Companies who offer CO2 compensation can't keep their promises: report

KLM Boeing 737-700, PH-BGP at Schiphol Airport
KLM Boeing 737-700, PH-BGP at Schiphol Airport. 14 June 2011SaschaporscheWikimedia CommonsCC-BY-SA

Companies who offer CO2 compensation - a popular offer among airlines and travel agencies - rarely deliver on what they promise. The projects in which they invest fall short, and there is barely an effect on climate change, Trouw reports based on its own research and discussions with dozens of Dutch CO2 compensation providers, labels and scientists.

By offering CO2 compensation for a small extra charge, customers get the idea that the climate damage of their air travel, car ride, or energy consumption, is compensated for in another way. Companies promise to invest these small extra charges in planting or preserving forests in South America or China, for example, or the construction of wind turbines in China. There are millions of euros in this market in the Netherlands alone, according to the newspaper.

But Trouw found that the offered compensation is often too sparse and selective. The climate damage caused by a flight, for example, is caused by much more than CO2 emissions, Heleen de Coninck, climate scientist at Radboud University and member of the UN climate panel IPCC, said to the newspaper. "An aircraft also emits a lot of nitrogen oxides, and causes condensation stripes and cloud formation. The warming effect is therefore at least twice as large." There is also as yet little scientific knowledge about the effect of air traffic on high air layers, where complex chemical processes happen. You cannot reverse an effect like cloud formation by planting trees elsewhere in the world, sustainable transport lecturer Paul Peeters of Breda University of Applied Sciences said. 

KLM, which offers CO2 compensation, is aware of this issue. "Because there is not yet a scientific consensus on the precise climate effect of flying, we only limit ourselves to CO2," spokesperson Marjan Rozemeijer said to the newspaper.

The CO2 compensation projects companies invest in also leave a lot to be desired. A study by Germany's Öko-Institut, commissioned by the European Union, showed that in 2016 over 98 percent of the 5,500 CO2 compensation projects invested in were unsuccessful. The projects promised more than they realized. For example, projects focused on protecting trees against logging regularly exaggerated the deforestation in an area, in order to show as much CO2 profit on paper as possible.