When Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg made a recent visit to the U.S., she chose to sail here by an emission-free racing yacht instead of to fly. She did what she felt was fitting for her message about the urgency of the climate crisis.
Admittedly, flying is a complex issue and not good for the environment. In fact, the aviation industry produces about 2 percent of all human-induced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and findings in one study concluded that a single, round-trip transatlantic flight is responsible for melting 30 square feet of Arctic sea ice. Other aviation emissions—such as nitrogen oxides, particulates and water vapor—have additional warming effects, bringing the overall contribution, say some scientists, to 5 percent at minimum. But air travel, unfortunately, is only getting more popular: approximately 20,000 planes are currently in service, and that number is expected to rise to 50,000 by 2040.
For nature travelers, however, staying home isn’t an option. And travel has significant upsides: it can literally save lives, providing economic prospects for people who often have limited options. One in 10 jobs around the world is in travel and tourism. It’s an important part of the economy, particularly in developing countries.
So, what can eco-minded travelers to far-flung places do? One option is to offset your impact on the environment by figuring out how much carbon you generate on a trip and then paying to “take it out” of the atmosphere through various social programs that reduce emissions or produce clean energy.
It sounds like a good idea. Rarely, however, are things cut-and-dried when it comes to climate change. So, let’s take a closer look at carbon-offsetting in order to understand its potential for making a real impact by reducing your carbon footprint when you travel.
Carbon offsetting: do the math
Basically, carbon offsets are financial investments in projects and organizations that help reduce the impact of CO2 emissions. For example, you might choose to offset the carbon emissions generated by your flight to the West Coast of the United States by financially contributing to a project that protects trees (which absorb CO2), negating the CO2 emissions that your flight added to the atmosphere. In this manner, your flight should have a negative effect on the environment.
There are a number of websites where you can crunch your carbon numbers. TerraPass is one. On its website, users put in specific flight details or estimates for the number of miles traveled, gallons of fuel used or average trip length to calculate their carbon production. Once the company has done the math (which usually takes about a minute), you’ll receive an e-mail emissions profile. World Wildlife Fund has an online environmental footprint calculator questionnaire.
The website atmosfair also has a carbon calculator, with entry fields for plane type, flight type (charter or scheduled) and even flight class. According to a 2013 study from the World Bank, emissions from a business-class seat are about three times as much as one in economy. Economy seats translate to more passengers per plane and thus fewer carbon emissions per passenger. A first-class flier, by contrast, has a carbon footprint that’s as much as seven times larger than that of an average passenger. Not only do first-class passengers take up more space, first-class seats are also more likely to remain unfilled than economy seats.
Some airlines, too, will let you determine your carbon emissions from their flights before or after booking and offer you the opportunity to purchase offsets.
Natural Habitat Adventures’ guests are lucky: beginning in 2019, the company offsets all guests’ flights to and from the starting point of their adventures, increasing the total amount of NatHab’s carbon offsetting by 300 to 400 percent.
Critics say: the numbers don’t add up
There are those who say that carbon offsetting is just a way to make people feel good about their travels by buying their way out of their eco-guilt. Essentially, they say, you’re purchasing a clean conscience by paying someone else to undo the environmental harm you’re causing.
Another criticism leveled at carbon offsetting is that it avoids dealing with the real problem. Making deep cuts in rising greenhouse-gas emissions is the solution—not paying up. It’s been compared with the example of auto speeding: you’re accepting that you’re doing wrong by driving too fast and repeatedly paying your ticket instead of changing your behavior and driving more slowly.
Critics of carbon-offsetting have another point: putting a number on your emissions and figuring out how much they cost the environment is a not-so-clear-cut and sticky business. If you pay to plant trees, for instance, exactly how much carbon dioxide will they remove from the atmosphere during their lifetime? Trees take decades to grow, so it will be a long time in the future before they make any impact on the problems we are causing today—by which time it may be too late. There’s no guarantee that trees grown as offsets won’t be felled later, accidentally destroyed in a forest fire (releasing the carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere) or killed through poor management.
In terms of biodiversity, monoculture plantation trees are no substitute for old-growth, ancient forests, so it would be wrong to assume that you can offset burning down a tropical forest for cattle ranching by planting vast numbers of new saplings. Plantations like this may displace local people or harm the environment in other ways, such as by causing rivers to dry up. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many trees we plant: we could never plant enough to arrest the damage we’re doing by using fossil fuels.
And, if the projects you’re funding would have happened anyway without your help, you’ve provided no additional benefit to the planet; you’ve done the damage, but your offset hasn’t really made up for it.
Airlines aiding the air
Still, despite some doubt about carbon offsetting, airlines—motivated by two main factors: regulatory bodies that are moving to cap emissions and require greater offsets, and consumers’ growing awareness of and concern for environmental issues—are taking it upon themselves to carbon-offset their industry. Certain recent international agreements are requiring air travel to become greener. In 2016, the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization introduced a Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (known as CORSIA) with the goal of ensuring that all growth in international flight capacity after 2020 is carbon neutral. In order to comply with that agreement, airlines will, among other things, need to purchase emission offsets to compensate for any increase in their own emissions from 2020 on.
The International Air Transport Association has outlined some climate ambitions for the airline industry. The global trade organization has asked for an average improvement in fuel efficiency of 1.5 percent per year from 2009 to 2020 and a net reduction in aviation CO2 emissions of 50 percent by 2050, relative to 2005 levels.
Carbon offsets plus other ideas
Whether or not you choose to purchase carbon offsets for your flights, there are more things you can do to decrease your travel carbon footprint.
According to a 2010 report from NASA, 25 percent of a flight’s emissions are produced during takeoff and landing, which means the more legs you fly, the worse it is. So, book a nonstop flight when you can.
Also, aim to pack light, which lessens a plane’s overall weight and means less fuel burned and, therefore, fewer carbon emissions.
A number of standards exist for carbon offsets, including VCS (Verified Carbon Standard), Green-e and Gold Standard. Gold Standard is widely considered to be the highest benchmark in the world for carbon offsets. It ensures that key environmental criteria have been met by offset projects that carry its label and is supported by more than 80 nongovernmental organizations worldwide, including the David Suzuki Foundation, Greenpeace International and World Wildlife Fund.
Not only do we help local economies when we travel, we get immense benefits in return. Travel provides important cultural, educational and emotional connections. It just takes a little more effort, intent and thought to make sure that our adventures are not only good for us but better for the environment, too.
This year for a Mother’s Day present, my son bought me a year’s worth of carbon offsets for the travel flights I was scheduled to take. I can’t think of a better gift; one that recognizes me as a parent and honors the mother of us all: Earth
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,