What do students think about offsetting their air travel emissions?

July 10, 2017

Have you ever considered offsetting your emissions from air travel? As a company that primarily works with colleges and universities, our team here at Urban Offsets certainly has. After doing some light research, we found that some colleges and universities seem to struggle with accurately tracking their scope 3 or indirect emissions from activities such as airline flights for a study abroad trips. As it turns out, it is quite challenging for a school to get accurate data in regard to student air travel emissions. Not only must the school track where the students are traveling, they must also record layover airports they are traveling through, consider the efficiency of each aircraft, and then, in addition, track the cargo load of each aircraft for every leg of the trip.

Photo by beasty

Presently, several airlines including Delta Airlines, allow individuals to purchase carbon offsets for their flights. These features, however, are typically buried beneath other content either on their own website or even through links to carbon brokers like The Nature Conservancy. To offset your travel emissions, you must specifically and actively search for it. There are just too many barriers between the traveler and the offsets and thus the vast majority of travelers don’t do it.

One potential solution, at least for the 50 billion miles flown by schools (students, staff, and faculty) every year in the US, could be a new type of partnership with airlines offering carbon neutral flights for school-related travel. Use your .edu address to book, the airline tracks miles, emissions are offset annually. Seamless integration; the airline is the hero, you travel carbon neutral, and your school moves ever closer to meeting its carbon neutrality goals. Offsets could be purchased through local projects around the University’s town – why, that’s what we’re doing at Urban Offsets! So, if such a partnership could arise, who would end up paying for the offsets?

We know that students and their families directly finance all, if not a vast majority of, their own study abroad air travel costs. Would they be willing to shoulder an additional price burden to offset their air travel emissions? Perhaps more importantly though, do students even care about flying carbon neutral or if their school is working towards carbon neutrality? Our team here at Urban Offsets was determined to find answers to these questions so we designed a poll on social media. Students were asked to gauge their interest in sustainability, their school’s carbon neutrality commitments, and carbon neutral flights.

Current students at North Carolina State University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, Appalachian State University, New York University, the Pratt Institute, and Columbia University were asked to respond to our poll. Over a course of 4 weeks, 466 responses were logged. The results shed some light on how an airline could work with schools and their students as soon as the next study abroad trips in September.

Aggregated data from the seven North Carolina and New York schools show students to have a slightly positive preference towards schools identifying themselves as committed to neutralizing their carbon impact compared to schools without this identifier. Nearly 3/4 of students polled would choose a carbon neutral school (see figure 1).

Figure 1

Our second question generated a very lopsided answer curve by the 466 polled students.  Students clearly (67.8%) prefer equally priced carbon neutral flights vs non-neutral flights. Given the equal pricing, this is a significant identifier of where students wish airlines would focus their attention. Are you looking for your next market differentiator, Delta? (see figure 2).

Figure 2

What happens when the same carbon neutral flight is offered not at an equal price, but for an additional ‘small fee’? Students appear less enthusiastic, by the distribution found in figure 3 below, but still group on the clearly positive side of the chart.

Figure 3

This is one of the most interesting parts of the data, I think.  We asked students to quantify the ‘small fee’ we asked about in the question above. As you can see in figure 4, there’s a wide spread of answers stretching from $0 all the way up to $1,000 (!!!). There’s an obvious clumping, however in the range of $10 to $30, which makes sense qualitatively. The median value, however, is dominated by the peaks at $50 and $100, which provide an answer of $52. That is, $52 is how much students polled value a carbon neutral flight. That’s a straightforward benchmark for airlines, then.  (see figure 4).

Figure 4

Here are the takeaways:

  1. Students overwhelmingly desire carbon neutral flights
  2. Students don’t want to pay for those carbon neutral flights.
  3. Students feel that flying carbon neutral is worth about $52.

So, if students won’t pay, will airlines? We believe universities would be happy to shoulder a part of the cost, even if the price tag is $52/flight. What’s the easiest way to roll this out, even on a trial pilot basis? Pick a school (Duke), independently announce that all (or first 1,000) flights booked directly through the airline’s website using a .edu email addresses will be carbon neutral. It’s clear that students will prefer carbon neutral flights. No airline has offered an opportunity like this yet, but with increased competition comes an opportunity for differentiation. We can help make that happen. Give us a call.