March Challenge: Greening Travel

Current Location: London, UK

I’ve been a little busy lately with the end of term so I’m just getting this March challenge post in under the wire. For my March challenge, I decided to think about ways to “green” my travel. This is an important challenge for me since I live very far away from my family and will certainly be doing a fair bit of trans-Atlantic travel in my future (hi Mom). Flying has an extremely high environmental cost from the carbon emissions produced by jet fuels. I do my best to choose the most environmentally conscious forms of transportation (biking, public transport, and train travel whenever possible) but because of where I live sometimes flight is unavoidable. Moreover, I think that the ability to travel to other places and experience other cultures is ultimately a positive in spite of the environmental cost.

I decided that the best way for me to “green” my travel is to try and carbon offset my flights. I was inspired to do this by my lovely friend who got me a carbon offset for my trip to Dublin in December as a holiday present.
Thanks Stephen for the best Hanukkah gift!

What is carbon offsetting?

Flying produces carbon emissions; longer flights use more fuel, and therefore produce more carbon. A carbon offset is a program through which you pay to reduce carbon emissions (or provide another environmental service) in an equal amount to the emissions from your flight, and therefore make your activity “carbon neutral”. There are a variety of organizations that offer carbon offsetting services, and some controversy surrounding them. It can be challenging to ensure that your payment is actually going towards reducing carbon emissions. This is the concept of “additionality.” For example, a company may receive payment for reducing emissions, but that payment would not create additional reductions if the company would have undertaken those reductions in absence of the payment. If you’re interested in learning more about the carbon offsetting industry and the difficulties in ensuring additionality, I recommend this article from The Guardian:

“The problem is that it’s almost impossible to prove additionality with absolute certainly, as no one can be sure what will happen in the future, or what would have happened if the project had never existed. For instance, in the case of the lightbulb project, the local government might start distributing low-energy bulbs to help reduce pressure on the electricity grid. If that happened, the bulbs distributed by the offset company would cease to be additional, since the energy savings would have happened even if the offset project had never happened.”

Why offset?

There are two reasons for offsetting: firstly, it functions similarly to a carbon tax. Without carbon taxes, when we buy airplane flights, we are not taking into consideration the cost of the carbon on the climate. By purchasing a carbon offset, I am voluntarily ‘internalizing’ that cost and increasing my monetary cost of flying. In other words, I am asking myself, “If I include the (monetary) cost of carbon in the price, would I still choose to buy this ticket?” The carbon offset’s second function is more important personally: it (purportedly) reduces emissions elsewhere.

How does it work?

How does this actually work? Short answer: it depends on the company you choose to buy your offset through. Here’s just one example: Credible Carbon allows you to choose an offsetting project to invest in; their projects range from recycling, to energy efficient housing. There are many programs, some more reliable than others. The Nature Conservancy provides a guide on how to choose a carbon offsetting program, and recommends choosing a program certified by a third-party auditor with certain guidelines that make it more likely that your money is actually going towards offsetting.

Different calculators may offer slightly different estimates of carbon emissions. See these two examples of calculators for my recent trip to Poland.

credible carbon
carbon care carbon calculator

For my recent trip to Poland, I chose to support a project verified through Gold Standard. Gold Standard is endorsed by Green e-Climate, an energy certification marketplace. Gold Standard has a rigorous certification and monitoring process to ensure that the projects have transparent and concrete outcomes. They also emphasize contribution towards the SDGs, so you can select a project to support based on which SDGs are most important to you.

Flying certainly poses an environmental cost. But the benefits of being able to travel by flight are undeniable. This is a photo I took at the concentration camp Birkenau, where hundreds of thousands of Jews were brought via train to be slaughtered in gas chambers. Being able to see the horrors of the death camps in person was an unforgettable and invaluable experience.

Ultimately, because carbon offsetting is voluntary and we lack real incentives to internalize the carbon costs of flying, the impact is less than we need it to be. This is why climate policies are so important; we need to put a real monetary price on the environmental cost of emissions. The carbon offset is just another reminder of the ways in which our personal choices and actions do matter. I hope that by calculating my emissions and offsetting when I fly, I will be more conscious of these choices.



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