For Travelers Yearning to Fly Green

Are carbon offsets a way to get flying back on the side of the angels?

May 31, 2013    BY Kelpie Wilson

In the last century, air travel has gone from being a curiosity, to a luxury for the rich, to giving large numbers of people unprecedented mobility and freedom. Such mobility has brought stress as well, creating an “always-on” lifestyle for some that depletes personal energy. Lately we have been shown how flying—because of its massive consumption of fossil fuels—is among the most visible indicators of the unsustainable practices that threaten life on earth. And so, for many of us environmentalists, flying has become a guilty pleasure.

In the case of travel, we might modify the traditional recycling mantra to "refrain, reduce, offset."

Naturally, we want to find the best tradeoffs and ways to make amends, if we can. First, it is helpful to think in terms of the well-known recycling mantra: “reduce, reuse, recycle.” In the case of travel, we might modify it to “refrain, reduce, offset.” Many businesses are finding ways to eliminate or reduce air travel for meetings by using video conferencing, conference telephone calls, and other technologies. (For instance: demonstrations that let a computer operator in another part of the world show you a computer slide show or a step-by-step training session in real time, on your own desktop, along with a simultaneous telephone or Internet phone connection, so you and colleagues can ask questions during the proceedings.) Many companies are finding that face-to-face meetings are not essential to sell or provide their services effectively.

Vacation travel also is an area where careful planning and rationing air miles can make an impact. Ecological tourism benefits both the traveler and local economies, but one environmental guide reminds us that “…every time you fly to Hawaii or the Caribbean or some other exotic beaches, your air travel will contribute to the bleaching and dying of the coral reefs you wanted to admire there.”

If you’re passionate about the beach, but concerned about the impact of traveling there, perhaps you can relocate your job or move your family to a coastal location year-round and run your business by telecommuting. It works for some of us.

Connecting Sans Flights

Asking yourself if you really need to go this time can be difficult, even heart-wrenching. The British environmentalist George Monbiot speaks of “love miles,” those trips we take to reunite our ever more far-flung families. Before the age of aviation, family connections were often nurtured through long and faithful correspondence. And while you can’t e-mail a hug, remember we are fortunate in having an abundance of electronic options for staying in touch, from cheap long-distance phone calls to video conferencing and frequent digital photo updates. Consider:

  • Can you arrange to go less often, but stay longer?

  • Plan family reunions in a midway point, with travel efficiencies in mind?

  • Take the train or the bus? It will reduce your emissions by 5 to 7 times over flying.

  • And when you or a favorite aunt must fly, be aware that takeoff and landing use the most fuel. Book a non-stop flight.

  • Finally, you can offset your flight by paying someone else to reduce their emissions in your stead.

When it comes to flying, the concept of "carbon offsets" can serve to alleviate some, though not all, of our concern by allowing us to invest money in projects that reduce carbon emissions elsewhere.

Critics have compared the selling of carbon offsets to the medieval practice of selling papal indulgences—promising absolution to sinners in exchange for money. This practice was famously criticized by the reformer Martin Luther when he nailed his 95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg in 1517. (Martin Luther could be honored as an early consumer advocate for pointing out that it was up to God to forgive our sins, not a church committee.)

Guidance on Carbon Offsets

One thing is clear: If we are going to pay money in offsets, let’s be sure those dollars create real good in the world, not line the pockets of anyone undeserving.

To that end, Yoga+ has discovered an excellent resource for evaluating the field of carbon offsets, the companies that offer them, and the types of projects that they fund. Tufts University, in partnership with the Stockholm Environment Institute, has created a valuable guide called Flying Green: How to Protect the Climate and Travel Responsibly. It is based on a 53-page report that has been updated several times since its original publication last year, reflecting the fact that this is a rapidly changing field.

You want your money to leverage the greatest possible reduction in greenhouses gases.

The Flying Green guide examined 13 different companies and organizations that sell carbon offsets to individuals. Researchers looked at not only the type of offset projects being funded, but also the verification standards and transparency of the organizations, along with the accuracy of the system used to calculate the emissions of your flight. You’ll find their recommendations on the Voluntary Carbon Offset Information Portal (we have listed the top four in the sidebar on page 31).

Once you opt to buy a carbon offset, your next step is to choose a program. There are dozens—some are for-profit companies and some are nonprofit organizations. They all have the same purpose, to direct your money to fund a project that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by increasing energy efficiency, developing a renewable energy source, or sequestering carbon in the ground by planting trees or improving agricultural practices.

Each has advantages and disadvantages. Flying Green recommends against relying on tree planting projects for carbon sequestration because it is hard to determine how much carbon is actually stored in young tree plantations that may soon be harvested. (By contrast, projects that keep existing old forests intact are essential to keep carbon out of the atmosphere. See “Trees Are the Ark That Can Save Us” in the November 2007 issue of Yoga+ or at YogaPlus.org.) The best “contribute to the long-term goal of a carbon-free, highly energy-efficient economy.” Renewable energy projects like wind and solar power fit the bill.

Air travel is the fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions.

Tracking and monitoring is very important. Some programs have been accused of counting an emissions reduction more than once. For instance, if your carbon offset dollar paid for a new wind farm, but that wind farm was also used to meet a renewable energy mandate, then your money did not cause a greater emissions reduction beyond what was already required. You want your money to leverage the greatest possible reduction in greenhouse gases.

Add Air Travel to Kyoto Targets?

Ultimately, these voluntary carbon offset programs are most worthwhile as a way to take some action in the absence of stronger mandated programs. International air travel was not counted in countries’ emissions targets under the original Kyoto agreement. The European Union is now proposing to cap carbon dioxide emissions from planes that use European airports. In response, the United States, which still has not joined the international community in agreeing to cap its own emissions, has threatened to sue.

According to one environmental expert, saving the climate will require each person to limit the emissions they are responsible for to about one ton of carbon dioxide a year.

There’s no time to lose. Air travel is the fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions. In Europe, these emissions increased by an estimated 73 percent from 1990 to 2003. Worldwide, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization, people took more than two billion journeys on scheduled airlines in 2006, up 4 percent from the year before.

The average plane emits more than a ton of carbon dioxide for each passenger that it carries from New York to London. George Monbiot, in his book, Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, says that saving the climate will require each person to limit the emissions they are responsible for to about one ton of carbon dioxide a year. (Currently, Americans are responsible for almost 20 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per capita per year.)

What’s On the Horizon

Airlines are working on building more fuel efficient planes, as well as changing their practices to reduce time spent idling on runways and other fuel wasters, but air travel will likely always require some amount of fossil fuels.

We need leadership in creating a low-carbon economy.

The well-versed authors of Flying Green support a tax on jet fuel to more accurately account for the true cost of flying. Such a tax could be used to support offsets like those currently funded by voluntary programs. A tax included in your ticket price would be easier than the confusing process of evaluating, choosing, and using a voluntary carbon offset. The money could build high-speed rail lines as a convenient alternative to flying. After a new high-speed rail service was launched in Taiwan last year, domestic air travel dropped by 22 percent. But the United States has yet to build even one true high-speed rail line like the ones that crisscross Europe and Japan. We need leadership in creating a low-carbon economy.

The movement toward taking responsibility for our emissions is growing. Even the Vatican is indulging in the trend by supporting a forest restoration project in Hungary as a carbon offset. A spokesperson for the Vatican said it was like doing penance. “One can emit less CO2 by not using heating and not driving a car, or one can do penance by intervening to offset emissions, in this case by planting trees,” he said.

A Carbon-Conscious Traveler’s Guide

Let’s start with the bottom line: If you have a choice, don’t fly.

When you must travel:

First look to the train or bus or share-the-ride postings. If you must travel by airplane:

  • Use the most direct route possible.

  • Fly economy instead of business class.

  • Buy carbon offsets.

If seeking offsets, Yoga+ recommends consulting Flying Green: How to Protect the Climate and Travel Responsibly, available at www.tufts.edu. (Check the site for updates as you plan any future trips.) The carbon-offsetting companies that the Tufts Climate Initiative and Stockholm Environment Institute researchers most liked are:

Myclimate  (myclimate.org) The Climate Protection Partnership is a nonprofit company based in Switzerland.
Atmosfair  (atmosfair.de) is a German nonprofit company focusing on offsetting air travel.
Climate Friendly  (climatefriendly.com) is an Australian-based for-profit company.
Native Energy  (nativeenergy.com) is a U.S.-based for-profit company.

Kelpie Wilson
Kelpie Wilson is a solar engineer and author of a novel, Primal Tears. She is also an enironmental columnist at Truthout.org.

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