by Zak Patten, SmarterTravel.com Staff – April 5, 2007
When Beth Arnold of Longmont, Colorado, traveled with her family to the Bahamas last February, she wanted to enjoy her vacation, but she also was concerned about the environmental impact of her trip. “I believe strongly in minimizing my [carbon] footprint whenever possible, especially when I travel,” Arnold says. She purchased MyClimate carbon offsets, which allowed her to neutralize the carbon dioxide her vacation travel had created by reinvesting her donation in solar panels installed in developing countries.
Arnold is not alone. More and more travelers are thinking about the environmental effects of their globe-trotting and are buying carbon offsets to balance things out. Meanwhile, major online travel agencies such as Expedia and Travelocityhave followed smaller providers (led by adventure tour operators) to offer carbon offsets at the point of booking, giving new momentum to this trend.
Carbon offsetting dates back almost 20 years as an overall practice. Within the travel world, as Adventure Travel Trade Association Director & Editor Chris Doyle notes, the adventure travel industry has been at the forefront of attention to environmental and sustainability issues. Doyle says that “What we’re observing and have been over the last two years in particular, based on Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and scientists speaking out all over the place, is that there is a push-pull going on. Scientists are talking about the dramatic effects of climate change and many celebrities are calling attention to it. At the same time, trade associations and marketing groups and general brands are also taking it on. Now, consumers are awakening to their personal impacts on global warming. Are they going to assume all of the costs associated with their impact? No. But do they want to share it with providers? Yes.”
So just what are these offsets all about anyway?
Say you buy a round-trip ticket to fly from Los Angeles to New York for a family reunion. After you book the ticket, you head over to a site like MyClimate, which has a built-in carbon calculator. After entering your departure and destination airports, the calculator tells you how much carbon you need to offset the flight. In this case, it’s $23 worth. Most carbon calculators work in this user-friendly way, though prices will vary.
Because there isn’t a consensus among travel providers, environmental experts, or carbon-offset retailers themselves, the best course of action for concerned consumers at this point is to proceed with caution. As President of Sustainable Travel International (STI) Brian Mullis points out, “This is still an unregulated industry, and there are both high- and low-quality carbon retailers.” Mullis recommends, from his organization’s own website, a list of retailers and key factors to take into account when choosing a program. Such factors include cost efficiency, credibility, and transparency. Mullis also cites the Gold Standard as one of the most credible certification programs in the world. The Tufts Climate Initiativeis another excellent source for program recommendations and company reviews. Its list of top providers includes some of the same companies STI lists, such as MyClimate and NativeEnergy. Tufts also publishes reviews of more retailers and openly states criticism of those it deems less effective.
By incorporating carbon offsets into their regular offerings, a couple of major travel retailers have brought into the mainstream a practice that was once only available to a much smaller audience. And it’s wise not to forget the leaders in the carbon-offset movement, the adventure travel community, because these environmentally conscious tour operators’ handling of offsets may indicate the future of this trend.
Perhaps the most significant news of the past year was the adoption of carbon-offsets programs by two of the largest online travel agencies based in the U.S. Last August, Travelocity announced its partnership with the nonprofit Conservation Fund’s Go Zero program. At virtually the same time, Expedia announced its own partnership with the for-profit TerraPass. The other big U.S. online travel agency Orbitz, did not return requests for information about its plans for a carbon-offset program, but it appears to be only a matter of time before the online agency introduces its own emissions payment functionality, at least according to the Washington Post’s, Travel Log blog.
Though it plans to integrate Go Zero more fully into its website, Travelocity customers who want to offset their emissions only have two options at the moment. They may select an offset when buying a vacation package or use the link to the Conservation Fund on the Travelocity homepage for more information.
In terms of pricing, Jeffrey Glueck, Travelocity’s Chief Marketing Officer, says “Our consumer testing showed that customers want simple calculations, so we made the pricing structure simple. A contribution of $10 offsets an average trip including air travel, a one-night hotel stay, and a rental car for one person; $25 negates air travel, a four-night hotel stay, and a rental car for two people; and $40 equalizes the effects of air travel, a four-night hotel stay, and a rental car for four people.”
And what do those sums buy? Travelocity has committed itself to a very specific project, the reforestation of the Bogue Chitto National Wildlife Refuge near New Orleans. According to Glueck, “About 70 percent of Bogue Chitto’s trees were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Over several centuries, the trees would grow back naturally, though with the risk of invasive species. Through our planting efforts with The Conservation Fund, we ensured that the trees planted were bottomland hardwoods, which are native species. We are in the process of planting 4,500 trees, and that will continue to grow as donations roll in.” In addition to the environmental benefits, this project has the side benefit to Travelocity of revitalizing an important travel destination.
Expedia’s choice of offset partner, the for-profit company TerraPass, offers quite a distinct set of climate solutions, such as a wind farm in Nebraska and a methane-capturing energy project in Minnesota. As with Travelocity, the payment options are simple for Expedia customers. There are three price levels: $5.99, $16.99, and $29.99. According to company spokesperson Katie Deines, “[Level] one is to effectively offset a north-south domestic flight (1,000 lbs. of carbon), the second level offsets a cross-country flight, and the third offsets an international round-trip. These three levels were developed for ease of approximation in determining how much CO2 to offset.” Like the Travelocity system, Expedia’s pricing structure is simple and straightforward.
It’s also apparently successful. Though it’s still only a small percentage of customers who actually purchase offsets, Deines says that “demand has outpaced our expectations and continues to grow.”
Adventure tour operators
Chris Doyle has found overwhelming support for carbon offsets among the adventure tour operators his organization represents. He predicts that “[providing carbon offsets] will be the cost of entry to any business entering the adventure travel industry.” In a recent survey, more than 200 providers from 35 countries were asked what best defined their views of sustainability programs (which include carbon offsets). Forty-one percent said “critical, makes sense for business, and saves money.” Of the remainder, only eight percent of providers were particularly negative about such programs, calling them “a waste of effort in most cases.”
In the near future, the Adventure Travel Trade Association is planning on launching Adventure.Travel, a directory of tour providers, many of which are committed to sustainable travel and carbon offsets. For now, Doyle provides his short list of operators that are “truly committed (and have been for years)—to carbon offsetting and/or rigorous sustainable tourism practices.” They are:
- Austin-Lehman provides a link to MyClimate on its homepage.
- Natural Habitat Adventures offsets all tour-related emissions.
- NOLS funds carbon offsets for all student ground travel to trailheads.
- OARS offsets all its trip emissions and matches each dollar you pay toward offsetting your own.
- Pure Adventures Cycling and Hiking Tours pays for carbon emissions associated with all hiking and cycling trips it runs.
- REI Adventures covers 100 percent of carbon offsets, including flights, for all travelers.
None of the people interviewed for this story felt that voluntary offsets alone were enough to compensate for the amount of carbon we’re currently putting into the atmosphere. Director of Global Consulting Services for EcoSecurities Dr. Mark Trexler believes that “the retail offsets market … is probably more significant for what it can accomplish in promoting long-term public policy and in driving corporate action on climate change, than in directly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
For those who want to make carbon offsets a part of their future travels, the information above should be a good starting point. For travelers who want to do even more, responsibletravel.com has a list of tips that begin with carbon offsets but includes other environmental, cultural, and social measures to, in its words, “maximize the benefits and minimize the negative effects of tourism.”
As Chris Doyle says of offsets, “This is not the silver bullet that is going to stem severe climate change, but it will help. I would encourage every individual who travels, even just to and from their houses every day, to offset their carbon footprint on the earth.”