By NADIA DIMATTINA and WILL ZWAR
Marg Fitzgerald regularly gives thanks for the carbon guilt suffered by Australia's frequent flyers.
Without them and their carbon offsets, the beautiful Five Rivers Reserve in Tasmania's Central Highlands would have fallen to loggers long since.
Instead, it offers an experience of “absolute beauty”, the weeding volunteer says.
Formerly owned by giant pulp mill operators Gunns, the land was bought by the Tasmanian Land Conservancy in 2010 as part of the biggest private conservation deal in Australian history. Now it grows undisturbed on carbon credits.
There were 637,300 domestic flights in Australia last year and for every mile an aeroplane travels it produces 24kg of carbon. Airlines give customers an option to offset those carbon emissions to help counteract the impact of aviation on the environment.
Virgin Australia's head of group sustainability, Robert Wood, says the formula used to calculate a passenger’s carbon offset price is complex.
“We take our total emissions at a business level, and we look at each city pair. So, if we pick the trip between Sydney to Hobart – we look at over the 12 months how many flights we did, how many passengers we covered on those flights and how much fuel we used specifically on those legs of the flight and how much fuel we burnt," Mr Wood said.
That information is the basis for calculating the individual cost per seat.
The offsets purchased by the consumer benefit schemes benefit various projects, including the Five Rivers Reserve project, run by the Tasmanian Land Conservancy (TLC).
Even small numbers add up quickly. The Virgin Airlines offsets scheme delivered more than $400,000 to the Five Rivers Reserve in 2015, the Hobart Mercury reported last year.
The TLC's carbon project is registered across about 18,000 hectares of land across Australia, with the Five Rivers Project being the largest area of connected land.
“They have preserved a high conservation value piece of land that would have otherwise been logged,” Mr Wood says.
He says there is a lot of competition between international and Australian projects for the carbon offset dollar.
“Internationally there are examples of offset programs and methodologies that may be less environmentally credible than others. We are very careful in the offsets that we purchase to ensure that they are of the highest quality and integrity,” he says.
Virgin Australia chose the Tasmanian land conservancy because they want to provide on-shore projects that resonate with their customers.
“The Tasmanian land conservancy have done great biodiversity work and great scientific work on the property so it is not just about carbon. They are an easy partner to work with and we want to support them,” Mr Wood says.
The Tasmanian Land Conservancy's CEO, Jane Hutchinson, says Virgin was the "first and most proactive" organisation to want a connection with them.
“They could see not only the carbon benefit but also the biodiversity benefit,” she says.
The carbon offsetting partnership with Virgin is strictly regulated. “Virgin Australia buys the Tasmanian land conservancy’s credits and that system is regulated by the Clean Energy Regulator, who certifies the methodologies by which carbon projects are assessed,” she says.
The airlines carbon-offsetting schemes are regulated by the National Carbon Offset standard, administered by the Department of Environment and Energy. The NCOS gives guidance on what a genuine offset unit is.
Mr Wood says carbon emissions are calculated at the airline, and later audited and reviewed by the Federal Government.
“This is why we are keen to participate in the government certified program because then our customers have certainty that not only is the methodology sound, but it is verified by someone,” he says.
To be carbon neutral, airlines must buy enough eligible offset units to balance total emissions generated that year.
“We have been buying all of our units from the Tasmanian land conservancy and we have a regular agreement with them where we purchase 15,000 tonnes of carbon every six months and we surrender it at the end of the year as it is held in a carbon account,” Mr Wood says.
All the data is reported publicly and audited independently.
Other Australian airlines such as Qantas and Jetstar offset their flights through the Fly Carbon Neutral program for customers on their domestic and international flights, which fund a range of other projects.
At the Tasmanian Land Conservancy, Ms Hutchinson says the carbon income they receive goes to a variety of projects, including weeding, fencing, feral animal control, science programs and ecological monitoring.
“We couldn’t run [all our programs] at the level without the carbon project. It is critical to our operations as a conservation organisation. [The money] is absolutely directly going to supporting those reserves and maintaining our conservation efforts in Tasmania,” she says.
Ms Hutchinson advises those who are sceptical of carbon offsetting to visit Five Rivers Reserve to see the direct benefits.
“I hope that the work that the Land Conservancy does can give that confidence that the dollars they are using to spend do go to a project that has conservation significance as well as carbon significance,” she said.
“I know that the land conservancy project is real, and anyone can come and visit those reserves and see what we do.” Visitors must first request access from the TLC.
Weeding volunteer Ms Fitzgerald travels to the reserve each year and believes it is a worthwhile project that serves as a buffer zone for a World Heritage area.
“The land itself is increasing in integrity each year we go back,” she said.
Working bees are held each year, with volunteers like Ms Fitzgerald removing weeds from across 20,000 hectares of highland landscape.
“The Tasmanian Land Conservancy gives me the opportunity to go to a distant landscape, to not use a great deal of carbon to get there, because we carpool, and to do something that makes me feel practical to do my bit to maintain the integrity of Tasmania’s wild places,” she says.
“When you travel through the forest you find huge stumps 2m in diameter. We see wallabies, we see birds … it is beautiful,” she says.
Despite these positive outcomes, environment group Friends of the Earth Australia has concerns about carbon offsetting.
Campaigns coordinator Cam Walker says Australian corporations “keep polluting but pay someone else to clean up (their) mess”.
In the past, Mr Walker says, some dodgy companies have taken advantage of the carbon offsetting market, which is why consumers are so sceptical.
He says carbon offsetting schemes, such as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) in central Kalimantan, Indonesia, have displaced many people.
“There’s at present some concerns around palm oil operations which have been linked to offsetting schemes which have resulted in destruction of peak forests and primary tropical rainforests.”
Mr Walker believes offsetting is a legitimate process if properly monitored.
“If they are clear on their website about who does the offsetting, where the offsetting occurs and how that is quantified and how those offsets are managed over time, then it would be acceptable,” he says.
Do your research before you invest, he says.
“I think you should take it into your own hands and find a way to make sure that the money gets to where it is meant to be, and that could be through supporting local groups,” he says.
Australian airlines are aware there are flaws in the carbon offset process and are implementing new strategies to tackle this.
Virgin Australia understands customers to be sceptical of the offsetting process due to “click fatigue”, Mr Wood says.
“What you see at the moment is you go through, you buy your ticket and then we try and sell you insurance or we try and sell you a rental car or we try and sell you an extra bag and then we try and sell you carbon offset,” he says.
Virgin Australia is working on ways to effectively communicate with their customers about carbon offsetting and create some choice in relation to offset projects.
“Whether it is a dedicated microsite or it is hyperlinks in the booking process that can take you away to look at the choice or even a video, we are working on this,” Mr Wood said.
Australian airlines believe it is important for them to expand opportunities for their customers to offset their flights.
“At the moment we are working on expanding ... we currently only offset on our Virgin Australia flights. We are about to roll it out for Tiger Airways as well,” Mr Wood said.
Tasmanians like Ms Fitzgerald hope that one day soon she will be able to go to the forest to walk around and admire it, rather than having to put in so much back-breaking work. It’s as easy as a click of a button.