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Aviation: The Dirty, Not-So-Little Secret of Internet Governance

This article aims to provide an overview of carbon offsetting, a guide to investing in carbon offsetting programs, and concludes with a call to action by the Internet governance community to research and ultimately invest in suitable carbon offsetting programs.

Almost a year ago, I began writing about the relationship between the Internet/information and communications technologies (ICTs), the environment, and sustainability. One of the points I made in my first article on the subject is that there is much more we as a community can do to reduce our ecological footprint and enhance the sustainability of the Internet—which happens to be good for both the planet and business. This necessity combined with the ever-growing urgency to act hit hard when I recently read a New York Times article about how bad flying is for the environment.

If anyone is reading this in the northern hemisphere at the moment (or anywhere, really), I don’t need to remind you about how hot it is outside. The fact is, the earth is getting warmer, and anecdotes only serve as a reminder—for instance, it’s been so hot in parts of the Middle East this summer that palm trees have been spontaneously combusting, and it was so hot in Phoenix, Arizona, in June that some airplanes couldn’t even takeoff. What’s the connection, though, between our warming planet and Internet governance? Beyond the façade of the seemingly glamorous lifestyle of the Internet governance community, marked by cocktail dinners, international travel, and exotic locales, lies an uncomfortable truth: we are high carbon emitters. Let’s face it: if anyone is working on Internet infrastructure or Internet governance, traveling is practically a requirement for the job and a veritable necessity for the Internet governance community. As I wrote previously on CircleID:

”[Factor in] the uncomfortable reality that to effectively govern a critical global resource means heavy reliance on air travel, it places a lot of existential pressure on the Internet governance community and policy-makers, while also providing even more impetus to produce effective, sustainable, and impactful outcomes at global meetings.”

So, even if it is unsurprising news, you can nevertheless imagine my ethical dilemma as I continue to advocate for sustainability but take more flights in a year than many people will take their whole lifetime. While the guilt and the accompanying affliction of hypocrisy are pernicious, I am working to reduce my carbon footprint in other ways and trying travel less. Yet, even though we can—and should—make changes to our lifestyles, such as eating less meat, recycling more, and cutting down on emissions wherever possible, personal responsibility can only go so far—even renewables aren’t necessarily a panacea.

The real cost of flying

According to the Australian consumer advocacy group CHOICE, airlines emitted 781 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere in 2015, representing about 2% of human-caused CO2 emissions. While this pales in comparison to other industries like energy production, manufacturing, or agriculture in terms of total global emissions, “If global aviation was a country,” Alison Potter writing for CHOICE stressed, “Its CO2 emissions would be ranked seventh in the world, between Germany and South Korea. And as flying becomes cheaper and more popular, the problem is heading skyward. Global passenger air traffic grew by 5.2% from June 2015 to June 2016 and emissions are growing at around 2-3% a year.” Moreover, let’s say someone flew round-trip in economy class directly from New York City to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers’ (ICANN) headquarters in Marina del Rey, California, a municipality in the Los Angeles area, they would emit anywhere between 1.09 metric tons of CO2 to 1.78 metric tons (the discrepancy depends on the methodology used by different carbon calculators, common ones being Atmosfair’s, Sustainable Travel International’s, and Climate Care’s). To put this into perspective, the World Bank highlighted how the average resident of the United States generated about 16.4 metric tons of CO2 in 2013, while the global average was about five tons and the average for the 28 nations of the European Union was 10 tons. So, these two flights alone would total about 1/18th of someone’s annual carbon emissions, assuming they were a U.S. resident. On top of all of these numbers, current research suggests the Internet and ICTs account for around 10% of global electricity use, which is responsible for approximately 2-3% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Thus, even though the Internet governance community is obviously not responsible for all global aviation or ICT-related emissions, we are definitely contributing our fair share to our current climate quandary.

Of course, there are alternatives to face-to-face meetings, such as videoconferencing, Internet-connected hubs, and remote participation. But while such methods are particularly good for certain work plans or small-group discussions, meeting face-to-face obviously has myriad advantages—especially since much of the work is done and connections made in the hallways and at evening social events. Simply put, as long as the Internet remains a global resource, aviation will remain a crucial facilitator of global Internet governance processes. Indeed, it also means we will continue traveling to have difficult and (often) contentious conversations, network with colleagues, and address new issues and ideas. What is the—or at least a—solution then? Carbon offsetting. It is not a perfect one, but it may hold be critical to helping us be, at least a little bit, greener.

Carbon offsetting: A viable alternative?

Aptly abbreviated to “CO,” carbon offsetting involves individuals and companies investing in environmental projects around the world, which are usually based in developing countries, in order to balance out their own carbon footprints and reduce future emissions (source). In some ways, it is a form of carbon tax, but it is by and large voluntary. Although the Global Carbon Project suggests that the best way to offset carbon is by avoiding emissions from fossil fuel use altogether, a key advantage of carbon offsetting programs is that they constitute a finance mechanism meant for projects that want to reduce the amount of CO2 and other GHG emissions in the atmosphere, increase energy efficiency, reduce waste, prevent deforestation, and replace fossil fuel energy sources with renewable ones. Such programs range from planting trees and preventing deforestation, to investing in solar water heating in South Africa and protecting wildlife in Kenya.

According to CHOICE, various studies investigating the willingness of passengers to buy carbon offsets (such as this one, this one, and this one) identified cost, a lack of understanding about carbon credits and emissions from aviation, mistrust in the value of carbon offsets, and the perception that airlines should shoulder more of the cost of offsets instead of passing it on to customers as reasons passengers are reluctant to offset their flights. None of these reasons are surprising, either. When I was doing the research for this article, for instance, I was practically overwhelmed by the amount of information available, often with contradictory information. At the same time, not only did I never come across the concept of carbon offsetting before this summer, but there also did not seem to be definitive answers about what is the best way to go about buying offsets, how they are standardized, and whom they ultimately impact. How much a ton of carbon costs was also unclear, though the generally agreed-upon figure seemed to be about $27 per metric ton of CO2 emitted. The type of fuel used, the make and model of the plane, seat configuration, load factor, flight path, proximity to the equator, head/tail winds, layovers, delays, and a host of other variables determine overall emissions and the price, as does the methodology of the various carbon calculators that exist. It made me wonder, though, if carbon offsetting is too good to be true.

Critiques of carbon offsetting

Indeed, there are various criticisms of carbon offsetting programs, and the efficacy of carbon offsetting programs in reducing global emissions and tackling climate change is understandably disputed. One of the primary criticisms is that carbon offsetting does little to curb emissions growth in carbon-intensive industries. Moreover, according to CHOICE:

“The airlines’ first priority should be given to becoming less dependent on fossil fuels and directly cutting their own emissions. Reducing GHG emissions in impoverished countries is simply not enough to prevent further global warming. Carbon offsets should always be the last step in any moves to reduce the carbon footprint of an individual or a company. Reducing energy use and emissions-intensive activities, and switching to renewable energy should be the priority.”

The criticism does not stop at allegedly focusing on the wrong things. As one writer put it, “When it comes to mud-slinging, carbon offsetting is caked. Epithets include ‘Enron environmentalism’ and ‘snake-oil sales.’ Joseph Romm of climateprogress.org compares it to ‘trying to save the Arctic by collecting left-over ice cubes and shipping them up north.’” The author continues, however, on a positive note. “Statements like these suggest that all air passengers are fossil fools, but it’s not true. Just like recycling’s ‘Reduce, reuse, then recycle’ [mantra], there’s a hierarchy: ‘Don’t fly, fly with the most efficient airline (always in economy class), then offset.’”

What to look for

Of course, carbon offsetting is not meant to be a silver bullet. It alone will not stop climate change or sea-level rise, but it is one of many underutilized resources available to individuals and organizations to address their footprints. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a well-regarded, U.S.-based environmental advocacy organization, concludes that CO programs are worth the investment, and advises interested individuals and organizations to do so but selectively. Low-quality carbon offsets were once common, but have come a long way since they were introduced in the 1990s and 2000s. “Offsets can provide a useful way to help reduce your climate footprint,” noted Peter Miller, a scientist affiliated with the NRDC. “But it’s important to make sure that you’re getting credible and actual real emissions reductions.” As another writer expressed, “Buying carbon offsets won’t stop global warming, but if you’re traveling, it’s your best individual option for reducing your carbon footprint.”

Moreover, carbon offsetting projects must adhere to multiple principles, such as complementarity, additionally, and permanence, and meet several criteria, including verification by independent third parties. Take this example from the NRDC regarding how these principles manifest vis-à-vis actual CO programs:

“To illustrate the difference between a quality carbon offset and a scam, consider a hypothetical example: The offset seller will give your money to a landowner in the Amazon who promises to leave their trees standing to maximize carbon sequestration. The offset seller should make several guarantees in this transaction. First, that the offsets are real—that there’s an actual landowner who owns actual land with actual trees. This guarantee shouldn’t be necessary, but unfortunately there have been cases of groups collecting money for offset projects that don’t yet exist. Relatedly, the offset should be verified and enforceable—a third party should have laid eyes on the trees, and there must be a mechanism for penalizing the landowner if they don’t follow through. The offset should also be permanent. If the person who gets your money can burn their trees to the ground six months later, your money will have been wasted. Finally, the offset must be additional. This is the trickiest issue with carbon offsets. What if the Amazonian landowner never had any intention of clear-cutting their land in the first place? Then your purchase would be a gift rather than an offset. The landowner would be taking advantage of the offset system to collect a windfall for doing exactly what they would have done anyway. Thus, your transaction would have no effect on the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.”

In order to enforce and validate the growing number of carbon offsetting projects, various standards and accreditation schemes exist that aim to strengthen their effectiveness, legitimacy, and accountability (see this link for more information). These include the internationally recognized Verified Carbon Standard (VCS)—also known as the Voluntary Carbon Standard—the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Gold Standard (GS), the United Nations-backed Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), the Climate, Community, and Biodiversity Alliance (CCBA) standards, and the Australian government’s National Carbon Offset Standard (NCOS). Another important standardization program is the Quality Assurance Standard (QAS), which is the auditor behind the International Air Travel Association’s (IATA) carbon offset program, which they consider a successful, value-adding program. QAS-approved offsets are compared against a 40-point checklist, which includes emissions calculations, carbon reduction project selection, and information provision. According to the IATA, more than 30 member airlines have CO programs, which are verified to make sure they provide the carbon reduction effects that the companies claim (see the IATA’s FAQ info sheet for more information). The IATA highlights another important distinction as well for accreditation and standardization agencies. These include projects in the voluntary (or non-regulated) market, which generate offsets called verified—or voluntary—emission reductions (VERs) that rely on third-party verification, and projects in the Kyoto (or regulated) market, which generate offsets called certified emission reductions (CERs) and are formally certified under Kyoto Protocol rules. For more information, check out this graph detailing the process and lifecycle of carbon offsetting projects.

Where can I buy carbon offsets?

Many of the standardization agencies also have extensive lists of verified projects and organizations that carbon offsets support. Key programs and companies offering projects include Climate Care, Sustainable Travel International, The Nature Conservatory (FAQs available here), Green-e Climate Program, Carbon Neutral Charitable Fund, VER+, Atmosfair, Terrepass, and Carbon Fund, of which the latter three offer unique packages designed specifically for businesses (see this page for even more projects). Clearly, there is no lack of diversity; each program operates different projects, in different parts of the world, and they have varying price levels, project plans/aims, and investment options. Although slightly dated, a 2008 WWF report provides an extensive overview of carbon offsetting as well as a comparative guide that contrasts the various carbon offsetting programs.

Additionally, many airlines offer customers direct access to their carbon offsetting programs—especially Star Alliance and OneWorld Alliance-affiliated airlines—which are often part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs. Such airlines offering direct carbon offsetting options include but are not limited to: Air Canada, Air France, All Nippon Airways (ANA), Austrian Airlines, British Airways, Brussels Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Delta Airlines, easyJet, Japan Airlines, Kenya Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Qantas, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), South African Airways, TAP Portugal, Thai Airways, United Airlines, and Virgin Airlines.

It is also important to consider choosing an airline that not only offers carbon offsetting programs, but also those that have a better record for disclosing and reducing their emissions. A good tool for this is Atmosfair’s Airline Index, which extensively compares and ranks the carbon efficiency of the 200 largest airlines of the world. Furthermore, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the U.N. aviation agency, also has extensive information available about carbon offsetting, particularly its Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) program. Aside from providing carbon offset programs, aviation as an industry is also striving to be more innovative and energy efficient, while cutting emissions and investing in more environmentally friendly upgrades and practices.

The catch? Carbon offsets are tax deductible!

As if helping to halt climate change and protecting the environment weren’t good enough reasons to invest in carbon offsetting, many of the programs and agencies described above are nonprofit organizations (often with 501(c)(3) status) or certified B corporations. Therefore, carbon offsets are almost always tax deductible, especially for businesses and organizations. Not only is this great news in light of tightening budgets, but it’s a sustainable gift that keeps on giving.

What can the Internet governance community do?

Given our large, individual carbon footprints, Internet governance stakeholders should seriously consider investing in carbon offsetting programs, whether they be large, multinational organizations, nonprofits, government agencies, universities, or private sector companies. Google, for instance, is a large Internet stakeholder that is investing in carbon offsetting and other environmental sustainable programs, as are many other large private sector stakeholders such as Microsoft and Apple. Understandably, though, these are wealthy and extensive organizations that can afford to pay extra. What about everyone else?

To answer this, I gathered some data to demonstrate the amount of CO2 emissions a routine Internet governance program is responsible for and how much it would cost to offset parts of the participants’ experience. With ICANN60 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, approaching, I used two carbon emissions calculators to analyze how many metric tons of carbon will be emitted by the ICANN60 group of fellows and to see how much it would cost ICANN to invest in carbon offsetting projects. I chose this as a metric since I am part of this fellowship class, thus I will contribute to the statistics, but also because I was looking for a simple example that would be an easy metric to use as a baseline. While doing the calculations, I assumed, based on the conditions of the fellowship, that each person will take a round-trip flight in economy class to Abu Dhabi from the capital city of their respective country, the city where they live (should I, for instance, know the fellow in question as well as where they reside), or the city with the closest international airport. You can check out the chart with the results here, but the average amount of CO2 emissions based on the totals of the two calculators was 223.0312 metric tons, which would cost around US$5,866.53 (€4,989.45) to offset. To put these numbers into perspective, 223.03 metric tons of CO2 is roughly equivalent to 47.1 passenger vehicles driving for a year, the energy use of 23.6 homes for a year, consuming 516 barrels of oil, or burning 237,994 pounds (107,952.26 kilograms) of coal.

Given, these figures do not account for layovers, hotel accommodation, ground transportation, meals, and other aspects of the meeting itself, so the actual numbers are much higher. But if ICANN were to buy carbon offsets just for the flights of the fellows, three times a year, the amount they would spend is only about $18,000 per year—and all of which is tax deductible and helps support great causes. Imagine if all of the large organizations and institutions involved in Internet governance—ICANN, regional Internet registries (RIRs), Internet Society (ISOC), Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Internet Governance Forum (IGF)—as well as the various conference organizers made carbon offsetting a mandatory part of their operations? That would be a surge of money for various conservation and climate change prevention programs, and it would not even be unprecedented—some registries and other organizations, such as CentralNic, already do.

In addition to buying carbon offsets, other recommendations for the community include:

  • Holding meetings in cities with major transport hubs likely to have direct flights;
  • Traveling less frequently or increase the efficiency and effectiveness of travel by attending meetings where we can get more done or meet with multiple contacts in one sitting;
  • Adding CSR-like policies to incorporate carbon offsetting into travel/conference planning and logistics;
  • Making it mandatory to calculate and report on a meeting’s carbon emissions;
  • Striving to make meetings as carbon neutral as possible; and
  • Even considering radical policy decisions like providing a maximum distance stipulation for sponsored programs, where over a certain carbon emission limit, their application would be deferred to the next round when a meeting is happening closer to their location.

There are also steps we can take as individual travelers:

  • Fly less;
  • Pack lightly (each gram adds to energy spent);
  • Choose direct flights over transfer flights since takeoff and landing are the most energy intensive segments of the flight;
  • Take alternative modes of transportation when available, such as busses, trains, or even a personal vehicle;
  • Fly economy (coach) instead of other classes—a 2013 World Bank study found that the footprint of a business class seat is three times those of economy seats, while first-class seats are nine times as carbon intensive;
  • Advocate for cleaner fuels (such as biofuels);
  • Lobby elected officials; and
  • Listen to flight attendant instructions, such as raising or lowering the window blinds (which helps keeps the plane cooler, thus using less energy).

Ultimately, we are all responsible for the planet we inhabit. The Internet governance community is many things—multistakeholder, inclusive, welcoming—but climate friendly is not one of them. Yet, governing a global resource demands global movement, and this article is meant to inspire positive action, not instill guilt—especially since 100 companies, mainly fossil fuel-driven energy companies, have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s GHG emissions since 1988. Carbon offsetting provides an alternative, tax-deductible way to address our carbon footprint, one that makes use of nonprofit charities that are verified and heavily scrutinized by independent third parties. This, combined with other methods, such as carbon emission reporting, provide at the very least a set of options for cutting down on our emissions so that we can continue to commit to not just an open, global Internet, but also a cleaner and more hospitable planet.

By Michael J. Oghia, ICT Sustainability Advocate

Michael J. Oghia is a Belgrade-based independent consultant, researcher & editor working within the Internet governance ecosystem on sustainable access, digital rights, media literacy, and development & capacity building. He specifically focuses on the relationship between the Internet, the environment, and sustainability. Twitter: @mikeoghia

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