The greenwashing tactic that gives jetsetting celebrities a ‘licence to pollute’

'If carbon offsetting is problematic in theory, the reality is even more fraught,' writes Wright
'If carbon offsetting is problematic in theory, the reality is even more fraught,' writes Wright - Maxime Mouysset

It’s fair to say the Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas knows how to handle a few private jets, but it was certainly put through its paces over Super Bowl weekend in February. Driving past the terminals on the way to the Allegiant Stadium, vast flocks of PJs (as their passengers rather annoyingly tend to call them) could be seen parked wingtip-to-wingtip.

It was impossible to tell from beyond the perimeter fence whether or not Taylor Swift’s jet was among them. There are four airports that can accommodate private aircraft in Las Vegas, with a combined total of about 475 parking spots. According to business flight tracker WingX, 882 private jets flew in and out of Sin City that weekend. The flight tracker out of Las Vegas after the game ended looked like a slow motion starburst of jets taking off.

Taylor Swift flew from her concert in Tokyo to Arizona to watch her boyfriend Travis Kelce in the Super Bowl last year
Taylor Swift flew from her concert in Tokyo to Arizona to watch her boyfriend Travis Kelce in the Super Bowl last year - Getty Images

One of the planes in Vegas that day was the 19-passenger Dassault Falcon 7X that had carried arguably the most famous woman on Earth on the final leg of her journey from a concert in Tokyo to watch her boyfriend Travis Kelce (a tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs) play in America’s biggest sporting event.

Swift’s journey to Las Vegas was reported as breathlessly as the chances of the two teams, but her travel plans have also attracted some rather less positive attention over the years. Marketing firm Yard named the 14-time Grammy-winner the biggest celebrity CO2 polluter of the year in 2022 (based on data from the now-defunct Celebrity Jets account on X).

And the backlash against Swift’s flights has only increased during the megastar’s $1 billion-grossing Eras Tour, which started in Arizona in March 2023 and is set to conclude in Vancouver this coming December after 152 shows across five continents. Trips around the US to watch Kelce play have added to her air miles.

Swift’s team has pointed out that analysis of her travel arrangements doesn’t take into account how many other people are on the flights, that she loans out the plane to others, and that she purchased more than double the carbon credits needed to offset all her tour travel.

The last has become the standard line of defence. In 2019, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, who have campaigned on environmental issues, faced accusations of hypocrisy on social media after a flight on Sir Elton John’s private plane to the south of France.

Sir Elton took to social media to defend the couple, adding that he had paid for the flight to be carbon offset ‘to support Prince Harry’s commitment to the environment’.

At the time, the Financial Times calculated that this gesture may have cost Sir Elton (who has an estimated net worth of £450 million, according to last year’s Sunday Times Rich List) about £50.

The Germans even have a word – Flugscham – to describe feelings of guilt about the damage air travel does to the environment. But some green activists and climate sceptics argue the $2 billion voluntary carbon credit market is a load of hot air that does little more than salve the consciences of globe-trotting superstars and rapacious corporations. One US publication denounced it as the ‘great cash-for-carbon hustle’.

While Swift made the final leg of her trip to Las Vegas in her own jet from Los Angeles, she travelled from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to LA in a three-cabin Bombardier Global 6000, chartered from global private aviation group VistaJet. Its website proudly trumpets its use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and carbon offsetting.

This positive step does need some qualification. SAF is a form of biofuel produced from waste fats such as used cooking oil. Big leaps have been made in this area but there are currently not enough raw materials to supply the industry at a meaningful scale, making it more expensive than traditional fuel. Airlines therefore tend to add small amounts of SAF into the fuel mix.

The industry’s own target was for SAF to constitute 2 per cent of the fuel it uses by 2025, up from 0.1 per cent in 2019, but aviation experts believe the disruption caused by the Covid pandemic means that even this goal is doubtful. The hard yards to counterbalance the environmental impact of flying will therefore have to be done by offsetting. VistaJet claims that its purchases of verified carbon credits have, to date, offset the admirably precise figure of 1,473,609 tons of CO2. Those keen to learn more need only click on a link which takes you to the website of a company called South Pole, the world’s largest carbon offsetting provider.

The exact origins of the carbon offset market are somewhat uncertain. But credit for the original idea is usually ascribed to a US power company called Applied Energy Services (AES), which came up with a plan to create a forest around its coal-fired power plant to absorb the huge volume of carbon dioxide it would spew out.

Unfortunately the plant was in Connecticut, where land is scarce and relatively expensive. Then one bright spark pointed out that CO2 has a habit of not staying put. It therefore didn’t really matter whether the new trees were sucking carbon out of the atmosphere in Connecticut or, say, Guatemala. So, in 1989 AES started paying 40,000 farmers to plant trees in the mountains of the Central American country.

Right from the start, therefore, the carbon market has involved an implicit contract between the hemispheres, with rich countries, which produce a lot of carbon and are typically located north of the equator, paying poorer ones in the so-called Global South to run projects that offset those emissions.

'Things started to pick up when [Greta] Thunberg entered the scene and the green movement went into hyperdrive,' writes Wright
'Things started to pick up when [Greta] Thunberg entered the scene and the green movement went into hyperdrive,' writes Wright - Getty Images

Carbon offsetting was enshrined in international law by the Kyoto Protocol and United Nations Clean Development Mechanism. Soon thousands of projects sprang up selling credits, but from the beginning, the concept had critics. Greta Thunberg has described offsetting as ‘a dangerous climate lie’. The chief complaint is that offsets are essentially a licence to pollute, an issue best illustrated by a satirical website (now defunct) that offered a mechanism allowing people to pay someone else not to cheat on their partner in order to counteract their own infidelity. ‘When you cheat on your partner you add to the heartbreak, pain and jealousy in the atmosphere,’ the website explained. ‘Cheat Neutral offsets your cheating by funding someone else to be faithful and not cheat. This neutralises the pain and unhappy emotion and leaves you with a clear conscience.’

If carbon offsetting is problematic in theory, the reality is even more fraught. The price of carbon collapsed soon after the financial crisis when industrial activity slumped and countries got cold feet about the Kyoto Protocol (the US, for example, has still not ratified it). Many projects went bust.

Things started to pick up when Thunberg entered the scene and the green movement went into hyperdrive. National governments may have started equivocating in their environmental commitments but corporations began to feel it was an issue their customers wouldn’t let them ignore, and the market for voluntary carbon credits exploded as global brands fell over each other to demonstrate net neutrality.

Further impetus was provided by the establishment of the Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets in 2020, an initiative spearheaded by Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of England. Most carbon credits are bought from a developer through a broker. Carney’s idea is to create a kind of stock market for offsets.

Mark Carney making a speech to launch the private finance agenda for COP26 in 2020
Mark Carney making a speech to launch the private finance agenda for COP26 in 2020 - Getty Images

Management consultancy McKinsey & Company has forecast that the value of voluntary offsets could soar from around $2 billion today to $50 billion by 2030. BP, Shell and the Saudi government have all opened carbon trading desks, but critics point out that this means those who buy an offset could unwittingly be adding to the profits of oil companies.

Those who champion the voluntary carbon credit market say the profit motive can help accelerate real change, especially on deforestation, where there is precious little help coming from other quarters.

There are roughly three trillion trees in the world and collectively these ‘reverse lungs’ can absorb about a third of the carbon that humanity pumps into the atmosphere. Most environmental experts agree there is little possibility of limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, the target set by the Paris Agreement on climate change, without protecting and restocking the world’s jungles, forests, mangroves and other natural ‘carbon sinks’.

However, much of the world’s jungles and forests that needs either saving or replanting is located in remote areas where land rights are uncertain and monitoring can be tricky. Last year prosecutors in the Brazilian state of Pará filed lawsuits against three carbon credit projects, accusing them of ‘grilagem’ or land grabbing.

Communities deep in the Amazon region have often occupied the land for generations but don’t have the relevant paperwork, making land ownership claims uncertain. (‘Grilagem’ is derived from the Portuguese word for cricket because fraudsters used to put fake deeds into a drawer with the insects so their droppings would make the papers look older.)

NGOs have long warned that rogue developers may use aggressive tactics to remove local and indigenous people from some areas in order to protect trees, generate credits and earn a profit. Not only is the practice potentially unlawful and certainly unethical, it can result in displaced communities merely cutting down trees in another part of the forest.

REDD projects (‘reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation’) have also come under fire for shaky methodologies. These schemes could generate carbon credits based on successful efforts to conserve forested areas. But to do so, they have to prove a tricky counterfactual: that the forest would otherwise have been cut down. This is usually done in reference to forest loss in an unguarded reference area – a notoriously inexact process.

More than 90 per cent of rainforest offsets certified by Verra, the world’s largest certifier of such credits, did not represent genuine carbon reductions, according to an investigation published early last year by The Guardian, German publication Die Zeit and investigative journalists SourceMaterial.

Verra, the Washington, DC-based non-profit organisation responsible for approving about three-quarters of all voluntary offsets, strongly disputed the claims.

However, a separate in-depth investigation published in The New Yorker last October found that a forest project in Zimbabwe managed by South Pole, which provides the carbon offsets for the company from whom Swift chartered her jet out of Tokyo, likely didn’t have the environmental impact it had originally claimed. Using a formula that had been signed off by Verra, South Pole vastly overestimated the number of trees it would save, according to the report. The upshot was that around two-thirds of the carbon credits generated over a decade likely didn’t offset any pollution.

Christoph Sutter, who wrote a doctoral thesis on measuring the impact of offsetting projects and was South Pole’s founding chief executive before resigning in 2012, has previously said: ‘The big majority of what you see in the [voluntary carbon credit] market, in my view, boils down to a lot of greenwashing, a lot of marketing, a lot of money-making.’

Greta Thunberg and other Extinction Rebellion activists protesting the proposed expansion of Farnborough Airport, the UK's busiest private jet airfield, in January 2024
Greta Thunberg and other Extinction Rebellion activists protesting the proposed expansion of Farnborough Airport, the UK's busiest private jet airfield, in January 2024 - Getty Images

Those looking for evidence the carbon market has been an environmental Wild West can point to the number of outfits which have sprung up in recent years, often with the word ‘integrity’ in their names, aiming to shine some much-needed light into the darker corners of this murky industry.

Six organisations, including the Voluntary Carbon Markets Integrity Initiative and the Integrity Council for the Voluntary Carbon Market (ICVCM), have recently teamed up to launch what they claim will be an ‘end-to-end’ integrity framework for decarbonisation. Pedro Martins Barata of the Environmental Defense Fund, a US-based non-profit organisation, and co-chair of ICVCM’s expert panel, says: ‘We hear a lot of criticism of the voluntary carbon credit market – some fair, some less so. But what is rarely acknowledged is that the market has always addressed that criticism.

‘Clearly there were issues around Verra’s methodologies on REDD projects. What wasn’t reported was that Verra was already trying to fix those issues. We need to get away from the idea that the market has to achieve perfection in one go.’

This tension of perfection becoming the enemy of good enough played out at Cop28 in Dubai at the end of last year. Hopes of a deal on carbon trading mechanisms fell apart over differences of opinion between the US and the European Union about whether it was more important to get a system up and running quickly, or that it was fully robust and transparent from the get-go. The US was in favour of a light-touch, no-frills approach to regulation, while the EU argued for stronger checks and balances.

But, amid the controversy and diplomatic stand-offs, the world’s trees are still being cut down at an alarming rate. Around 6.6 million hectares of forest around the world were lost in 2022 – a four per cent increase from the year before, according to a coalition of environmental organisations.

Amy Merrill, the head of global carbon markets at the non-profit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, argues the voluntary carbon credit market is, despite its flaws, a way of getting companies to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do, and for ecological projects to receive money they wouldn’t otherwise get.

‘It is,’ she says, picking an apposite metaphor, ‘a way of planting two trees with one seed.’