Travel pollutes. Cars burn gasoline; airplanes burn even more (though they burn less of it per person). If you're concerned about global warming, that should worry you.
But the solution isn't to stay home, huddling under furs in your unheated house while you snack on cold canned food. Instead, a "carbon offset" industry has grown up using a sort of give-a-penny, take-a-penny philosophy. If you're putting carbon dioxide into the air, they say, you should toss a few bucks towards taking some out.
The idea of carbon offsetting is pretty mainstream in Europe, where major airlines and travel agents are donating to wind-power and other pollution reduction projects with travelers' dollars. But it's just taking off here in the U.S., says Eric Carlson, executive director of Carbonfund.org (www.carbonfund.org). Along with TerraPass (www.terrapass.com), Carbonfund.org is one of the two big "retail" carbon offset providers in the U.S. right now.
"You can't really talk about carbon offsets until you accept that global warming is a problem, and that's really very new in the U.S.," he said.
Heating homes, shipping goods and driving to the store all generate more carbon dioxide than tourism, especially in a nation of homebodies like the U.S. Plane travel accounts for 3% of all carbon emissions, according to Tom Arnold, chief environmental officer of TerraPass. The tourism-offsetting debate is hotter in the UK not just because they're more avid environmentalists, but because they're a nation addicted to taking weekend breaks to Prague with super-low airfares that Americans never see Stateside.
But the relatively small impact of tourism also means it's an easy, inexpensive place to start offsetting the pollution your choices cause. Both nonprofit Carbonfund.org and for-profit TerraPass invest your money in wind power projects and in buying up (and tying up) "carbon credits" that other industries could use to legally pollute. Carbonfund.org also plants trees, which remove carbon dioxide from the air. TerraPass invests in generating energy from cow manure, which is a renewable resource and prevents methane, a greenhouse gas, from escaping into the atmosphere.
Two airlines that serve the U.S. have carbon offset schemes. British Airways lets you donate to a UK offset firm, Climate Care, through their website. They have a calculator that tells you how much carbon you're putting into the air with each BA flight. Climate Care's mix of projects is very different from TerraPass and Carbonfund.org's, though. Where the two U.S. providers mostly invest in projects in the U.S. -- appealing to Americans who aren't just environmentalists, but are also interested in energy independence for the U.S.A -- the British outfit tends to try to reduce pollution in the third world.
All-business-class airline SilverJet (www.flysilverjet.com), which flies from New York to London, builds carbon offsetting into the price of every ticket. They work with another British provider, The CarbonNeutral Company (www.carbonneutral.com), which takes a middle path in terms of projects. With them, you get both methane reduction here in the U.S. (like TerraPass) and cutting down on kerosene stoves in India (like with British Airways).
While Carbonfund.org works with big corporate travel agents, executive jet companies and groups like the World Wildlife Fund, no major U.S. airline has signed on to the carbon mitigation idea, Carlson said.
But that's OK -- you just have to roll your own offsets. Both TerraPass and Carbonfund.org have donation plans that synch up with flight and driving mileages. TerraPass has a better calculator on their Web site, but Carbonfund.org is cheaper: $6.25 for 6,000 air miles, as opposed to $9.95 with TerraPass. Pick your provider based on price and on which one invests in projects you like more. Also, TerraPass gives you a free luggage tag if you spend $36.95.
TerraPass's Arnold points out that unlike, say, selling your SUV, this is an easy way to get started reducing global warming.
"We see our customers taking the first cookie out of the cookie jar of climate-change-fighting tools," he says.
Some more tips for less polluting travel:
- If you can, take the train. Trains are the most environmentally friendly mode of transit, with the least energy usage and carbon impact per person. We've got some great Amtrak discount codes for you, too.
- Fly nonstops on big planes. The bigger the plane, the less gas it uses per person; the "regional jets" proliferating on many routes aren't great for the environment. Taking off and landing uses more energy than cruising, so you do some damage by changing planes.
- Drive less. According to Carbonfund.org's CarbonCalculator, driving 500 miles in a car that gets 20 miles/gallon releases .22 tons of carbon dioxide, while flying the same distance only uses half that.
Do you try to make your travel environmentally friendly? Talk with fellow Frommer's readers on our Air Travel Message Boards today.