Flights are one of the single biggest contributors to individual carbon dioxide emissions, yet are almost unavoidable for those wishing to travel to, or go abroad from, Japan — particularly problematic for climate-conscious residents who want to travel home to see friends and family for the holiday season.
According to German nonprofit Atmosfair, the average economy class return flight between Tokyo and London produces 6.2 metric tons of carbon dioxide, Tokyo to New York 6.6 tons and Tokyo to Melbourne 5 tons.
For context, the average person living in Japan produces 9.5 tons equivalent of carbon dioxide per year, according to the World Bank. A single return trip to New York produces more than half that. Simply put, flying as usual is incompatible with the 1.5 degrees Celsius warming scenario the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we must meet if we are to avoid catastrophic global warming.
The most immediate and effective method of preventing those emissions is to no longer fly, but until the Trans-Siberian railway gets a bullet train-level upgrade, the Japan-South Korea Undersea Tunnel is built, North Korea opens its borders and individual companies allow month-long vacation periods for their employees to travel via less carbon-intensive means, there is no practical alternative to flying if you want to go any great distance from Japan. So what can you do as a climate-conscious traveler?
Carbon offsetting is by no means a new idea, but has become increasingly easy and effective as the industry has matured over the past decade. Since carbon offsetting first took off, demand has grown from just 0.3 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2008 to 42.8 million tons in 2018, according to Forest Trends, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that tracks the voluntary carbon offset market.
In theory, the concept of offsetting is simple: A passenger works out their emissions using a carbon calculator, such as the one provided by Atmosfair, and then buys “credits” from a program that prevents or removes the equivalent carbon dioxide to those emissions. It is worth noting that there is no one method for calculating emissions, and different calculators may give differing results.
The popular image of offsetting is of tree planting and reforestation efforts, but the range of initiatives has expanded as the industry has grown and you can now support projects as diverse as providing solar cookers that reduce wood consumption (and hence deforestation), and small-scale solar and wind energy projects.
Some airlines flying internationally from Japan offer to calculate carbon dioxide emissions and offset them for an additional fee when you purchase tickets. This can be one of the most convenient ways to offset, though it is worth researching the effectiveness of the program being offered by the airline. If you are booking through an airline that doesn’t offer offsetting, or if you’d rather pick the organization yourself, there are multiple options available to choose from.
Here is where carbon offsetting becomes trickier — you want to know you’re getting good value for money; the projects you are supporting are actually effective, generating new carbon reductions rather than financing reductions that would have happened anyway; the organizations you are donating to aren’t taking large overheads; and that the projects you support aren’t causing dislocation or damage to local communities.
Certifying organizations such as Gold Standard, Climate Action Reserve and Verra give accreditations to a wide range of organizations and projects proven to deliver carbon offsets, easing the selection burden for those wishing to offset. These organizations can be a good starting point to look for projects to support or for vetting the activities of an offsetting program you already know about.
Gold Standard is the most consumer-friendly of these, listing accredited projects from as little as $10 (¥1,085) per metric ton for schemes in developing countries, a fraction of the price of a transcontinental international flight. Other organizations, such as the Swiss-based nonprofit Myclimate, link their carbon calculators directly to projects. Myclimate offers offsetting in developed countries from around ¥10,000 per ton and developing countries from around ¥3,000 per ton.
Carbon offsetting is by no means a panacea and should be just one tool in the arsenal of a climate-conscious traveler; it’s still better to reduce your emissions than to produce them in the first place. However, if air travel is unavoidable, offsetting offers an increasingly useful solution.