Eco-buzzwords are almost unavoidable these days, but what do they actually mean to travelers and those who want to be responsible citizens of the world? Tom Arnold of TerraPass.com joins podcast host David Lytle to explain terms and concepts like carbon offsets, and to talk about why we're still a long way off from truly sustainable travel. Listen in to understand how your travels impact the environment, and how you can responsibly plan future trips.
To listen this episode, click the "play" button on the MP3 player below.
Top Tips from This Podcast
See transcript below for links to more information.
- Calculate your Co2 Impact: Use the calculator at Terrapass.com.
- Trip Recycling: Tack your vacation onto the end of a business trip.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.Man 1: Welcome to the Frommers.com travel podcast. For more information on planning a trip to one of thousands of destinations, please visit www.Frommers.com.
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David Lytle: Hi this is David Lytle; welcome to the Frommers.com podcast. Today we're talking with Tom Arnold of TerraPass. We're going to be discussing sustainable travel, carbon footprints, and carbon offset.
Tom is currently a Chief Environmental Officer at TerraPass. He's a 2005 honors graduate of the Wharton School, and he also holds a degree in economics from Dartmouth College.
At Wharton he was co-chair of the Wharton Technology Conference, and a Vice President in the Wharton Technology Club and the Wharton Outdoor Club.
He also participated in the first Wharton Leadership Adventure to Antarctica, where he learned firsthand the impact of global warming on higher latitude ecosystems. Prior to Wharton, Tom held senior manager positions at Redback Networks and spent two years on strategic technology issues at Mercer Management Consulting.
In addition to his professional pursuits, Tom is also active in the community, most recently as a business advisor for Pacific Community Ventures, a non-profit organization offering capital and services to low-income businesses in California.
Plus he's an avid outdoorsman, athlete, and cyclist. Notably, he has done a solo walk across Spain that was about 800 kilometers in a ten-minute, thirty-two second double century.
Hi Tom; how are you doing?
Tom Arnold: Hi Dave; thanks for having me on the show.
David: Pretty good to have you here. This is a very current topic, and there's a lot of information to go over. Just to talk about sustainable travel in general, how do you define that?
Tom: Sustainable travel in general is allowing us to see the world and not harm it at the same time. Sounds kind of flippant, but it's actually going to be a long time until we get to fully sustainable travel. I think what everyone in the industry is working on is trying to get there -- give us the first set of tools to help us along.
David: What are some of those tools you guys are working to develop?
Tom: Well, the first one is just understanding your impact. That can be as simple as thinking about what the impact is of a local hotel stay, what the impact is on the local community. One thing that we focus a lot on is, "what is the impact of my carbon emissions to actually get to the final destination?"
David: Yeah, that sort of is a catch-22, if you think about the idea of maybe somebody taking a flight to Central Africa to work digging irrigation ditches or something -- like to work on a volunteer vacation. But getting there you're actually doing some harm to the environment, just because of the emissions that a plane puts out.
Tom: Right, exactly.
David: I know just from looking at your own site, TerraPass.com, that you have tools on the site where people can calculate what their carbon emissions are by how they travel.
Tom: Yeah, we have a neat flight calculator. We can just plug in any two airports or cities in the world and it will tell you what the distance is, and what the accepted protocol measurement of your Co2 impact would be if you're flying commercial.
You know, I think we all think that airplanes are very efficient, and it's true that on a pro-mile basis they are quite efficient. The problem, of course, is just the sheer volume of miles that you travel in them.
David: Just looking this up, I just took a trip last week to London from San Francisco. The cost for a TerraPass... which is basically a certificate that your company produces, right? Is that how you would define it?
Tom: Yeah. When you buy a TerraPass, you're buying a verified reduction in Co2, just like governments in Kyoto countries do, or really big utilities. Just like they purchase these things, you're able to purchase them as well. We just deliver them in much smaller buckets for you.
David: My round-trip flight was just under 11,000 miles, which produced 4,173 lbs of Co2.
Tom: Yeah, and that's about like driving a Prius for an entire year, or driving a regular passenger car for three or four months.
David: Wow, that's amazing. The cost for offsetting these carbon emissions per person comes then to about $37. I think you have it listed as $36.95. So is this something that you recommend to people to buy each time they take a flight?
Tom: Well, you can do one of two things. If you travel on Expedia, you can actually just put a TerraPass for each individual ticket when you check out on Expedia. It's a very convenient way to do it, and it's just in the checkout path. Or you can make an annual estimate of your miles, and buy directly on TerraPass.com.
So you notice on that little calculator you can add more trips or you can say "I go to London four times a year and I go to Chicago two times a year." You just add them all up and get a pretty good estimate of things, and then buy a big bundle of carbon credits to cover your travel.
David: What sorts of work do these carbon credits go towards? When people buy a pass, what are they doing?
Tom: These carbon offsets come from operating projects that have reduced Co2. So there are three things. One is windmill; that's about a third of where the money goes. The second third goes to what's called "cow power," or making electricity from anaerobic digestion. The last thing is landfill gas flaring, so all of them are trying to set up incentives so that we get more clean energy in America.
David: All of these projects are based in the States? Or are you doing any sort of international work?
Tom: No, we've chosen to put them all in the United States, and one of the things that were trying to prove to policymakers and politicians is that there are solutions to find a change right now, and they are sitting under our nose in the United States.
To think everybody has this notion that fixing climate change is going to be expensive, and that's true I mean there's going to be some real money. But I don't think... We want to tell the stories of how the farmer makes more money because he's getting electricity out of his cow manure.
Tom: Or how a small municipality gets their landfill odors under control and makes money from the carbon credit. Those are things that we want to help encourage in terms of the reduction.
David: This is a whole new type of economy that we're dealing in that's sort of an exchange of carbon credits.
Tom: Yes it is. Worldwide in 2006 there were $28 billion of carbon credits being traded. The United States participated in maybe $5 million of that. I mean we are just so left behind by the international community. It's a shame.
I mean there's a big industrial story here, there's a big policy story here, but there's also a big "hey I'm going to take this flight, like what can you do for me? I'm not going to not take the flight."
Tom: We'd love to encourage you to think about trip recycling, to think about packing vacations on the end of business trips that you have to make. Those are all the right things to do in terms of conserving, but at the end of the day, it's very difficult to travel without a carbon footprint.
David: That's an interesting spin that I never really considered before. We are seeing in the travel industry a growing trend for business travelers to add on a couple of vacation days. I think that is happening primarily, though, because it's just more convenient. I don't believe that they are realizing in a sense they are reducing carbon emissions because they're not taking two flights.
Tom: Right. It's a very simple, but very effective thing. Another thing we do which I think is more symbolic, and a huge carbon opportunity of savings. But internally, we kind of make a game out of trying to get to our downtown meetings on public transportation from the airport. Every one kind of reports back and says "hey you actually can take a bus from SeaTac down to Amazon; it's not that hard and here's how I did it!" Approaching it as kind of a game, especially if you're traveling with kids, is a fun thing to do.
David: Are you working with travel companies or municipalities to put some things into place to reduce carbon emissions when people travel?
Tom: Expedia is a very big partner of ours. About a thousand people a week actually buy a TerraPass on Expedia. We are also working now with Expedia Corporate Travel, which is their corporate travel division.
As far as the municipality goes, no, not specifically. I think we'll get there eventually. Again, we're only two years old. We're trying to get the right solution out there and get lots of people involved in this message and then it's just a question of how far we can take it.
David: In our next year's editions of guides we're going to be adding an entire section that is on sustainable travel, green travel -- whatever you might want to call it. Do you have any tips for our listeners on how they can evaluate companies who are truly a green company and those out there that can be referred to as "green-washed"?
Tom: I think you've got to look for authenticity. You've got to look for a hotel that just doesn't have the nice advertisement out there but is really conscious about not washing your sheets if you don't want them washed, or not washing the towels.
You should be looking for a set of initiatives that are quite broad and across the whole travel service provider.
I think that starting at Expedia, they've launched a nice consumer program. They're going to take a bite out of their own corporate footprint and they're bringing that message also to the Expedia Corporate Travel.
Other people in the industry... Kinton is a leader in this industry as well. Other people are really trying to address it from the bottom up. Those are the types of things that you should be looking for as a customer.
David: We had friends and family coming out to visit us here in San Francisco and we put them up in the Orchard Garden Hotel, which is a new hotel in San Francisco that opened last fall. It's the country's first officially green hotel, largely built from recycled materials or materials that have caused little damage or no damage to the environment as they were processed.
It's energy-efficient. They have a whole list of things that they do that make them fit into this category. It's also just a very nice hotel and not expensive. It was sort of surprising to find out that you could get a room in San Francisco for under $200 a night.
Tom: It sounds like a neat place. Again, if you think about your behavior -- say you live in London. Come to that hotel once and stay for two weeks, instead of three times a year. That's the most important thing that you can do.
David: Are there any sort of accrediting standards that make something green or not green? Or are there multiple bodies that dictate what is and is not green? Who has the final say on this?
Tom: On the carbon side of the house, what TerraPass does, one of the leaders in independent standards and certification is the Center for Resource Solutions -- that's who publishes our annual audit you run through.
I think on the hotel side LEED is a green building standard, and that's being adopted by the hotel industry as well. There are a variety of other certification schemes but I don't think they are quite yet mainstream.
David: This really is an emerging field of knowledge, I think, and I don't know that the information is necessarily so clearly presented to the traveling public yet.
Tom: It's not, and one very clear thing that everyday people can do is make sure that their voice is heard. If this stuff is important to you, tell the hotel desk. That's how change is going to happen. It's by you voting with your dollars and telling management what you really believe. That's going to lead to good change.
David: Right; exactly. People do need to realize that their voices are heard, especially when they are paying customers. It is the bottom line that hits business like airlines or car rental agencies, hotels, anything that might be in the travel industry. If you're not happy with it, you just say something and usually you'll get a positive result.
David: What are you guys working on in the future? Are you going to be staying just with doing these carbon exchanges? Are you looking to expand your effect?
Tom: I think basically what we're trying to do is answer that question that you may have had at the end of "An Inconvenient Truth" of saying: "What do I do?"
Some of that is our carbon offset services, which we're most well known for. I think some of that is just plain information: telling people what they can do, delivering bite-sized tips that they can work on. I think a lot of it is community. I think a lot of people want to meet other people that feel strongly about this issue and talk to them and share tips and share the presentation that they made to their school or their church. And you will see us do a lot more of that this summer.
David: Right. Are you doing any work with schools in the community?
Tom: No. But our members are. We have 45,000 people now carrying TerraPasses. The types of emails we get about what our membership is doing in their organizations makes me quite optimistic about our abilities to solve climate change.
This is a group of highly motivated people. They really are taking the message of fighting climate change out to all kinds of different organizations.
David: We'll put this in the most diplomatic terms: How do you respond to those who might say that the science is still out on global warming?
Tom: This is a non-issue for us. There are only a handful of people saying that, and most of them are paid by the petroleum lobby. The science is not still out on global warming. At the last count there are 928 peer-reviewed articles on climate change, and none of them suggest sources other than anthropogenic emissions as a primary factor.
The science is completely done. The fact is that even people that three or four years ago were still arguing about the science are now scrambling to get ahead of the policy solution. They know it's going to happen, and fighting it any more is futile, so they're trying to influence the way the policy discussion gets discussed.
But, no, it's not an issue anymore. It's largely over.
David: That's good to hear. I wanted to cover that topic in case we were accused of not being fair and balanced.
David: On TerraPass' site, you guys also have a blog that you update almost daily.
Tom: Yeah, the blog has turned out to be quite a simple but effective way to reach people. It's about 25,000 weekly readers. It's free. There's a lot of discussion on climate science there, on policy, on things that you can do in your daily life, on this whole TerraPass service and how it works. Those are the types of things we tend to discuss.
David: I mean, it's really a fascinating read. Just in preparing to talk to you, I was up fairly early in the morning and I was just reading through the blog. The more I read, of course, I realized the more I had to learn. It's just a wealth of information.
Before I let you go, is there anything else you would like to say to our listeners? About ways to travel responsibly and...?
Tom: No, I think the first step is to understand what your impact is. On the carbon side you can use our carbon calculator at TerraPass.com. On the other side, ask your hotel, ask your travel provider what are their policies.
If we just all together ask what the impact is, I think a lot of people will respond with a lot of valuable information that will help us all make better decisions.
David: Thank you. It's great advice. It was really informational talking to you, Tom. I appreciate that.
Tom: I appreciate the time. Thanks, Dave.
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