United Airlines Carbon Offsets: Reviewing Eco-Skies Program with Conservation International

By Jazmin Murphy | Updated on October 14, 2021

Although air travel accounts for a small portion of global emissions, it’s a significant contributor of CO2 emissions within the transportation industry.5,6

United Airlines is one of the many companies that have stepped up to help neutralize the climate impact of flying, using their new EcoSkies program operated through Conservation International.

United Airlines plane taking off with a blue sky.

But many people wonder, what exactly do United Airlines’ carbon offsets plans accomplish? Is it enough to save the environment from their CO2 emissions?

This Eco-Skies review can help explain.

United Airlines’ Eco-Skies® Program

In an attempt to reduce the airline’s contributions to climate change, United Airlines has introduced the Eco-Skies® CarbonChoice offset sponsorship program. The company states, “[W]e’ll purchase carbon offsets on behalf of our customers so all their corporate air travel with us is 100% carbon neutral.”3

This is an unusual take on the typical carbon footprint tree planting program. Instead of allowing flyers to offset their own emissions how they would prefer, United Airlines will instead buy the offsets for them.

Furthermore, offsetting opportunities are restricted to corporate customers. Individual flyers who happen to fly for personal trips, or even in business class, are barred from the chance to neutralize their flight’s emissions.

For many corporations that frequently use United Airlines, the new program shows promise for a more eco-friendly flying experience.

How the Eco-Skies® Offset Program Works

United Airlines has partnered up with Conservation International to calculate how much each corporation would owe to offset their flight, using the Eco-Skies® offset program.

This partnership provides United Airlines and its passengers access to Conservation International’s carbon calculator. The tool includes data on the flight distance, number of passengers, and whether the flight is round-trip or not. Users can also input a “Batch of Miles,” which, presumably, is the total of their air travel miles for a given year, or the corporation’s cumulative miles, including each member’s business trips.

Although the calculator is available to passengers, for this carbon offset plan, United performs the calculations on behalf of the participating corporation. This introduces some concern about the lack of participants’ actual involvement throughout the offsetting process.

Many argue that because of this, Eco-Skies® isn’t necessarily helping corporations offset their emissions. Instead, it seems that United Airlines is introducing an opportunity for itself to offset a fraction of its carbon dioxide (considering that the program only applies to corporations).

If this is the case, what real benefit is there for corporations that primarily use United Airlines for transportation, product shipping, and more? If they cannot track and offset their emissions themselves, what are the participating corporations truly doing to improve environmental health?

Once the calculations are complete, United Airlines donates the “corresponding amount necessary” to offset the resulting carbon dioxide emissions through one of Conservation International’s CO2 reduction projects.[3] United Airlines reports all Eco-Skies® offsets quarterly – though to who or where is not stated.

Concerns About United Airlines Eco-Skies® Offsetting Program

Perhaps the biggest concern about United Airlines’ offsetting program is the lack of transparency. There are many crucial details missing from their program overview. As mentioned earlier, the airline fails to present any information about where or to whom it reports carbon offsets. Additionally, there is no information on whether United uses a third party to verify their offsets – a critical element of any trustworthy program.

It’s also intriguing that the airline claims to calculate and offset CO2 emissions on behalf of its corporate customers. Unfortunately, United introduces more confusion in an FAQ statement, which reads,

“United customers now have the opportunity to offset the carbon dioxide emissions resulting from their travel by making tax-deductible charitable contributions to a variety of independently reviewed and certified environmental projects… After you book your flight, you will be given the option to calculate your emissions and offset your carbon…”

This contradicts the earlier statement declaring that United would take care of the offsets on behalf of corporate customers. Yet, technically anyone traveling by air could input their data for an offsetting estimate, since the calculator is publicly available. However, it’s unclear if these offsets would be considered a part of the Eco-Skies® offsetting program, since they are not included in the program description.

To find out your current carbon emissions, use an ecological footprint calculator today.

Vague Language in Eco-Skies® Offsetting Projects

The best carbon offset programs have a need for transparency and measurable results, so that participants can ensure that their donation is generating real results that are positive for the environment.

With this in mind, United could benefit from making more information about their offset projects accessible to the public.

One notable concern is the project types available for United Airlines’ carbon offsets. United Airlines gives customers “several options as to how they’d like to offset these emissions.”3 Yet, there are some caveats to this on their website that call this claim into question:

  • At no point in the calculation and payment process does the user have any option to choose which offset project they’d like to donate to. In fact, there are no projects presented for selection at all.
  • Nothing is listed under the section meant to detail United Airlines’ and Conservation International’s available projects. Currently, in this section, the program overview reads, “Our carbon reduction projects include: Community-based forest conservation in Peru:”

The passage suggests that there should be a list of projects available, yet there are no project choices whatsoever.

The Eco-Skies® video suggests that United Airlines supports “projects like community-based forest conservation” in areas such as Peru’s Alto Mayo region.4 (The specific projects are never named or described, and it’s unclear if they are merely “like” community-based forest conservation, or if that’s what they definitively are.)

Claudio Schneider, CI Peru’s Technical Manager states, “Conservation agreements are an approach that Conservation International has been applying in many countries successfully.” Schneider explains that these agreements entail convincing local populations to not “destroy the forest in exchange for benefits.”4

Luis Espinel, CI Peru’s Executive Director says, “It’s not an economic benefit like a cash handout. Rather, they’re activities that benefit people in the protected area.”4

The Eco-Skies® offset overview and video provide no clear information, data, or media coverage detailing what Conservation International actually does to improve the environment and vulnerable communities.

 

Concerns About the Value of the Eco-Skies® Offsets

Merely avoiding further forest destruction is not enough to curb climate change. Although, the use of accredited and verified forestry offsets has the potential to do more than just sequester CO2, if implemented correctly.

One of the most fundamental elements of a verifiable offset is additionality. This means that the offset reduced or removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that wouldn’t have been reduced or removed otherwise. If carbon dioxide would’ve been taken care of anyway, with or without the offsetting project, the offset has no additionality. Essentially, this renders the offset and its corresponding credits worthless.

Eco-Skies® projects do not seem to have any additionality. By telling local communities to not “destroy” forests, the offsetting project hasn’t actually offset any CO2. Telling people to essentially “leave the forest alone” does not reduce or eliminate any emissions. Sadly, this suggests that the Eco-Skies® program may not actually provide the environmental benefit that it claims, besides vague claims of forest conservation.

Why Are so Many Airlines Introducing Offsetting Programs?

Many airlines in recent years have begun accepting more responsibility for their environmental impact, as more research of the airline industry’s environmental impact comes to light.7

Studies have found that the aviation industry contributes quite a bit of damage to global habitats, from plastic pollution to emission of greenhouse gasses (GHGs). In fact, if the aviation sector were a nation, it would be among the top 10 largest CO2 emitters, as it is responsible for 8% of all global emissions… even more than the construction industry.7

While many sectors are beginning to reduce their emissions, aviation’s have continued to grow. Carbon emissions from the airline industry grew by 75 per cent from 1990 to 2012.7

The nature of air travel makes the use of single use plastics and large consumption of fuel notable detriments that can be difficult for the airline to avoid. Luckily, many airlines have switched to recycled or compostable plastic-ware, and there is now an industry-wide push for a transition to biofuels.8

According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI), “passenger air travel” displays the highest and fastest growth rate of individual emissions, dramatically exceeding transportation alternatives like automobiles, and even electricity use.1 In all, air travel accounts for 12% of all transportation emissions.2

The expansion persists, despite major overhauls of aircraft and flight operations over the last six decades. EESI states that, although scientists have improved aviation technologies, the industry’s emissions continue to rise, since commercial air traffic is growing.1

An 8 Billion Trees graphic depicting a graph of CO2 emissions by airplane size, with Airliners emitting the most at 19,193 pounds of CO2 an hour.

Offset Your Flights Wisely and with Transparency

While United Airlines’ attempt to step into the carbon marketplace is admirable, many are justifiably concerned about the initiative’s transparency.

Fortunately, there are other programs, such as Air Canada’s Leaveless, that have much more in-depth, transparent offsetting opportunities available to flyers.

To truly erase your flight’s carbon footprint, though, you can take matters into your own hands, and use a publicly accessible carbon offset program. By calculating exactly how much your flight’s carbon dioxide output is, you can choose to offset the entire amount, resulting in a carbon neutral transportation experience.

By combining pre-existing programs with individual carbon offsets, flying green is much easier than you may think. Plus, it will help save our forests, animals, and atmosphere from the detriments of climate change, regardless of what airlines, like United Airlines, actually accomplish. .


References

1Overton, J. (2019, October 17). Fact sheet | The growth in greenhouse gas emissions from commercial aviation. Environmental and Energy Study Institute | Ideas. Insights. Sustainable Solutions. Retrieved July 23, 2021, from: https://www.eesi.org/papers/view/fact-sheet-the-growth-in-greenhouse-gas-emissions-from-commercial-aviation

2Air Transport Action Group. (n.d.). Facts & figures. Retrieved July 23, 2021, from: https://www.atag.org/facts-figures.html

3United Airlines. (n.d.). CarbonChoice carbon offset program. Retrieved July 23, 2021, from: https://www.united.com/ual/en/us/fly/company/global-citizenship/environment/carbon-offset-program.html

4United. (2014, December 3). United – eco-skies – Alto Mayo forest carbon project [Video]. Retrieved July 23, 2021, from: YouTube. https://youtu.be/0msL8-rOHyY

5European Union. (2017, February 16). Transport emissions. Climate Action – European Commission. https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/transport_en.

6Ritchie, H. (n.d.). Which form of transport has the smallest carbon footprint? Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/travel-carbon-footprint

7Briteweb, ©. (n.d.). Air travel and climate change – David Suzuki Foundation. Retrieved May 8, 2021, from https://davidsuzuki.org/what-you-can-do/air-travel-climate-change/

8Eco-Friendly Airlines. (n.d.). Retrieved May 8, 2021, from https://www.alternativeairlines.com/eco-friendly-airlines