Guys, I am crazy in love.
No, this isn’t a confessional post about my personal life (but those are fun too). I’m in love with this planet we are so lucky to exist in.
Like, not to get too Double Rainbow Guy on you here, but Earth is the coolest place ever! Have you seen the ocean?! Have you been up a mountain?! Have you ever had to stand still and just blink because whatever you were looking at was so incredible it was hard to believe it was real? I mean, if not — put those, or anything else that leaves you in awe at Mother Nature, on your bucket list stat. Because this planet we all woke up on is something special, and something worth protecting.
With so much gratitude for all beauty, natural resources and life the earth gives us, I admit that over the years I’ve started to ebb into tree hugger territory, and I’m not even mad about it. But fear not, no holier-than-thou attitude ahead. I write this not as a saint but as a sinner. While I am always making small changes in the right direction, I have not even come close to reaching eco-enlightenment. (I’m sure some commenters will be happy to point out my flaws! Just kidding guys — go on, rip me a new one.)
Imperfect an example as I may be, I do have a bit of a thing for sustainability and green travel. That’s why I decided that this week, leading up to Earth Day, I am going to share a bunch of small steps and ideas I’ve been working on and bouncing about lately. When it comes to living a lower impact, more conscious life, I honestly just take it one step at a time. Here’s the one I’m taking today.
Let’s talk about air travel
I’ve noticed that whenever a celebrity or a politician or even a travel influencer starts talking about sustainability, someone tends to chime in with some version of, “well, you fly all over the world on airplanes, so shut your organic vegan pie hole and let me warm the globe via my own preferred method in peace, *%$hole!”
I mean, they aren’t wrong.
Air travel is the most carbon dioxide-intensive mode of transportation, and good ‘ol CO2 makes of 65% of global greenhouse emissions. Excess greenhouse emissions, which human activity has radically increased in the past 150 years, are the leading cause of global warming. If you’re like, hey, actually what the heck is global warming and why do I care? Our friends at NASA have some pretty snazzy resources on that topic.
For both my profession and my passion, I am a fairly frequent flyer. I take trains and buses when it is sensible to do so, I travel relatively slowly, and fly efficient routes and rarely make illogical hops around the globe. Ergo, I can’t realistically reduce my air travel below its current levels and, as I like to say, sustainability needs to be sustainable. This is my life and I’m going to live it — but what if there were a way I could offset some of the carbon (and guilt) I produce while flying?
Enter carbon offset programs.
What the heck is a carbon offset?
A carbon offset is essentially a structured donation to “offset” the carbon a flight produces, by supporting projects that produce clean energy, remove carbon from the atmosphere, or prevent carbon production in some way. Since air travel is inevitable for many, the ultimate goal is to reduce air travel’s impact on global warming via other channels.
Examples of projects funded by carbon offsets are ones capturing methane from landfills in India, regenerating native forests in Ethiopia, building wind turbines in Turkey, and putting cleaner energy cooking stoves and heating solutions in rural homes in China. If you want to more thoroughly understand the ins and outs of how carbon credits are structured and regulated, this article really clearly explains terms like additionality, carbon leakage, and beyond.
Sounds great, right? So why isn’t everyone doing it? Well, carbon offsets were the new black for a hot minute in history — there were kiosks where you could buy them right in the airport, in some markets! — but they kind of lost steam around the time of the financial crisis due to a dip in discretionary spending and also because there were a lot of scams when the idea first popped up. Today, carbon offsetting is still very popular among corporations, but less popular among the individual, “voluntary” market.
There are dozens of calculators available online for calculating how much carbon you produce via flying and other transportation methods, as well as how much carbon you produce in your home. Most then allow you to “offset” with the click of a button and your credit card information. But, don’t just randomly pick the first one that comes up in Google. When it comes to figuring which carbon credits to invest in, things get just plain confusing. As with any charitable donation, good intentions are not enough — you should do your research to make sure your funds are going somewhere trustworthy where they can truly make an impact.
How bad is flying, really?
An oft-repeated statistic is that aviation accounts for about two percent of all greenhouse emissions.
Considering the guilt-trip that flying feels like, I was surprised to learn how relatively little aviation contributes overall to global carbon output. Agriculture and electricity production are far greater factors, according to the EPA. That said, when we compare the number of people flying with the two percent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from aviation, the impact made by a comparatively very small group of us is huge. Some experts estimate only six percent of the world’s population has flown on an airplane (I’m guessing nearly everyone reading this post is included in that six percent — and dang, I hope that statistic makes you feel as grateful as it did me.)
The more I learn about it, the more it just doesn’t seem fair for a small, privileged group of us to pollute indiscriminately, especially as the effects of such are often felt most acutely by the world’s most vulnerable populations.
Are carbon offsets the answer?
Critics of carbon offsetting argue that spending to offset emissions merely allows polluters to pay off their guilt, and will encourage them to fly more than ever. Sorry, but I can barely type the latter half of that sentence without rolling my eyes.
There are a lot of valid criticisms of carbon offsetting, but this, one, which I read often, strikes me as hilarious. Corporations? Maybe. But the idea that the kind of environmentally-minded private citizen who chooses to freely spend their discretionary funds on carbon offset programs are then just going to go, “Mwahahaha, now that that village in Bolivia has clean energy ovens, I can finally DOUBLE the amount of flying I do!,” doesn’t ring true to me. I think most people fly when they need or want to fly, and if they are so green that carbon guilt is keeping them grounded, a little carbon offset isn’t going to catapult them to a new frequent flyer status.
It is a valid argument, however, that carbon offsetting is essentially pay-for-play atonement. But I like that in addition to, ideally, funding worthwhile projects, buying carbon offsets sends a message that says “I’m a consumer and a constituent and I care about these issues” to anyone who is paying attention. They say you vote more loudly with a dollar than with a ballot, after all.
The top carbon offset programs
Some airlines now allow you to offset directly when purchasing a flight — though I admit I don’t believe I’ve ever seen this option personally.
Terrapass, CarbonFund and Native Energy are three names that come up a lot when you start digging into popular carbon offset programs. Another that I stumbled upon while researching this post, Gold Standard, is a new player on the scene who does things a little differently than the others and caught my attention. All three have strong reputations, corporate clients and fantastic projects that they support. Wondering which might be right for you?
• If you want to calculate several flights at a time: Go for Terrapass. This for-profit social enterprise based in San Francisco funds projects within the United States that destroy greenhouse gases and produce renewable energy (this is also a unique feature — most programs focus on projects in developing countries.) Unlike the others on this list, Terrapass allows you to calculate multiple flights at once, which is great if you want to offset monthly, quarterly or annually instead of per flight. Terrapass is in the mid-range of prices for carbon offsets — for my flights so far in my sixth year of travel, offsetting with Terapass would cost $86.18 (that includes 21 of the 24 flights I expect to take before my next travelversary!)
• If you want tax deductible: Go for CarbonFund. Donations to this non-profit based in East Aurora, New York, are tax-deductible. JetBlue, Amtrak and Dell are all brands who trust CarbonFund with their corporate offsets, which they use to invest in projects in renewable energy, reforestation, and energy efficiency. I love their slogan — “reduce what you can,
offset what you can’t.” CarbonFund is in the low-range of prices for carbon offsets — for my flights so far in my sixth year of travel, offsetting with CarbonFund would cost $73.31 (I had to round down since I didn’t use their calculator.)
• If you want to pick the project: Go for Gold Standard. This non-profit based in Switzerland allows you to choose directly from projects in agriculture, waste management, water distribution, energy systems, and beyond — a few available when I researched included low-smoke stoves in Darfur, planting biodiverse forests in Panama, and a landfill waste management project in Turkey.
Gold Standard’s mission? To responsibly manage the planet’s resources and deliver life-changing benefits to communities around the world. Pricing is based on the projects you chose to offset with — for my flights so far in my sixth year of travel, offsetting with Gold Standard would cost $96 (I had to round up, since they charge per ton of carbon). The downside of Gold Standard is they have no carbon calculator of their own, so you’ll have to use one from one of the other websites or another outside source (there are endless options — there’s even an iphone app!) but an upside is as a non-profit donations can be tax deductible.
• If you want social proof: Go for Native Energy. This for-profit B-corporation based in Vermont focuses on funding new projects that reduce greenhouse gas pollution. Their corporate clients include brands like eBay, Ben & Jerry’s, Aveda, Clif Bar, and many more — you kinda figure if those guys trust them, they must be good, eh? Native Energy is in the high-range of prices for carbon offsets — for my flights so far in my sixth year of travel, offsetting with Native Energy would cost $112 (I had to round since I didn’t use their calculator.
What else can I do?
Our first concern when it comes to sustainability should always be to reduce our impact as much as possible. Next comes cleaning up the inevitable messes.
The reality is, if you’re reading this travel blog (or writing it, in my case!), we probably aren’t willing or able to reduce our carbon emissions by flying less. The one exception? People going on “mileage runs” simply to generate frequent flyer miles — surely there must be a better way.
In almost all cases, the flight has to happen. And so in my opinion, offsetting is better than nothing. But there are other steps you can take:
• Book wisely. Flying direct when possible (a more pleasant experience anyway!), considering buses, trains, or fuel-efficient vehicles instead of short-haul flights (between getting to the airport and the whole security circus, it might be a fairly comparable journey) flying economy class instead of business class or flying business class instead of a private jet (oh, how I wish that was a concern of mine) and booking flights on fuel-efficient airlines and aircrafts. I was excited to see that my favorite US airline, Southwest, is in the top four of fuel efficient domestic airlines by the International Council on Clean Transportation! Oh, and seriously, don’t do mileage runs — plan ahead so that all your flights have a purpose.
• Ask your company to offset business travel company-wide. My research indicates the largest consumers of carbon credits are corporations and businesses buying them to offset their employee’s travel, so you might just have a shot.
• Vote for political candidates who support clean energy and climate progress, and let them know these issues are important to you as a constituent. Individual progress should be applauded — but we need to make systematic change.
• After years of wrestling with the logistics, last October, the International Civil Aviation Organization committed to researching bio-fuels and more efficient engines and finally settled on a global deal to limit greenhouse gas emissions from airlines after 2020. Let airlines know you care about fuel efficiency and other efforts they make to fly greener. Imagine the impact of thousands of your customers telling you that there’s an issue they care about!
My thoughts + my pledge
I already donate income every month to projects that matter to me. But if carbon offsets are one more thing that encourages us to be radically generous (my Burning Man is showing!), in this case to sustainability projects — why not? Few if any of us really push ourselves outside our comfort zone with charitable giving. I’m all for pledges and projects that keep poking and prodding me to spend less on frivolities and more on making a positive impact for someone or some thing.
I’ve been wanting to start offsetting my flights for years but just hadn’t gotten around to doing the research and getting in the routine. To kick off my own little Earth Week, I went back and retroactively offset every flight I took in Year Six of my travels, to the tune of $190.61. It was a heavy year of flying! From here forward, I’ll make an annual offset when I celebrate my travelversary — I already count up all my flights for that post, so it’s an easy system… and I’ll be making my next offset June 9th! Some others may find it easier to offset every flight, or every month. I chose Terrapass for the ease of their calculator this time, but I might switch it up from year to year.
But that isn’t all. I’ll keep fuel efficiency in mind when booking travel in the future, and I’ll continue putting pressure on the powers that be to keep developing more sustainable solutions and technologies. Along with my carbon offsets, I wrote letters to the two domestic airlines I fly most often, Southwest and American, and let them know that this is important to me as a consumer.
I know that carbon offsets aren’t perfect and I know that there are so many other areas of my life where I could make big changes to lower my carbon footprint. But as a traveler at heart, this feels like a great first step.
What do you think? Would you ever consider investing in carbon credits?