Qantas Gives Flyers Rewards for 'Being Sustainable'

If you walk instead of drive or install a solar panel, you can fly without guilt.

Qantas Dreamliner in air with land on the ground
A Qantas Dreamliner in flight.


Airlines have been selling carbon offsets for years—take a flight and plant a tree. It didn't cost much and it assuaged our guilty consciences. It's old news, so Australian airline Qantas has come up with a new spin on the old offset with their Green tier: You get rewards for cleaning up the rest of your life, you know, that part that doesn't involve airplanes.

"The Green tier will sit alongside existing flying tiers, and is designed to educate, encourage and reward the airline’s 13 million frequent flyers for everything from offsetting their flights, staying in eco-hotels, walking to work and installing solar panels at home. Members will need to complete at least five sustainable activities across six areas – flying, travel, lifestyle, sustainable purchases, reducing impact and giving back – each year to achieve Green tier status." 
Frequent Flyer Green Tier


Other activities that will get points include walking to work, installing solar panels, or contributing to efforts to save the Great Barrier Reef, notwithstanding that the Great Barrier Reef is being killed by climate change caused by carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, including those from Qantas jets. Qantas CEO Alan Joyce effuses about sustainability:

“Our customers are concerned about climate change and so are we. There’s a lot of action we’re taking as an airline to reduce our emissions and that means we have the framework to help our customers offset and take other steps to reduce their own footprint... Offsetting is one of the main ways Australia can reduce its net emissions in the short to medium term until new low emission technology becomes available."

It is hard to know where to start with this, perhaps with George Monbiot in 2006 when carbon offsets were first offered by airlines. He wrote what could be a direct response to Joyce's statement about offsets being a short term solution:

"Any scheme that persuades us we can carry on polluting delays the point at which we grasp the nettle of climate change and accept that our lives have to change. But we cannot afford to delay. The big cuts have to be made now, and the longer we leave it, the harder it will be to prevent runaway climate change from taking place. By selling us a clean conscience, the offset companies are undermining the necessary political battle to tackle climate change at home. They are telling us we don't need to be citizens; we need only to be better consumers."

But Monbiot also makes a point about traditional carbon offsets: Trees take time to grow. He notes: "Almost all the carbon offset schemes take time to recoup the emissions we release today."

The Qantas scheme is interesting because walking instead of driving actually does prevent carbon emissions now, as does installing solar panels when you have coal-fired electricity. If it was measured pound-for-pound of CO2, it would be a form of carbon budgeting, not dissimilar from what I tried to do in my recent book, "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle."

emissions different modes

BEIS/Defra via BBC

The trouble is that flights from Australia are long; Melbourne to Los Angeles is 7,921 miles or 12,778 kilometers, at 195 grams of carbon per kilometer, totaling 2,491 kilograms of CO2. One would have to walk 14,567 kilometers instead of driving to truly offset the carbon emissions of flying that one trip. That's not likely to happen, and these offsets are really just performative.

Climate expert Ketan Joshi studied in Australia and we reached out for his thoughts on this. He noted in a tweet: "The broken and mad logic of offsetting - coupling every step forwards with a big step backward - has really become the default way of thinking for these companies. Creates a total disconnect from the actual problem. Intentionally, of course."

Back in simpler times, when offsets were new, Monbiot noted that it sounded great. "Without requiring any social or political change, and at a tiny cost to the consumer, the problem of climate change is solved. Having handed over a few quid, we can all sleep easy again."

But the problems of the emissions from flying are not so easily sloughed off. Aviation remains an almost intractable problem, and it is pretty hard to get to and from Australia without it. So let's not pretend that feel-good personal offsets will make a difference. As Monbiot concluded so long ago: "You can now buy complacency, political apathy and self-satisfaction. But you cannot buy the survival of the planet."