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Can I carbon offset my relationship?
Illustration by Robert Wallace.

Can I carbon offset my relationship?

Making long-distance love (environmentally) sustainable.

From the moment we met, my relationship with my boyfriend has been intrinsically tied to flying. It’s a story I’ve told and retold, onstage and off, much to the annoyance of literally everyone in my life. In a world of apps and DMs, we are that rare millennial couple who met in real life, sitting next to each other on a Jetstar flight from Auckland to Wellington. Two happy Jetstar customers on one flight? It was a miracle. We took the bus into town together, and when he got off before me, he intentionally/accidentally left his boarding pass on his seat so I could find him on Facebook and continue our flirtation. It is a perfect romantic origin story, as long as you leave out the bit where I was originally visiting Wellington to see another boy.

I knew immediately that this was the start of something special. But I didn’t realise it was also the start of my air miles increasing exponentially over the following four years. My work almost always requires me to be in Auckland. His university very much requires his presence in Wellington. It’s very much a Tale of Two Cities — it is the best of times (we’re both employed!) and the worst of times (in jobs that demand we are apart).

In the scheme of long-distance relationships, particularly in Covid times, I am well aware that the length between Auckland and Wellington barely even registers as a “distance” — it’s a medium-distance relationship at best — but one thing I learnt during lockdown 2.0 is that when I go more than three weeks without seeing my boyfriend, I lose complete control of all of my emotions, refuse to talk about anything else, and turn into the most annoying possible version of myself. And while as a society we have learnt to have work meetings and catch up with friends and family over Zoom, I can tell you from experience there are some things that really don’t translate as well.

So my flying, already frequent from travelling for stand-up comedy gigs, has increased. I’ve flown Air New Zealand from Auckland to Wellington so many times I am now 30% Cookie Time Cookie. But it is hard not to think of the environment on those flights, particularly when a lot of the time I spot Green MPs making the same journey.

Whenever I book, I always tick the little carbon off-setting box, but am never quite been sure what I am doing. “Carbon off- setting” is one of those terms you read, it sounds good, you tick, you carry on your day feeling like a true hero. But does it actually mean anything?

Off-setting your carbon output is a concept built on the idea that whatever carbon your actions put into our atmosphere, you can cancel that out by planting a few trees, or contributing to giving impoverished communities more eco-friendly cooking equipment. Both of these are definitely good initiatives to contribute to, but those trees and solar stoves aren’t immediately sucking up the carbon your travel is spitting out. It is like an apologetic husband buying his wife jewellery after an a air. Yes, she’s got a shiny new ring, but he is never not going to have cheated on her.

These programmes also may not even be as helpful as they first seem. Even though trees are thirsty for carbon and will drink up all they can, we can’t know whether those planted trees will stick around or be destroyed, either by deforestation or global warming-induced fires. If that happens, they’ll release their treebelly full of carbon back into the atmosphere, a parting gift for our climate screw-ups. It also does not feel entirely comfortable to me that First World travellers try to atone for their CO2 spews by giving Third World communities solar-powered stoves. (For what it’s worth, although carbon-offsetting is essentially a smokescreen, Air New Zealand is ranked highly in terms of investing in programmes that have legitimate benefits. No one is nailing it, but our national carrier is at least a little closer to nailing it than other corporates.)

All this circulates my brain while I board yet another flight from Auckland to Wellington. I consider the other options: I could take the train, but the prices and the journey length are more focused on the scenery than getting you to your boyfriend. I could take the bus, as I did a few times as a student, but I still have nightmares about the one time I took the night bus next to a man who sat as close to me as anyone has ever been and then proceeded to take a six-hour phone call. Or, I could break up with my boyfriend, but, unfortunately, he is the best person I’ve ever met.

The hard truth of it is, for 2021 at least, I am just not willing to sacrifice my air travel. I’m a selfish boy who is thirsty to get to the capital. So I’m attempting to ease my mind in a few ways. I traded my car in for an e-bike, so I can enjoy the benefits of free parking and the relief of not pumping exhaust fumes into the atmosphere. I’m eating vegetarian at home, restricting my meat-eating to special dinners out. I’m collecting my soft plastics for recycling. I’m setting reminders on my phone so I never forget my Keep-Cup or my reusable shopping bags. I’ve switched from body-wash to bar soaps to save plastic packaging. I’m trying.

But, ultimately, my personal carbon-off setting programme has a similar problem to those employed by airlines: it is a bunch of stuff I should be doing anyway, and it does not truly offset the carbon that I am helping to release. One horrifying article I read said the personal carbon emissions from even a short-haul flight like the one from Auckland to Wellington are about the same as the annual emissions from someone in Uganda or Somalia, presumably regardless of whether an airline offset programme has given them a solar stove.

If only we had a usable national rail system, where low-carbon travel was as convenient and affordable as it was scenic. But unfortunately, with nothing of the sort on the horizon, the only choice is time-travel; to go back in time to when the infrastructure of our nation was being built and tell them about the struggles of my long-term relationship. Surely, that’d convince them. Hopefully, the time machine has a carbon-offset programme.

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