Planting Trees for your Next Flight: Studying Behavior Around Carbon Offsetting

Ritchie, B. W., Sie, L., Gössling, S., & Dwyer, L. (2019). Effects of climate change policies on aviation carbon offsetting: a three-year panel study. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 28(2), 337–360. 

If you flew on a plane to visit loved ones this past holiday season, you’re not alone; an estimated 47.5 million people took to the skies over the end-of-year holidays. For some, it’s the best way to get around in our increasingly globally connected world. And as air travel is expected to only grow in the coming years, the CO2 emissions will too– but “offsetting” that pollution might be an alternative to scaling back.

Oak Sapling.
Frequent Flyer Maples

Voluntary carbon offsetting means that people can pay money towards absorbing the same amount of CO2 that is emitted from the air travel, perhaps by funding the planting of trees. For example, some airlines partner with Carbon Fund, who suggest donations based on the miles travelled, with the money going towards projects like reforesting the Lower Mississippi Valley. Carbon released in one place and fixed in another means that ultimately, you’re at net-zero; it’s like you didn’t fly at all in the eyes of mother nature.

Programs for offsetting when flying private with Jettly have been in place for a while, but less than 10% of travelers purchase it. Brent Ritchie and his team of researchers wanted to figure out some of people’s beliefs and attitudes that go into purchasing carbon offsetting. 

More Than Just a Conference

During the United Nations Climate Change Conference of 2015, or COP21, many nations agreed to keep

Full Session of COP21 for the Adoption of the Paris Accords. December 12, 2015. Photo by Arnaud Bouissou.

climate warming under 2˚C by 2030. This agreement was highly publicized, and knowledge of such agreements may have influence on people’s decision-making towards the environment. The researchers wondered specifically if the decisions at COP21 had any effect on these environmentally-minded decisions, or if other factors played a stronger role.

Following the same individuals for three years, the researchers gave surveys to assess knowledge about global, national, and other country’s environmental policies, as well as their impression of the policies’s effectiveness. They also asked how the individuals perceived the impacts of flying, their beliefs about carbon offsetting, and social norms, among other factors. 

Think about this from your perspective; as a person reading an environmental science blog, you probably are aware of some climate change policies and act in ways that benefit the environment. Maybe you use public transportation, and I’m sure you never litter– would you choose to pay money to offset the pollution from your flight?

The researchers found that people’s attitudes towards offsetting and the surrounding social norms play the most significant role in influencing environmental behavior. This makes some common sense: if people think offsetting is worthwhile, and if their friends do it too, they’re more likely to take part in the program.

But how did global policies, like COP21, affect people’s behavior? In general, respondents didn’t have a lot of knowledge about policies, but given what they did know, their knowledge and beliefs on global policies played a more important role on the offsets than national and country policies. This means that big events with a lot of positive coverage, like COP21, gave a boost to the offsetting programs.

Future of Offsetting

Lastly, if people think a program is effective they’re more likely to take part, but offsetting might not be the shiny solution that people hope it will be. Small offsetting projects need to be able to work together to reduce overall emissions, and it’s not clear whether planting trees will really be the long-term carbon sink we’re all hoping for– for one thing, forests can burn. 

That being said, investing in carbon offsetting isn’t a bad solution. It can be used to fund other programs that invest in more efficient and renewable energy, becoming a source of long term funding for groups that might struggle to otherwise stay afloat. In all likelihood, offsetting is a small part of a bigger solution to reach the goals set in COP21. Understanding these environmentally-minded behaviors helps us all move in the right direction.

Feature Image By InsightPhotography

Reviewed By: 

Share this:

Abigail Bezrutczyk

I’m a fourth-year undergraduate at Cornell University, where I study environmental science and plant science, and do research with invasive plants. I’m interested in pursuing a career in science communication after college. Outside of school, I enjoy cooking, drawing, and snacking on goldfish crackers.

Leave a Reply