It's not easy being green, especially when you're about to do one of the most polluting things an individual can do – fly long-haul from Sydney to Europe.
According to the calculators on Google Flights, my return journey in December will put 2.6 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. Once it's up there, it stays up there, my own special contribution to global warming.
Scientists and climate activists will tell me that the only way I can really negate my environmental impact is to not fly at all.
But let's be realistic. Australians are going to fly. Maybe not in the numbers they did before COVID-19, and maybe not as often, perhaps staying longer, or choosing short trips over long ones that transit in multiple airports. But we're a country of travel addicts and mostly that means taking to the skies, even within our vast and beautiful country, where distances and the lack of a good railway network make flying the quickest and least expensive option.
I've written before about ways to mitigate individual CO2 emissions from flying by buying carbon offsets. Airlines such as Qantas, Virgin and Jetstar give passengers the easy option to pay extra to compensate for the personal carbon emissions taking that flight produces (Qantas has upped the ante with a new Green tier to its loyalty program).
The airlines mostly direct these funds towards clean energy and environmental rehabilitation projects which reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere by the same amount the passenger has expended on the flight.
But now that I'm flying to Europe and trying to do the right thing, I'm finding the question of carbon offsets much more complicated than I expected.
First, I did a quick survey on the World Wildlife Fund website (wwf.org) to work out my personal annual carbon footprint from my lifestyle. It was horrendous.
What really amped it up was the three long-haul flights per year I put into the calculator. The result was an enormous 22.32 tonnes of CO2 each year. But 78 per cent of my footprint was due to those three flights.
I definitely needed to compensate for this.
My airline didn't offer the quick option to pay for offsets, so I researched the many independent schemes available. There's a whole industry in flying carbon neutral, which in the main part supports tree planting projects or schemes that replace fossil fuel-based energy with renewable energy sources. Some pay forest communities so they don't have to rely on cutting down trees for their livelihoods; others might provide more efficient cook stoves for women in Nicaragua.
The concept is not without controversy. Firstly, there's the argument that the responsibility is unfairly shifted to the individual consumer rather than the big emitters. There are arguments about the different methodologies used for calculating the effectiveness of these schemes and whether they are sound. Some argue the projects don't do anything to resolve the major issue, which is how to reduce the carbon put in the atmosphere by burning aviation fuels.
In the end I felt buying carbon offsets was the best tool I had. I couldn't take back the carbon, but maybe I could contribute to a project that helped a community transition to clean energy. According to Choice, the most effective offsets are those that replace fossil fuel energy with renewable energy.
Even so, it wasn't easy. There are a multitude of providers that will calculate my footprint and sell me carbon offsets. Among the most popular are the Swiss-based myclimate.org, the German non-profit atmosfair.de which promotes, develops and finances renewable energies in 15 countries; terrapass.com, a social enterprise headquartered in San Francisco, and goldstandard.org, established by the World Wildlife Fund in 2003.
But the calculations of value differ wildly. Atmosfair suggested I pay $539.50 to offset my trip. It's a big ask to add a few hundred dollars to the price of every ticket, especially if you have a family. Myclimate's calculations were more affordable at $232 for the trip. TerraPass suggested an annual contribution, starting at $20 a month.
The Gold Standard calculates a flat fee per tonne depending on the project. The projects range from the Yarra Yarra Diversity Project in southern Western Australia ($42 per tonne) to cleaner, safer water in Cambodia ($16.90.) What I liked was the opportunity to choose the project I supported. I chose to donate to a mini-hydro plant in Sri Lanka. It cost me about $80.
Until the time carbon offsets are included in the price of the ticket, it's a decision placed on the consumer. You might decide otherwise, but I felt the cost of doing nothing was higher than the small price of doing something.