I've been thinking a lot about my carbon footprint lately and about carbon offsets for travel.
My lifestyle is actually quite carbon-light. I'm vegan; I work from home, so no commute; and my house has two apartments in it, which reduces my domicile footprint. It comes in at 89% of what my personal impact should be according to the 2020 goals as established by Global Copenhagen Accord. You can measure your carbon footprint here.
However, add in my 2019 flights, including upcoming trips, and my carbon footprint skyrockets to 185% of that goal. Yikes!
What's a traveler to do?
Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist had the luxury of time to sail across the Atlantic on an emissions-free yacht when going to New York City to speak at the U.N. Climate Action Summit. I can't see that option for myself.
I've been digging into article after article to try to understand this complex topic and how I can do better as a traveler who is also concerned about the environment. I'm not a scientist. Far from it. But here's what I've learned.
Table of Contents
What Are Travel Carbon Offsets? Are They Legitimate?
Here's a concise explanation of carbon offsets from the Suzuki Foundation site.
“A carbon offset is a credit for greenhouse gas reductions achieved by one party that can be purchased and used to compensate (offset) the emissions of another party. Carbon offsets are typically measured in tonnes of CO2-equivalents (or CO2e) and are bought and sold through a number of international brokers, online retailers and trading platforms.”
Carbon offsets hit the scene in a more visible way about 10 years ago, but they hit with controversy. They were typically offered as an add-on purchase when buying plane tickets, but it was unclear what was being bought, what projects were being supported, who the money was going to, and how.
There are now a number of recognized standards against which offsets can be certified. You can purchase offsets with ease as well as confidence.
Where and How to Buy Carbon Offsets for Travel?
There are many websites where you can buy carbon offsets. Finding the ones that are best is a bit of a challenge. Based on the standards organizations identified by the Suzuki Foundation, I have chosen to go with Gold Standard. Their projects are based on the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
“The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as the Global Goals, were adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015 as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030.”
On the Gold Standard site, you can see specific projects to support and the carbon offset price for each, which ranges from US$10 to US$20 per ton. You can choose how many offsets to purchase by project and put together a carbon offset portfolio that includes a number of projects.
The carbon offset project categories Gold Standard offers are:
- community-based projects
- energy efficiency
- renewable energy
- waste management
Not all carbon offsets are created equal. Gold Standard implements safeguards, requirements, and methodologies to measure and verify the impact of projects.
Some Issues to Consider about Carbon Offset Programs
If you are buying carbon offsets outside of Gold Standard or another accredited site, here are three things to consider.
- The good and bad of tree planting. Trees are important, however, putting all your carbon offsets into tree planting means that the positive effect won't be realized for a decade or more and the tree planting project may have a limited life. In other words, they may be cut down in the future.
- Additionality. Projects are considered additional if they could not happen without the funding from carbon offsets. Projects that would happen with or without the influx of money from carbon offset purchases do not improve matters as significantly. Look for projects that really need the support.
- Leakage. This is where a carbon offset project improves matters in one location but doesn't really improve things overall because the carbon creating project is simply moved to another location. An example of this would be where a project protects a forest in one location but the logging operation simply moves to another.
My Purchase: Carbon Offsets for Air Travel
I'm sure this is what you're waiting for. You can purchase carbon offsets from many airlines when buying your tickets, but in the test I did, the option was significantly more expensive than the options given by Gold Standard. My question was, where was that additional money going? I have gone directly to GoldStandard.org to buy carbon offsets for air travel.
- My carbon footprint
- including air travel is 18.1 tons.
- without air travel is 9 tons.
- for 2019 the total of all my air travel for the year will be 9.1 tons
- I have purchased the following carbon offsets through Gold Standard:
- Kenya Biogas Program “Domestic biodigesters provide a way for households with livestock to reduce their dependence on polluting firewood and expensive fossil fuels…” US$19/ton. I purchased 2 for $38.
- Terraclear – Clean water access for families in Laos “In Laos, over 80% of households must boil their water to make it safe to drink. … The filters do more than just fend off thirst and illness. Without the need for boiling water, families are able to buy or collect less wood and fossil fuels, reducing smoke in the kitchen, and protecting Laos’ beautiful forests from further deforestation.” US$12/ton. I purchased 2 for $24.
- Planting Biodiverse Forests in Panama “By sourcing timber from primary rainforest or harvesting large-scale monoculture plantation, the timber trade has significantly depleted tropical rainforests.” The project “is based on a model that combines sustainable, high quality timber production with biodiversity protection and ecosystem restoration. By also planting a mix of cacao and native tree species in some areas, the project also enables sustainable cacao production…” US$18/ton. I purchased 2 for $36.
- Solar Cooking for Refugee Families in Chad “Tens of thousands of refugees from Darfur are offered the chance to vastly improve their life by using the CooKit solar cookers. Having to venture outside of the camp to collect scarce firewood and the risk of being attacked or raped has been an everyday fear for women in the refugee camps in Eastern Chad, close to the Sudanese border. We are providing them with the necessary material, knowledge and training to manufacture their own solar cooker and to prepare their meals using energy from the sun… ” US$15/ton. I purchased 3 for $45.
In total, I spent US$143 on worthy projects to offset my travel carbon emissions for five round trip flights this year, all except one of which was long-haul.
Note: I also wanted to purchase 22.5 MW Wind Power Project in Rajasthan, India but it was out of stock. There were no more offsets to be sold. This is a sign of a good carbon offset seller because offsets are not being sold more than once which has happened with some companies.
Transportation with a Smaller Carbon Footprint
Reduce what you can. Offset what you can't.
Reducing your carbon footprint should come before offsetting your footprint. You can do this by choosing a mode of transportation with a lighter carbon footprint than another. But this is not as straightforward as one may think. National Geographic published an excellent article on the efficiency of travel by various modes in 2018. Here are some key takeaways from it and other resources on reducing your carbon footprint.
- Metric for fuel efficiency. The key metric when determining the fuel efficiency of a mode of travel is known as passenger miles per gallon. Based on their example of traveling from Toronto to New York City, a bus uses the least fuel per passenger. (Electric cars were eliminated from this conclusion since few people have them.) A bus passenger used 24 kg of CO2 for this trip. By comparison, a plane was 75 kg, an SUV 80 kg and a train 84 kg of CO2 per passenger. The impact in terms of CO2 is affected by fuel type and number of passengers carried.
- Fuel efficiency and circumstances. Efficiency can rise the farther you travel, the greater number of people traveling in a vehicle, and vehicle design. One mode could fare better than another under different circumstances.
- Travel closer to home. There are interesting destinations everywhere. Reduce the distance you travel and you will likely reduce your carbon footprint as well.
- Make the journey part of your vacation. Bus and train travel for solo travelers or road trips for 3-4 in a car have a lower footprint that flights.
- Choose airlines with higher occupancy rates. If flying, choose airlines that have high occupancy rates and more efficient aircraft. See the graph above.
Nature Will Win If We Let Her
While our environment is a serious concern, all is not lost. If we act, change for the better can happen.
At least one morning a week I ride my bike in Tommy Thompson Park along Toronto's eastern waterfront on the Leslie Street Spit. The spit is completely man made by the dumping of concrete, sand, and earth. It was originally for harbor purposes. However, it turned into an accidental wilderness and is now managed by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. Nature has and continues to take over. It's the best place for bird watching in the city. One of the conservation officers told me that, over the course of a year with regular visits, a person could see more than 200 species of birds.
Another example of nature winning out is the transformation of Sudbury, Ontario. You can listen to the full story of Sudbury's recovery here. This will give you a sense of Sudbury's good-news story.
“Forty years ago, nickel mines and smelters around Sudbury, a relatively small city in northern Ontario, had created one of the most dramatic examples of environmental devastation in the history of our planet. … Today, Sudbury boasts some of the cleanest air of any city in Ontario. Formerly acidified lakes — and there are 330 substantial lakes within the city limits alone — have come back to life. The surrounding countryside is now green and forested.”
What I remember of Sudbury is that it was used as one of the places where astronauts trained for moon landings. Yes, the devastation was that bad. With a little help, nature is now winning.
Undertaking the research for this post was fascinating and inspiring. I hope it is of help to others who wonder about their carbon footprint for travel and how to offset it.
What else can you do? This is something that will cost you nothing yet do a lot of good. Instead of Google, use the ecosia.org search engine. They turn profits into tree planting.
You might also enjoy this post: Sustainable Solo Travel: Quick Guide to Reducing Your Impact.