Is environmentally responsible travel possible?

16 November 2007
In the media
Published at
Globe and Mail
Quotes 'The Carbon Neutral Myth' report
When it comes to the idea of environmentally sustainable air travel, many skeptics roll their eyes. The notion that airline passengers can simply pay a fee that goes toward programs to help neutralize, or offset, the impact of airline travel doesn't get at the real heart of the problem, critics say. But supporters of so-called green travel say such offset programs are an important tool in fighting climate change. Airline travel "has a disproportionately large impact on the climate system," notes the Vancouver-based David Suzuki Foundation. "It accounts for 4 to 9 per cent of the total climate-change impact of human activity." The concept behind green air travel is simple: Fossil-fuel burning airplanes create carbon emissions. The longer the flight, the more the emissions. A specific flight's emissions can be calculated on a per-passenger basis. A passenger can pay, either to the airline or to an outside company, what amounts to a user fee to offset his share of the flight's negative impact. The fee goes toward environmental sustainability - tree planting, the purchase and preservation of green space, efforts to halt soil erosion, and investment in solar or wind-power projects, for example. Air Canada passengers, for example, can donate $1.70 to offset the carbon cost of a flight from Toronto to Montreal, or $54.27 for a flight from Toronto to Sydney, Australia; the money goes to a forestation project in Maple Ridge, B.C., arranged by not-for-profit organization Zerofootprint Inc. No audit trail The trouble is, many companies involved in the voluntary carbon-offset sector - estimated at being worth about $4-billion (U.S.) by 2010 - don't provide an audit trail of where the donated money goes, making it difficult to ultimately assess whether green-travel programs really make a difference. Carbon offsetting "is not the perfect solution, but it is a step in the right direction," says Mike Greenwood, vice-president, sales and marketing, of MKI Travel & Conference Management in Ottawa. He says critics who think carbon offsetting is "just a licence for guilt-free travel" should look at the bigger picture. "No one would claim that [carbon offsetting] directly reverses the impact of one's travel," Mr. Greenwood says. "But, just like recycling, it does have a positive effect on our global warming situation." MKI Travel has teamed up with the UN Secretariat for Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to manage the global travel requirements of CBD's employees, delegates and regional offices for the next three years. Mr. Greenwood says his company's offset program, dubbed MKIgreen, is the first to create "a fully automated program and present it as a corporate solution." MKI tracks the average carbon footprint for each flight booked and automatically calculates the financial contribution needed to offset the carbon emissions generated. The customer decides how much it wants to pay, and the money is invested in the Green Belt Movement, a non-profit body that organizes poor rural women in Africa to plant trees, combatting deforestation and impeding soil erosion. MKI manages the transactions and guarantees that the entire contribution is invested in the Green Belt Movement. "It is difficult and extremely time-consuming for companies to co-ordinate the offsetting of carbon emissions," Mr. Greenwood explains. "This automated process is needed to track all of an organization's carbon emissions, and provide reporting and payment facilitation." Clear standards Mr. Greenwood and other proponents of carbon-offset programs believe the development of clear standards and record-keeping will turn green travel skeptics into supporters. Deborah Carlson, a climate change campaigner with the David Suzuki Foundation, suggests that when individuals are looking for a green travel program, they choose one that meets the criteria of a reputable standard. The Suzuki foundation recommends the Gold Standard, she says, "an international standard developed by the World Wildlife Fund and ... endorsed by many leading organizations and businesses worldwide, including the UN." She says offsets registered to the Gold Standard have been verified by auditors to meet stringent environmental criteria. Those offsets registered to the Gold Standard "have the extra benefit of promoting sustainable development in the communities where they are located," she adds. Although MKI works with the Green Belt Movement, Mr. Greenwood said his company's customers are free to choose other environmentally friendly programs. "We encourage all of our clients to research the variety of programs and choose one that they feel will have the most impact." Eugene Peters is director of Toronto-based Green My Flight Inc., which offers green travel for airline passengers through its website (greenmyflight.com). He has found that people are looking for ways to minimize their overall environmental footprint, including their travel choices. "We recommend that clients address their environmental impact first and foremost through conservation efforts," he said in an e-mail exchange. "That means reducing energy usage, minimizing waste, recycling and so forth." He says green travel programs are attractive because passengers want to mitigate the impact of "unavoidable emissions such as those associated with essential air travel." Reservations Still, many observers have reservations about the whole issue of carbon offsetting. A February 2007 report entitled The Carbon Neutral Myth, from the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute, for example, argues that carbon offsets simply "dilute the more radical action necessary to address the climate crisis," partly by diverting energy from addressing the very economic structure that created climate change in the first place. The report also criticizes offsets for amounting to "carbon colonialism" whereby consumers in the privileged Northern Hemisphere impose the consequences of their carbon emissions on developing nations in the guise of "assistance." "If you emit carbon today and plant a tree," the report notes, "it will take a tree a 100 years to absorb the carbon emissions ... in the meantime the ice caps are melting."