Is communication of voluntary carbon offsets in the aviation industry trustworthy?

Abstract image of aeroplanes

We assess the communications of 37 airlines on their own websites regarding voluntary carbon offsets (VCO) to determine the extent to which they are either trustworthy or misleading. We propose an innovative coding framework that captures the trustworthy or misleading attributes of the messages as they are applied to: i) the type of claim (product, process, fact or image), and ii) the nature of the claim (fibbing, hidden trade-off, no proof, vagueness, irrelevance, lesser of two evils or worshiping false labels). We deploy a quantitative, multi-method approach that combines content analysis and discrete choice modelling, and we corroborate the taxonomy developed with lexical analysis. We identify the various factors that affect the pattern of 56% of claims being trustworthy and 44% being misleading. We demonstrate how a combined study of the trustworthy or misleading characteristics of communications provides more learning opportunities than studying either individually.

1. Introduction

Aviation has witnessed sustained multi-decade growth, contributing 3.5% of the carbon footprint in 2018 (Lee et al., 2021). While COVID-19 has slowed down the growth in aviation (Le Quéré et al., 2020) and traffic is forecasted to recover at a lower rate than pre-pandemic projections (IATA, 2020), recovery will likely remain dependent upon the combustion of fossil fuel (Lee et al., 2021). Since 1960, air traffic volume has increased more rapidly than emissions (Airlines for America, 2018) thanks to efficiency gains (Lee et al., 2021). Nonetheless, technical and operational measures, and an increased switch to aviation biofuels, alone, are insufficient to achieve carbon-neutral growth (Scheelhaase et al., 2018). Market-based measures, such as offsetting schemes, are needed for a comprehensive approach to addressing aviation’s carbon footprint (IATA, 2020). Voluntary Carbon Offsetting (VCO) passes on the responsibility of reducing the carbon footprint of travel to consumers by asking them to make a monetary contribution, which is then invested in environmental projects that reduce or sequester greenhouse gas emissions (Babakhani et al., 2017Burns & Cowlishaw, 2014). Yet, the VCO market is still in an embryonic stage, with only 10% of air passengers purchasing VCO credits (Ritchie et al., 2021).

This is an excerpt of a research report by Dr Mireia Guix , Ms Claudia Ollé and Prof Xavier Font. The full report can be accessed on ScienceDirect

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