A growing majority of air travellers are refusing to pay to offset carbon emissions amid concerns about the efficacy of the schemes.
The amount of carbon tonnes voluntarily offset by passengers on Australia’s second largest airline has more than halved since the 2010/2011 financial year.
In that year, 65,971 tonnes of carbon were offset by Virgin Australia passengers.
The latest figures show only 29,110 tonnes are being purchased and offset annually.
The Group Manager of Sustainability at Virgin Australia, Robert Wood, accounts the high uptake in purchasing carbon offsets earlier this decade to the groundswell prior to the adoption of the carbon tax by the Labor-Gillard government in 2012.
Mr Wood says the “superstars” of buying carbon offsets are 60 year old women from Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory.
Skepticism of carbon offsetting programs is also a factor in the plummeting sales.
Georgia Griffiths, a 22 year-old law student from Newcastle, chose not to purchase carbon offsets on her recent flights to New Zealand and Melbourne.
“I don’t trust that the money I pay will actually go towards any kind of carbon offset scheme,” she said.
“I just think that airlines could be pocketing that money and I’d never know.”
Ms Griffiths does purchase carbon offsets for the Splendour in the Grass music festival.
“I’m more inclined to purchase carbon offsets for things like festival tickets, because I trust the companies more than I do with flights.”
Mr Wood from Virgin Australia, says that “carbon offsetting is a complex topic” and the company is trying to improve the way they communicate it to customers.
“You don't get a lot of time to interact with customers about [carbon offsets] as it is part of the booking process. At that point, people are really interested in getting to the end of that process and purchasing a ticket.”
Aviation fuels, at present, are sourced from fossil fuels and because they are locked away from the atmosphere for thousands of years, they are not part of the active carbon cycle.
Some scientists are concerned that carbon offset schemes don’t actually offset’ the fossil fuel-sourced carbon dioxide used in aviation.
“Scientifically, it doesn't stack up,” according to Professor Will Steffen, climate change expert at the Climate Council Australia.
“Purchasing carbon offsets has been happening for a couple of decades but it really is just a way of making people feel better about flying. I think they are largely ineffective.”
However, Professor Michael Cortie, academic and member of the Research Centre for Clean Energy Technology, said that sentiment was “dead wrong” because as long as CO2 is being offset, it doesn’t matter where it came from originally.
“All CO2 is equal.”
“As long as you have a net amount of CO2, abstracted from the atmosphere when it wouldn’t have happened naturally, it’s good.”
Virgin Australia, like many companies offering carbon offset schemes, direct the money to forestry.
“A lot of people would think of carbon neutrality is simply planting more trees but that is fundamentally flawed,” Prof Steffen said.
“Putting carbon in forest is not an offset. Because that carbon is vulnerable to go right back up to the atmosphere on a short time scale.”
In 2007, Virgin Australia (then Virgin Blue) launched the Fly Neutral program, the first government certified airline carbon offset program in the world.
Mr Wood said Virgin Australia was proud of its program because it supported biodiversity, created jobs, and sometimes reconnected Aboriginal Australians with traditional land management practices.
Prof Steffen believes that purchasing carbon offsets misdirects funds that could be invested in researching how to make sustainable aviation fuels viable.
A transition to biofuels would likely see the onus of environmental responsibility shifted from the consumer to the airline.
Sustainable aviation fuels are on the way to becoming mainstream, according to Simon Elsegood, Senior Analyst at the Centre for Aviation.
“In the last decade, we’ve gone from 1000 flights a year, to 130,000 flights a year being powered by biofuel.”
“The original target a decade ago was that ten per cent of fuel use was going to be sustainable alternative fuels. That has not eventuated, it was less than one per cent last year.”
The aviation industry has set ambitious targets that are starting to pick up traction in the form of real action, according to Mr Elsegood.
Instead of asking questions about the possibility of sustainable jet fuel in commercial quantities in the future, companies and stakeholders are now questioning who is going to fund the research and infrastructure, he said.
“I think we are at the start of that really sharp uptick for sustainable aviation in airlines.” Mr Elsegood said.
Despite not regularly using sustainable aviation fuels, Virgin Australia’s fuel efficiency is ranked above the industry’s average as the sixth most fuel efficient airline undertaking transpacific routes, according to a recent report published by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT).
The only other Australian airline listed, QANTAS Airways, was reported to be the least fuel efficient transpacific airline, coming in at the 20th place.
Dr Brandon Graver, researcher at ICCT, says that QANTAS ranked so poorly because of their dated aircraft and their low payload capacity, the latter including freight and passenger loads.
Freight share is the key driver of airline fuel efficiency, followed by seating density, aircraft fuel burn, and passenger load factor.
QANTAS fills 74% of available seats on average, compared to Virgin Australia at 82%.
“As fuel prices go up [airlines] have an incentive to save on fuel. So they are going to go and try to buy newer, more fuel efficient aircrafts,” Dr Graver said.
QANTAS is currently updating their fleet to include the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners, which use a more fuel efficient dual engine system, as opposed to older models using four engines.
In 2021, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) developed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation will come into play.
CORSIA will require airlines to offset carbon from international flights that exceeds the baseline set over 2019 and 2020, to suppress the growth of emissions as the industry grows.
However, CORSIA has been criticised by some for supporting the trading of emissions, instead of the reduction of emissions.
“The truth is that offsetting is a distraction and it is not going to contribute to the decarbonisation of aviation,” Dr Graver said.
QANTAS had submitted its 2015/16 and 2016/17 financial year public disclosure statements to the Australian Government's National Carbon Offset Standard (NCOS) Carbon Neutral Program, but they were not publicly available until this week after questions from Central News.
Despite claiming to have the largest carbon offset program, QANTAS’s NCOS public disclosure statement does not provide the details of passenger-purchased carbon offsets.