twitter as “deeply distressed by today’s distorted and malicious account in the press surrounding the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s private stay at my home in Nice last week”.

Over a five-tweet thread, the singer explained that he and his husband David had wanted the royal family to enjoy a holiday together after a hectic year. “To maintain a high level of much-needed protection, we provided them with a private jet flight,” he said. “To support Prince Harry’s commitment to the environment, we ensured their flight was carbon neutral, by making the appropriate contribution to Carbon Footprint™.”

But is that good enough? If you throw enough money at the climate crisis, are you excused from contributing to it? As one of my colleagues remarked while discussing this, “well there’s loads of money, so does that mean we can just buy our way out of global warming?”

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On 17 December 1903, after several unsuccessful attempts, brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright made history with what is widely believed to be the world’s first powered flight. At only 10 feet above the ground, in an aircraft they had invented and built, Orville flew 120 feet in 12 seconds, at speeds of less than 7 miles per hour.

Ten years later, more than 3,000 people gathered on New Year’s Day 1914 to watch the maiden flight of the first ever commercial airline, the St Petersburg – Tampa (SPT) Airboat Line. Travelling between the two Floridian cities had previously taken near an entire day, but now, one at a time, passengers could sit on a small wooden bench next to the pilot to make the 23-mile journey in just 23 minutes.

Although a second two-passenger plane was later added to its fleet, the airline survived just four months. Its 172nd and final flight was made on 5 May 1914, but by then it had already paved the way for modern air travel. As Thomas W Benoist, SPT’s aircraft manufacturer, remarked: “Someday people will be crossing oceans on airliners like they do on steamships today”.

As it turned out, someday was likely a lot sooner than Benoist had expected: the first non-stop transatlantic flight was made five years later in 1919, by Britons John Alcock and Arthur Brown. The pair took less 16 hours to fly from Newfoundland to Ireland, earning a £10,000 prize from the Daily Mail.

Although the Second World War temporarily put civil aviation on a backburner, its end left many military aircraft redundant – free to be repurposed into private and commercial planes. This, along with the many airports that had been built over the course of the war, meant that the industry was, for the first time, booming.

But have we gone too far? In 1974, 421 million people travelled by plane. By 2018, that number had risen to 4.3 billion – a growth of 921 per cent in 44 years. By 2037, it’s expected to reach 8.2 billion.

With over 10,000 planes in the sky at any given time, aviation has made staggering advances since the Wright brothers were teaching themselves to fly on sand dunes off the coast of North Carolina 116 years ago. But only now are we starting to feel the effects.

Air travel is most commonly cited as being responsible for around 2-3 per cent of the overall climate crisis, although a 2006 study by the Climate Action Network Europe and the European Study for Transport and Environment claimed “when a figure of 3 per cent is quoted, or even lower, for the current contribution, the full story is not being told, and/or old information has been used”.

The paper put the figure at between 4 and 9 per cent. The exact extent of the problem is still being argued over, but there’s no denying it’s worsening. Aviation emissions have grown by 26 per cent since 2013 and could grow by a further 300-700 per cent by 2050, according to the UN’s aviation agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

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“Less than 5 per cent of the world population flies,” says Bill Hemmings, the director of aviation and shipping at The European Federation for Transport and Environment, a campaign group. This is true – on a regular basis, at least. Although 17 per cent of the world’s population have flown at least once, only 3 per cent did so in 2017.

With so much of the damage weighing on the consciences of such a small portion of the population, it’s hardly surprising that carbon offsetting is becoming more commonplace.

When asked what carbon offsetting means, Dr Phil Williamson, the science coordinator of the Natural Environment Research Council-led greenhouse gas removal programme, says: “It’s sort of paying for a bit of a clean-up… recognising that some damage is being caused, but now we’re trying to do something about it.”

This can be done in one of two ways, he explains. The first is to pay to remove existing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere – by planting trees, for example. The other is to fund a form of renewable energy for somebody else, to lessen their carbon emissions – such as building biogas plants in rural India to stop families collecting wood for energy.

Both methods have issues. Anybody with a GCSE in biology can tell you that trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while photosynthesising – but they’ll also know that the carbon will be released back into the environment when the trees die. This poses an obvious problem for carbon offsetting schemes.

“You've got to be sure that you're actually going to have those trees in 20 or 30 or 50 years’ time; that they will survive… and that's not always guaranteed,” explains Williamson. “And if climate change becomes much worse than it is, then maybe those trees might curl and die because of drought or because of temperature or because of pests or diseases. It's quite a long-term commitment for the tree-planting policy.”

The problems involved with the second method of carbon offsetting are more complex. 

Take, for example, Ryanair’s scheme, which customers can choose to donate to when booking online. The longest flight a Ryanair passenger can take from the UK is from Edinburgh to Gran Canaria, a return distance of around 6,519 miles. The most money a Ryanair passenger can donate to offset their carbon is £0.98 – a fixed amount; regardless of how guilty and/or generous they are feeling.

With all their customers’ near-pounds to spend, Ryanair partnered with ClimateFirst. “The funds are used to support a project in Uganda which distributes energy efficient cookstoves to households in the Kampala region,” reads the Ryanair website. “The improved stoves help families to significantly reduce their charcoal use.”

This is undoubtedly a good thing in many ways. As Ryanair says, it “contributes to the conservation of native woodland in Uganda”, and “prevents associated health problems like respiratory infections, cardiovascular and ocular diseases”. But the scheme doesn’t offset much carbon: only around 450,000t CO2 each year. Better than nothing, yes; but a drop in the ocean considering Ryanair emitted 1,157,000t CO2 in May 2019 alone.

“Of course, getting rid of cookstoves and charcoal is an obvious thing to do, by no means are we blindly slamming all these projects,” says Hemmings. “All we're saying is that some of them may be good and some of them may not be good, but what have they got to do with aviation? Aviation needs to clean up its own act.”

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But a problem with voluntary carbon offsetting, Hemmings points out, is that very few people want to be the ones to volunteer to pay for it. Australia’s national airline, Quantas, has one of the highest uptakes to its offset programme. Hemmings, himself Australian, suggests this is because “Australians have to fly long-haul to get out of the country...and maybe the guilt complex is a bit greater when it's a long haul flight”. Even so, only 10 per cent of Quantas’s passengers are so troubled by their guilt that they donate money. Across all airlines, this figure falls to just 1 per cent.

Collective efforts at the state level to curb emissions from aviation may have more impact. In 2016, the ICAO established the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (Corsia), which aims to ensure that any growth in air travel after 2020 is carbon neutral.

A pilot of the scheme will start in 2021, which more than 81 countries that are collectively responsible for 77 per cent of aviation activity have agreed to participate in. This will run until the end of 2023, with the first phase formally starting in 2024 – again, on a voluntary basis.

It is only in 2027 that it will become mandatory for the ICAO’s 193 member states to ensure their aviation emissions don’t exceed their 2020 levels – with exemptions made for the world’s poorest countries. This will continue through to 2035, when Corsia will be ended, extended or improved.

According to a 2017 report by the WWF, “the aviation industry and several countries consider the Corsia to be a temporary ‘gap-filler’”. Hemmings agrees, accusing the ICAO of being unable even to agree on the criteria for environmental offsets.

One point of contention for the project is how to prevent countries from double-counting Corsia’s targets as part of their own national emission reduction targets. Another is that Corsia only applies to operators with international emissions above 10,000t CO2 per year – meaning most of the world’s private jets are exempt.

Hemmings warns that focussing on an ineffective scheme for the next 16 years could effectively lead to disaster. “We would say that to avoid waking up in 2035, when Corsia's finished and there are a lot of offset projects in developing countries – and we don't really know whether they're good, bad or indifferent but, by Jesus, aviation emissions have grown two or three times in the meantime, what the hell are we gonna do? So we say aviation has to do its own bit.”

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If carbon offsetting can't solve our climate crisis woes, what can? Jochen Gasser, the CEO of FirstClimate, which works with Ryanair and other airlines, describes carbon offsetting as an interim provision, adding that more effective measures would be tackling fleet efficiency and using lower carbon-intensive fuels. Neither, he says, is possible right now. 

“So the newer your fleet, the lower your carbon emissions per passenger kilometre,” he explains. “But [introducing new aircraft] isn't done on a year-by-year basis, because investment decisions are taken with a horizon of 10 to 20 years. And biofuels aren't readily available at scale, so these need to be developed. And while the airline industry is developing these solutions, carbon offsetting can be a bridge solution.”

Hemmings suggests another solution that could be immediately introduced: fuel taxes. “When an aircraft takes off at Heathrow, it pays no fuel tax, just because of quirks of history. After the Second World War, aviation was given all these tax breaks to help bind the world together. Well, I think the world has been bound together over the past 70 years. Why should we still have these exemptions on fuel tax?”

When I suggest that introducing fuel taxes might eventually mean that only the wealthy can afford to fly, Hemmings disagrees. “In the UK, yes, there'll be the family of four from the Midlands who fly once a year to Majorca. There's no reason why they shouldn't pay tax.

“But the real issue of that tax is that the guys and gals who fly 40 or 50 times a year, and there are plenty of them, are going to have to pay the bulk of the tax. And so they should.”

Most experts agree that it's unrealistic to expect aviation levels to decrease. As Hemmings points out, Asia's growing middle classes can't be expected to fly less simply because those in the West have spent the past 40 years jetting around the world and releasing emissions.

But, he says, this means there does need to be a change in how governments treat aviation. He accuses transport ministries of being more focused on helping the industry grow, when instead they should be introducing taxes and measures to reduce carbon emissions.  

“If passengers like you, or I or Prince Harry, want to buy offsets to help broaden the amount of countries tackling climate change, that's fine. Who are we to say no? But why should that counter emissions for aviation?" he asks.

"That £30 trip to Majorca for the weekend... it's only gonna damage the climate, right?... If you believe that by offsetting [flights], you're actually doing the world some good then think again."

Update: This article was amended on 5 September 2019 to clarify the distinction between airlines' own voluntary offsetting schemes and the Corsia scheme.

Indra is the New Statesman’s digital sub-editor.