Canada’s Tri-Councils (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) have a relatively new policy making flight carbon offsets an eligible research expense. The policy comes from a good place – seeking to encourage scholars to reduce the climate footprint associated with their research activities. However, two follow up questions come to mind: 1) Could the new offset policy have the unintended effect of exacerbating the carbon footprint of Canadian researchers? 2) Are the Tri-Councils prepared to cover the costs of genuine offsets achieved through direct air capture of atmospheric CO2 paired with geological storage?
There are two “conventional” types of carbon offsets widely available to consumers seeking to reduce their carbon footprints. The first of these – biological carbon offsets – aim to sequester carbon within trees or agricultural soils. One example of this type of offset is the Darkwoods forest carbon project in British Columbia, an area of forest protected from development. The second – sustainable energy projects – typically aim to support the installation of renewable energy infrastructures to replace the use of fossil fuels. One Canadian example of this type of offset includes Alberta’s solar offset, where helps fund owners of small-scale renewable energy generation in the province.
However, the scientific literature is deeply critical of both types of offsets, finding them to lack integrity and potentially exacerbate climate change. To serve as genuine offsets, the same amount of CO2 which was added to the atmosphere through the combustion of jet fuel would need to be removed from the atmosphere, and then remain out of the atmosphere for the same amount of time as the emitted CO2 stays in it. This simply is implausible for biological offsets, since forests and agricultural soils are highly susceptible to disturbances, such as forest fires or tillage. These disturbances release CO2 back into the atmosphere, effectively rendering the offset meaningless. Similarly, although there is an argument to support sustainable energy transition projects financially, they are not genuine offsets, since there is no technical reason why the projects could not have been financed without the associated emissions of CO2.
Thus, the purchase of a typical flight carbon offset for research may not in fact bring any direct meaningful reduction of a researchers’ climate impact. Worse, some research suggests that it could have the opposite of the intended effect, by encouraging researchers to fly more than they otherwise would have without the policy in place. More empirical research is needed to determine if this “rebound effect” will manifest in a Canadian researcher context. But there is a real risk that merely having the ability to expense research funds on offsets will help assuage researchers’ concerns about the carbon footprint of their flying enough so that it may help them justify a flight purchase instead of flight reduction.
This brings us to my second question: Would the Tri-Councils’ policy extend to a genuine carbon offset? Such offsets effectively must be stored not in biological material, but rather in a secure geological reservoir. By using a carbon removal process such as direct air capture (powered by carbon neutral energy, of course), combined with a long-term geological carbon storage, one could achieve a genuine offset. Direct air capture literally pulls CO2 out of the atmosphere and then pumps it into underground reservoirs where it then mineralizes and stays fixed for thousands of years. However, despite a few prototype pilot projects, this kind of geological CO2 storage has not yet scaled commercially and it is immensely expensive compared to conventional offsets.
As part of this thought exercise, I determined what the carbon footprint would be of a hypothetical return flight between Toronto and Los Angeles (1688 kg CO2 equivalents, according to Atmosfair, a globally recognized flight carbon offsetting online tool). Then, I sought to determine how much it would cost to remove this amount of CO2 from the atmosphere, using Climeworks – a custom Direct air capture firm currently taking future orders for carbon removal. According to Climeworks, it would cost $3,125 (about five times as much as the flight itself). This compares to the $58 Atmosfair charges to offset the flight through a sustainable energy transition project. Are the Tri-Councils prepared to reimburse the true cost of offsetting flights for research?
There are currently major capital investments and technological improvements being made in direct air capture, CO2 storage, sustainable aviation fuels, and zero emissions aircraft. This will presumably help bring down the relative costs of genuinely offsetting a flight, in part by reducing the costs of capture and storage, and in part by reducing the amount of CO2 produced by a flight in the first place. But none of these technologies have scaled sufficiently yet to make a real difference from a climate point of view. The Tri-Councils have it right in the part of their policy which “encourage[s] grant recipients to consider the necessity of grant-funded travel, and to reduce this when possible.” For now, the best offset might just be not flying at all.
Ryan Katz-Rosene is associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s school of political studies.