Off-Setting Your Flights: A Step in the Right Direction

Wendy Redal March 1, 2010 0

In a quest to open up realms of adventure far from well-trodden travel routes, Natural Habitat Expeditions covers the globe from pole to pole. From Spitsbergen and Ammassalik in the far north, to the lower reaches of Patagonia and points on the Equator in between, virtually no corner of the planet is off-limits to avid travelers with a dream.

Every time I take off in a jet, bound for a new corner of discovery, I marvel at how easily, safely and quickly I can get from my home to the back of beyond. But that very convenience is one of the darker sides of travel. While most Natural Habitat Expeditions trips are very low-impact in terms of energy use (most of the energy produced is our own, as paddlers and hikers!), the big exception is air travel. It takes a lot of jet fuel to get to places like Kamchatka and the Pantanal. Typically, about 1 ton of carbon dioxide is emitted for every 4,000 air miles flown by an individual.

If you’re like me, however, I can’t fathom a life in which I did not fly to remote places. The benefits of travel – in cross-cultural relations, ecotourism that protects endangered species, personal growth and understanding — surely must be taken into account when we assess the environmental costs.

Fortunately, there are means to counteract the weighty CO2 emissions of our flights and lessen our collective impact on the earth we are passionate about exploring — as long as we also remain vigilant about combatting global warming in other ways that will ultimately make an even bigger difference.

By purchasing carbon offsets for flights through our carbon offset program, travelers can mitigate their effects. Such offsets are intended to cancel out the emissions generated by directing money to programs that reduce emissions elsewhere, such as tree-planting projects, landfill methane gas collection systems and hydroelectric power. Some airports, like San Francisco, have even introduced kiosks at which travelers can purchase offsets on the spot.

In theory, carbon offsets sound great. When purchased through a reputable company, travelers can be confident the extra dollars they spend are going to worthwhile energy conservation and/or renewable energy projects. In reality, they don’t significantly reduce the overall CO2 output of global air travel, which is growing every year. Some critics have compared buying offsets to making a donation to a soup kitchen: it feeds a few people, but it doesn’t end world hunger.

Critics worry that travelers who purchase carbon offsets may feel too comfortable and even become more profligate in their energy use as a result. While it makes sense to me that conscientious travelers would opt to offset their flights – and I have been doing so more and more – it is no quick fix, nor is it enough, when it comes to reducing our individual carbon footprints.

I encourage you, then, to offset your flights, but don’t stop there. Think about the multitude of other ways you can reduce your energy use in order to protect the very places you yearn to explore. Get a home energy audit, and seal up all the leaks. Drive less, and when you drive, drive a fuel-efficient car. Replace your appliances with energy-efficient models. Buy less. For more ideas on conservation, take a look at this list of Top 50 Things To Do to Stop Global Warming. And for more information on carbon offsets, how they work, and a critical assessment of their effectiveness, visit the website of CORE: Carbon Offset Research and Education, an initiative of the Stockholm Environment Institute.

By all means, we want to keep traveling — but let’s do it as conscientiously as we can.

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