Caroline O'Doherty: 'Carbon offset is all the rage but it cannot excuse the problem with flying'
It's a sign of the times when an airline that has long flown on the "low fares" slogan is now just as keen to promote its low emissions credentials.
Ryanair, once more likely to make headlines with stories of customer upset, now grabs attention with carbon offset.
It claims to be "Europe's cleanest and greenest airline" and emails customers monthly environmental updates, interspersed with the usual exclamations about great offer getaways.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
The airline is one of a growing number trying to keep environmentally conscious customers on-side - and keep potential regulation outside - by compensating for its CO2-belching aircraft engines with a range of good works.
EasyJet last week upped the game by announcing it would offset all its carbon emissions with a new 'net-zero flight' initiative. What that means is that for every kilo of carbon dioxide emitted, it will fund a project or activity to counteract the environmental impact.
Projects commonly chosen by airlines include tree-planting, installing solar panels, preserving rainforests or funding the production of energy-efficient cook-stoves for families in the developing world.
For air travellers, this appears good news as they can enjoy their flight without the mental turbulence of guilt.
But environmentalists doubt the actions go close to cancelling out the 2pc to 2.5pc of annual global carbon emissions for which aviation is responsible.
They also question the principle of doing wrong and then seeking to make amends for it afterwards. Oisín Coghlan, of Friends of the Earth, says the emphasis needs to be firmly on cutting emissions.
"We're not going to be able to keep flying at the rate we are now and find some other way to suck all that carbon out of the atmosphere," he says.
"If every industry that finds it a bit awkward to reduce emissions says, 'It's OK, we're going to offset them', well, there just isn't enough land for all the trees that would have to be planted in compensation."
Besides, he says, the projects are often run by commercial companies. "A tree needs to be growing 30 years to offset your flight emissions. What degree of confidence can you have that the company is going to be around then?"
Andrew Murphy, of Transport and Environment, a Brussels- based NGO, also takes issue with some of the more popular projects.
"It's hard to say with accuracy how much carbon is offset. The calculation of carbon offset with cook-stoves is based on the assumption that they last 10 years, when they often last far shorter than that," he says.
Passengers also appear to have reservations. Only 2pc of Ryanair passengers made the requested voluntary donation since the scheme began last year, raising a modest €2.5m for carbon offset projects.
But there is sufficient interest among the flying public generally to spark a surge in companies offering offset schemes separate from airlines.
Mr Murphy and Mr Coghlan both say offsetting is not a long-term solution and people either need to fly less or airlines need to find carbon-neutral fuel.
There has been little incentive to do either. Flights are relatively cheap and aviation fuel is exempt from tax.
But earlier this month, nine EU member states, not including Ireland, formed an informal coalition to push for aviation tax. Last week, the European People's Party (EPP), the largest political grouping in the European Parliament, adopted the same policy.
Fine Gael is a member of the EPP and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar tweeted afterwards that he supported the idea - so long as it applied to all of the EU.
The aviation industry has been dabbling in carbon-free synthetic fuels for decades but has never been under pressure to make the switch.
There is a meeting of EU finance ministers on December 5. "We'll be watching to see what Paschal Donohoe says. That will be the test of whether what the Taoiseach said is just a tweet or actual Government policy," says Mr Murphy.