Ticket to fly? Paying extra to erase your travel's environmental damage is easy, but does carbon offsetting really clean our planet or just ease a guilty conscience?
NO MATTER HOW MUCH recycling you do at home, you can't avoid the fact that when you travel you contribute to damaging fossil fuels in the environment. While no one would tell you not to take a summer vacation, some travel companies are offering you a way to go guilt-free by buying carbon offsets.
My girlfriend and I recently flew to Arizona to see the Chicago Cubs in spring training. According to NativeEnergy.com, a carbon offset company, we produced 1.268 tons of carbon dioxide on our 3,171-mile flight from Atlanta to Phoenix. Add in the all the driving to the airport, to the park, and to our friends' place in Scottsdale--that's another .039 tons.
It sounds like a pretty big carbon footprint. But the NativeEnergy calculator says that, for a mere $36, directed to its wind and/or methane gas-recapture projects, we could have offset the damage.
Once considered a kooky gimmick, carbon offsets are now seen as an essential weapon in the fight against global warming. Basically, by buying carbon offsets you fund green initiatives that make up for the C[O.sub.2] pollution you've caused by flying, riding, or driving. In 2007, American corporations and consumers spent $54 million on carbon offsets, which are now offered by travel companies like Delta Air Lines, Amtrak, and Expedia in partnership with companies like NativeEnergy and TerraPass.
Green-minded celebrities are onboard. Nobel Prize-winner Al Gore bought them for his promotional tour of An Inconvenient Truth. Bands from the Indigo Girls to Bon Jovi have used them to mitigate their concert tours' pollution. California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger counts on them to justify his weekly airplane rides between Los Angeles and Sacramento.
It all seems so easy, which makes me wonder: How do we really know what that $36 is funding? And while supporting wind power is undoubtedly good, does it actually offset the amount of C[O.sub.2] my jet airliner spit into the atmosphere? Or is buying carbon credits simply putting an eco-friendly spin on creating pollution?
With the industry being so new, it's hard to tell. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates advertising claims, began holding hearings about this very issue in January. The FTC isn't accusing anyone in the industry of wrongdoing, but environmental advertising guidelines haven't been updated in a decade, and attorney generals in 10 states have asked the FTC for some regulation. R makes sense; without oversight or an industry standard, carbon offsetters (TerraPass says there are as many as 50) either self-regulate or rely on a mishmash of nonbinding approvals, mostly from environmental nonprofits like the Center for Resource Solutions or the Environmental Resources Trust, to prove their offsets are legit.
One standard that is held in high regard is transparency--does the company tell consumers what is being bought? TerraPass and NativeEnergy have received praise from environmental groups and scholars for being forthright. "We want our customers to know where their money is going," says NativeEnergy marketing director Billy Connelly, "so you're not just simply buying air."
But unlike buying tangible goods like a new car, with carbon offsets there's no real way a customer can verify whether they got what they paid for. NativeEnergy says it gives people a way to see the projects their money supports in person. Says Connelly: "We want our customers to be able to feel, touch, and in many cases, smell, the projects they are helping to make happen."
While the carbon offset industry is still small, Expedia senior spokesman Katie Deines estimates that the travel company has offset more than 90 million pounds of C[O.sub.2]--the equivalent of over 216 million travel miles-since the company began their program in 2006.
For its carbon offsetting needs, Expedia uses TerraPass, and Deines says the option has become one of Expedia's most popular add-ons to its basic travel deals: For $5.99 a passenger can offset a round-trip flight up to 2,200 miles (1,000 pounds of C[O.sub.2]), and $16.99 will clear the air from a cross-country trip. Going to Berlin? That'll be just $29.99.
But $30 can do more than just clean up the environment. By setting up wind turbine projects in areas like Colorado's Wray School District or the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota, NativeEnergyis also helping empower communities in need.
"On the Rosebud reservation there's 80% unemployment," Connelly explains. "We're helping them harness the gifts of the earth to help the environment and to aid them financially in their survival as a people."