Are carbon offset travel schemes nothing more than good PR?
A New York Times story from November 17th explains that ‘carbon offset’ programs run by airlines and travel companies are less about neutralizing the large amounts of CO2 produced by air travel and more about assuaging any pangs of ‘climate guilt’ that might go with it. The fact is that flying emits a lot of greenhouse gases and at the moment there isn’t much to be done about it – except to not fly. In theory, carbon offset travel is a good idea: the customers voluntarily pay a bit extra for their flights and that money is used to do something ‘Green’ or carbon reducing, such as planting trees or investing in renewable energy projects. Some offset programs in the travel industry may in fact do some very good things, not about emissions – not directly and not enough. According to the environmentally conscientious travel firm Responsible Travel some carbon offsets may even cause or encourage more emissions to be created.
‘…offsetting the emissions of a flight from London to New York would probably require an extra fee of $200 to $300, far above what any airline is now charging.’
- Paul Dickinson, chief executive of the Carbon Disclosure Project (source: New York Times)
It’s also difficult to know what the offsets are used for as there are no regulations nor any sufficient mechanisms to calculate travel based carbon offsets. They are often long term development schemes that simply cannot be measured against the instant emissions of a jumbo jet. Also, planting a few trees doesn’t do much about current CO2 levels or address fossil fuel dependency, although investing in alternative energy does.
‘Passenger offsets purport to cancel out carbon dioxide emissions ton for ton through investments in green projects. But critics say there is no transparency about how companies measure whether that happens.’
– New York Times
The Times piece is decidedly negative when it comes to carbon offsets in terms of flying, but many other businesses employ more viable offset programs in many different sectors, including the travel industry. Amtrak, America’s national rail service, is already a more environmentally friendly way to travel than via air or car, and they also offer their own program for carbon offsets. Air travel emissions can also differ significantly depending on the travel provider – at least according to their own websites. Check out this Consumer Reports comparison. It’s not always that simple to get a hold of accurate information regarding emissions about travel, but environmentally speaking, it’s well worth making the effort before you decide how – or if – you want to make that next big trip.
By Graham Land