What offsetting calculator do you use? Where do you donate?

Those are the two questions we’ve been asked lots during 2019, so here are our answers:

What offsetting calculator do you use?

We use www.atmosfair.de to calculate the greenhouse gas emissions from our flights, as set out in our carbon offsetting strategy. After looking at lots of calculators online, we found it to be the most rigorous and transparent in its calculations. Unlike most, the calculator also includes the non-CO2 effects of flying.

Beyond calculating our flight emissions to know how much to offset, we have actually used the calculator to help us decide which flights to buy (if we have to fly!). It’s easy to compare the emissions of different routes (when you are required to stopover), so you can compare and factor that in. They also have an airline index where you can compare the efficiency of different airlines’ planes. So for example, for flights we took to Canada last year, we bought flight tickets that resulted in 4% less emissions than the alternative routes and airlines on offer*. 

*That might not sound much, but it saved 400kg of CO2 equivalent which is – on average – the same as one quarter of one person’s emissions in India for a whole year. (That comparison definitely puts in perspective the extraordinarily high emissions from long-haul flights.)

Where do you donate?

We donate to a few different initiatives, predominantly efforts to halt deforestation through Cool Earth and renewable energy projects through Atmosfair at the moment: 

  1. Cool Earth – https://www.coolearth.org/

Cool Earth focuses on halting and preventing deforestation of tropical rainforest through supporting local communities and their livelihoods. We wrote a previous blog about their work here. Through the funding they provide, they help reduce the pressures communities are facing to deforest (whether through ‘shifting cultivation’ or selling land to loggers). As set out on their website, “8% of all global emissions are from tropical deforestation alone, but these same forests can provide 23% of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed before 2030”. 

  1. Projects through Atmosfair – https://www.atmosfair.de/en/climate-protection-projects/

Atmosfair has rigorous project standards that focus on renewable energy schemes. 90% of these are CDM/Gold Standard projects (combining these two different offsetting standards and their own to ensure emissions are additional, avoid leakage, and prevent other negative impacts). The other 10% are micro-projects requiring start up funding that are not at large enough scale to afford verifying their emissions with the CDM/Gold Standard certification. 

NB We have also received donations from friends and family for our birthday and Christmas presents to donate trees here in New Zealand through Trees That Count. They direct the funds received from businesses and individuals to community groups and landowners around New Zealand who are wanting to plant trees and need money to do so. 


It’s never quite that simple…

Mike and I had a long weekend break to visit family and friends in the South Island at the end of August. In accordance with trying to minimise the footprint of our travel (see our strategy here), we booked tickets for the ferry from Wellington to Picton and then hired a car from Picton rather than hopping on a plane.

Just now, I checked how the figures stack up regarding how much CO2e we roughly saved… the results were not as starkly different as I would have expected, showing these things are never that simple!

For a start, it is difficult finding figures that give you an accurate idea of emissions for ferries. Referring to DEFRA’s emissions conversion factors, a foot passenger on a ferry apparently uses 0.019kg CO2e per km (which would equate to 7.8kg CO2e for both of us, both ways). However, when you look at the methodology behind this figure it is calculated only for mixed passenger and freight ferries, not for passenger only ferries, which would have a higher factor. The Interislander ferry we took is predominantly a passenger ferry (to be confirmed), so I also found this higher estimate, which would put our ferry journey at 18.4kg CO2e for a return trip for two of us.

With cars I’m still not totally sure what assumptions are made with the various calculators out there – on this occasion I used co2.myclimate.org as I could enter the fuel efficiency alongside fuel type and distance travelled. So the car distance travelled from Picton to Christchurch came out at 181-206kg CO2e (for the return journey of 676km travelled, with a fuel efficiency of 6-7 litres per 100km).

This means a return journey by ferry from Wellington to Picton and car from Picton to Christchurch for two of us is 188.8-224.4kg CO2e, accounting for the variances in the estimates above.

For flights, we have previously done lots of research into flight emissions calculators and found the greatest rigour and transparency in Atmosfair’s emissions calculator. For two people taking a return flight from Wellington to Christchurch, this would be 216-271kg CO2e, depending on the aeroplane used).

Although the median value is lower for the car-ferry option compared to the plane, it shows that depending on the specific factors of the journey we took, taking a ferry and car could have had a higher footprint than flying, which I find quite shocking. I am surprised there is not a greater disparity between them, and it shows the assumptions in our carbon offsetting strategy are not absolutely steadfast.

My conclusions from this exercise:

Flying makes it easy, fast and cheap to travel long distances which is what leads to it being so impactful in terms of emissions – you can do many more long journeys as a result. Depending on the context, flying can be an efficient way to travel, it just leads to Jevons paradox i.e. it encourages more miles to be travelled thus undermining the (potential) efficiencies of the individual journey made.

This calculation shows how accurate estimates related to the specific context are really needed to have confidence in knowing for sure which one is better – given these close proximities in numbers.

In future I think we will always assume to travel in a way that avoids flying.  This means we have to take into account longer journey times and possibly more expense for going away, making it a less trivial decision to go. And then we will do the actual calculations to check if it really does result in lower carbon emissions to travel that way compared to flying…


US road trip!

Mike and I are moving to New Zealand from the UK, making the most of the trip with a US road trip from Chicago to San Fransisco on the way. I’ve been asked if I’m going to write my blog so I’ve said I’ll just add a few photos now and again!


First stop is Chicago, staying with our friends we’ll be roadtripping with. Contemplating the view of central Chicago from the lakeside (which you’d think was the sea!).


Fantastic architecture tour on a river boat – definitely making us all look up and appreciate the buildings a bit more.


On our last night in Chicago we went up the stunning Hancock tower.


More from me soon!


Cool Earth

We had a great video call last month with Buffy from Cool Earth – you can read about our conversation here: http://www.seekthechange.org/engagement/cool-earth/

This organisation is definitely one to watch as the model they have developed reaches full maturity. It seems to us to have so much potential so we are excited to see what happens next!

Long overdue post from Malaysia!

Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM)

Meeting with Dr Elizabeth Philip, 23 January 2017

We visited the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) whilst in Kuala Lumpur at the end of January. As we were in Malaysia anyway (to make the most of the stopover back from New Zealand to the UK), we wanted to find out about offsetting initiatives happening there. We were lucky enough to meet with Dr Elizabeth Philip, Head of the Climate Change and Forestry Program at FRIM. She gave us insights relating to activities and challenges Malaysia faces in relation to forest protection, which we set out in brief below.

Dr Philip told us about a collaboration between FRIM, Malaysia Airlines, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (NRE), and the Forestry Department of Pahang, which started in 2011. Malaysia Airlines provided some funding for a voluntary carbon offsetting project in the peat swamp forest of South East Pahang (east of Kuala Lumpur). This project illustrates some of the challenges that can come with forestry management projects.

The peat swamp forest in Pahang is rich in biodiversity (home to animals such as the Malayan sun bear and the Asian elephant), and stores lots of carbon. However the forest is at risk from deforestation, and has been degraded in many areas due to human influences.

There were some initial troubles with tree selection, but the project seemed to achieve successful replanting of a small degraded area, thanks also to the involvement of the local community.

Unfortunately, in 2014 due to the abnormally hot conditions caused by El Niño, the replanted area of forest was destroyed in a forest fire, and since Malaysia Airlines’ disastrous 2014, they have stopped providing funds.

It seems that Malaysian Airlines went into the project with good intentions but, for reasons outside of their control, the money they invested probably hasn’t yet led to carbon reductions due to the fire. What is promising is the shift in strategy at the site – FRIM and their partners are now focused on water management to reduce the risk of future fires. Hopefully FRIM will be able to find the funding to continue the project and redouble the initial efforts funded by Malaysia Airlines.

A key question for any offsetting scheme is – ‘is it additional to what is already being done?’. In response to the question of how useful the voluntary offsetting money from Malaysia Airlines was, Dr Philip stated that the Pahang project wouldn’t have been carried out so fast without it (which is something!) but it certainly seems like it would be difficult to measure how much carbon was saved per dollar spent for Malaysia Airlines (and hence also for anyone who used their voluntary carbon offsetting scheme).

Besides this offsetting scheme, Dr Philip mentioned various other efforts around forest protection. She told us that they are trialing the use of biodiversity credits in Sabah (to offset biodiversity losses elsewhere) but so far have had little success due to a lack of funding. Dr Philip noted that multinationals are not as interested in peat forest as they are in charismatic megafauna such as orangutans, and also suggested that Malaysia does not attract as much attention from large funding organisations due to the larger emissions reduction potential of nearby Indonesia.

After meeting Dr Philip, we took a guided tour of the FRIM canopy walkway, which was awesome!



Walking through the canopy!

Walking through the canopy!

Profiles up on sustainability efforts at two NZ universities

I was in New Zealand in January 2017 – as part of the trip I met with sustainability professionals at two of New Zealand’s eight universities, Victoria and Canterbury. This was to share learnings and experiences and compare notes with what is happening at the University of Cambridge (where I am currently working) on sustainability efforts. You can find the write ups of these meetings here: Canterbury, Christchurch and Victoria, Wellington.