Can you buy your way out of hell with carbon offset fees?

Carbon offset fees work like penance in the Roman Catholic Church. They won’t exactly prevent you from committing certain sins, such as traveling by plane, but they might make you feel less guilty about committing them. At least that’s how they work on me.

Confessions of a selfish traveler

Last year, I spent roughly 190 hours flying and by doing so I generated 46,69 metric tonnes of CO2. Probably enough to get me a first class ticket to Hell courtesy of Greenpeace. Other than traveling by air extensively, I try to be good to the environment. I recycle, live in a small apartment, use public transportation and energy-efficient light bulbs.

According to the Stern report, the aviation industry accounts for only 1,6 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Electricity generation accounts for 24% of global carbon emissions, deforestation accounts for 18% and road transport accounts for 10%. And that’s forgetting bovine flatulence.

Still, I can’t help but feel guilty about my contribution to it. Every time I fly now, I try to add the “carbon emission offset” fee whenever the airlines offer it. I figured it was about time to find out where my money is actually going.

US airlines: the good, the bad and the non-green

A couple months ago, I read a shocking statistic on e-photoframes: of the 374 global airlines, only 24 of them offer passengers the ability to purchase carbon offsets and “clean up” the CO2 emissions from their flights. That is not the most shocking part. The most shocking is that only 1 percent of all US airlines sell CO2 offsets. The US has 175 airlines with listed websites but only two of them–Delta and Continental–currently offer voluntary carbon offsets to their passengers. Although a few other airlines came out with “green plans,” only Delta and Continental offer carbon offsets so far.

What does Delta offer?

When you book on, you can make a contribution to The Conservation Fund’s Go Zero program to plant trees to offset the carbon emissions that result from your flight. You can calculate your carbon footprint online using a their calculator. According to, “in just one year, Delta and its customers have raised enough funds to plant 102,065 trees that over their lifetime are expected to trap 64,000 tons of carbon dioxide–that’s enough to offset the carbon footprint of more than 2,900 Americans for one year.”

On average, a contribution of $5.50 would offset 0.28 short-tons of carbon dioxide, one person’s estimated carbon emissions associated with a 1,320-mile roundtrip flight. A contribution of $11.00 is estimated to offset 0.88 short tons, an individual’s estimated carbon emissions from an average 4,500-mile roundtrip flight.

Where will your money go, you ask? Every penny of your donation goes directly to The Conservation Fund’s Go Zero program to help protect and restore our most vulnerable wildlife habitat. For every $5.50 contributed, the Fund pledges to plant one tree in a protected park or national wildlife refuge.

What does Continental offer?

Continental works with Sustainable Travel International to help invest passengers’ carbon offsets in high-impact projects designed to reduce greenhouse gases, such as reforestation or renewable energy. These projects, which also benefit local communities, are located all over the world. Customers have the option of selecting which kind of program they would like their carbon offsets to benefit.

Other than that, it works similar to Delta. Participation in carbon offsetting is voluntary. The carbon calculator determines the average amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that is emitted for each type of aircraft in Continental Airlines’ fleet and passengers can choose if they want to donate the recommended amount or a different amount.

What about other US airlines?

Many airlines are planning to introduce carbon offsets for passengers in the near future. Northwest’s Carbon Emissions Calculator will estimate the amount of CO2 emissions generated by your flight and provide a suggested voluntary carbon offset contribution to The Nature Conservancy® to remove or sequester CO2 from the atmosphere. Midwest Airlines is also planning a carbon offset program.

American Airlines is certainly not sticking its neck out when it comes to carbon offsets (other than canceling 3,000 flights here and there). They approached it completely differently. From March 24, 2008 through July 31, 2008, their BeGreen program awards up to 10 miles per dollar spent on any Gift of Green products and 5 miles per dollar spent on BeGreen Express Carbon Offset Products including: BeGreen Driver, BeGreen Flyer, or BeGreen Home. I virtually never fly American and this makes me think that I don’t have a reason to change my mind.

Is it worth it?

I want to say, for the extra $5 or so, you almost can’t go wrong. At the same time, it seems silly that something as minor as paying an extra $5 could actually save the planet from scorching and save us from hell.