Travel News

Carbon Offsets: Travel With a Clean Conscience?

Locations in this article:  Chicago, IL London, England Toronto, Canada

Jetstream GreenWhile you may have missed the news flash announcing “carbon neutral” as the 2006 Phrase of the Year, you’ve likely noticed that it’s been the buzz phrase ever since – popping up everywhere from the U.S. campaign trail to the Olympics to rock concerts.

And it’s certainly being bandied about with regards to travel and tourism – most notably with travel providers, such as SilverJet Airlines and Expedia, including carbon offsets in their fares.

But what does it mean exactly? Can those of us who suffer wanderlust be redeemed by the purchase of a few carbon offsets to mitigate our sinful ways?

The answer, say the experts, is a very qualified “yes.”

The notion of carbon neutral or offsets boils down to simple math: For the carbon that you put into the air, you invest in projects that reduce the equivalent in carbon from the air.

It’s surprisingly simple to calculate carbon emissions, thanks to a number of companies that offer online calculators. Someone about to embark on a transatlantic flight, for example, would key in flight information and up pops a number.

According to one online calculator, a round-trip flight from Toronto’s Pearson airport to London Heathrow would result in 2,758.8 pounds of carbon dioxide being released per passenger.

Stream Forest GreenLess simple, however, is determining which offset projects in which to invest.

Planting trees has long been a popular and cheap carbon offsetting investment – meaning that a certain number of trees are planted to absorb the carbon dioxide that you release – this solution has recently come under considerable fire.

Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress – a Washington D.C.-based “progressive think tank” (headed by a former chief of staff to President Clinton and Georgetown University Center of Law professor), has been an outspoken critic of tree-planting as a carbon offset option, in part, he says, “because trees take a long time to grow and they can be cut down … I think planting and preserving trees is a good thing but it won’t solve global warming.”

He sees another potential problem with offsets in that they might “leave people with the impression that you can solve the climate problem by spending a few bucks. The solution,” he maintains, “is going to take a lot of hard work for many decades.”
Still, he admits that offsets are a step in the right direction. “If you get well-credentialed offsets, it’s a good idea,” he concedes.

He suggests green-minded travelers seek out offset companies focused on clean energy projects. Deborah Carlson, a climate change campaigner with the David Suzuki Foundation – a Canadian-based non-profit that promotes environmental sustainability through science and education – agrees that renewable energy projects are key. “We need to be working towards developing an economy where we’re not reliant on fossil-fuel energy.”

She says the foundation supports offset programs as long as they’re considered part of an approach that includes reducing one’s carbon footprint, not simply mitigating it. What’s more, Carlson notes, offset programs are also beneficial for their “educational component.” The process of measuring one’s carbon footprint, of calculating emissions, she says, can be an eye-opener.

Bamboo forestThis is particularly true for travelers, who will learn that their globetrotting ways can add up to half their annual “carbon footprint,” says Tom Arnold, chief environmental officer with TerraPass – a for-profit carbon offsetting company that is aiming to offset 10 billion pounds of CO2 emissions.

While air traffic emits about 4 percent of greenhouse gases worldwide, these emissions enter the atmosphere at a much higher altitude, thereby increasing its negative impact on the climate. In fact, as much as 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions today can be attributed to air travel.

If you’re a globetrotter suffering guilt pangs and perhaps more than a little confusion, the David Suzuki Foundation offers up some questions that you should ask of any offset program:

  • Do your offsets result from specific projects?
  • Do you use an objective standard to ensure the additionality and quality of the offsets you sell?
  • How do you demonstrate that the projects in your portfolio would not have happened without the greenhouse gas offset market?
  • Do you sell offsets that will actually accrue in the future?
  • Can you demonstrate that your offsets are not sold to multiple buyers?
  • Have your offsets been validated against a third-party standard by a credible source?

Fortunately, regarding this last point, there are certification programs in place – shorthand, for the perplexed among us, which offset programs offer the most climate value for our dollar.

TerraPass, for example, is a widely respected company and one that submits to an annual audit by the Center for Resource Solutions (CRS), a national not-for-profit organization that has developed standards for green programs. TerraPass also meets with approval from the Center for American Progress. It offers three classes of energy projects that include generating clean energy, greenhouse gas abatement projects (such as landfill capping, which would reduce emissions from landfills) and “cow-power,” i.e., electricity generation from cow manure.

NativeEnergy is another revered offset program that develops renewable energy projects that benefit Native Americans, family farmers and municipalities and was highlighted by the non-profit Clean Air Cool Planet’s Consumer’s Guide to Carbon Offsets for meeting high standards.

World Wildlife Fund International, among others, initiated the Gold Standard certification, which is designed to ensure that a proper methodology has been used to quantify emission reductions in offset projects. In other words, travelers can ensure that offset projects receiving the Gold Standard, have been endorsed by more than 44 non-governmental organizations worldwide. This third-party verification is critical, says Romm. “It’s a key component to a good offset program.”

Whatever offset program you choose, use it in conjunction with sincere attempts to reduce your carbon footprint in other areas of your life.

Travel takes its toll on the planet but you can lessen that toll, says Deborah Carlson, by adopting a few steps:

  • Fly economy.
  • Try not to fly at night, when the clouds created by contrails trap heat.
  • Consider video-conferencing rather than business travel.
  • And, where practical, don’t fly at all, in favor of taking the train or bus.

Leslie Garrett is author of The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Shopping Guide for a Better, Kinder, Healthier World (and one our kids will thank us for!) with a foreword by Peter Greenberg. Visit her at

Previously By Leslie Garrett on

Eco-Oakland: The City You Only Thought You Knew

Chicago: More Green Than Meets the Eye


The Good, The Green and the Downright Crazy Tours

Green Travel Gadgets

Green Honeymoons

Bye Polar: Arctic Travel

Don’t forget to check out our Responsible Travel section for more green travel ideas.