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Here's How to Offset Your Carbon Emissions as a World Traveler

by Matt Hershberger Mar 7, 2016

THE TRAVEL COMMUNITY OVERLAPS pretty heavily with the environmentalist community. This isn’t surprising: it’s hard to go out and see the world and not want to preserve it as much as possible. But this presents a dilemma for travelers: unless you’re traveling by hand or bike or maybe some sort of solar powered car, you’re contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. The activity that made you care about the planet in the first place, paradoxically, is actually harming the planet.

There are, of course, ways that you can try to limit your carbon emissions while traveling — you can travel by motorcoach, you can carpool, you can fly economy instead of first class — but ultimately, the emissions are still getting into the atmosphere, and sometimes, taking a motorcoach isn’t an option. And how do you weigh the value of becoming a kinder, more well-rounded, tolerant person against the value of protecting the environment? There’s no common currency in that trade off — no matter how you justify it, you’re going to be rationalizing one way or the other.

The good news is that there are a couple of ways to still travel and, at the very least, take a few actions that will make your trip carbon neutral.

Carbon Offsets

Carbon offsets were originally a tool that were first conceived of as a way to help businesses try and reduce their overall carbon emissions. The way it does this is simple: you try and match the amount of emissions you actually put into the atmosphere by putting money towards programs that absorb or reduce greenhouse emissions at the same level that you’ve put them into the atmosphere.

There are a lot of carbon offsets out there, and not all are created equal. But the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) has put together a short guide to buying offsets. They recommend using independently certified projects, such as the ones that are approved by Green-e Climate Certified Carbon Offsets. These projects include landfill gas capture programs, cattle methane capture programs, and coal mine gas capture programs.

Stand for Trees

Similar to carbon offsets are programs like Stand for Trees. Trees are nature’s natural carbon absorbers, so when people advocate for sustainability, they frequently advocate the planting of new trees. But even more effective is to simply protect our already-existing forests. A major source of a lot of our environmental and climate problems is massive deforestation, as when trees are chopped down, they cease to absorb carbon, they release their carbon back into the air as they decay, and they cease to be a home for vital ecosystems.

Stand For Trees allows you to make donations to specific projects that are protecting forests and ecosystems around the world, and also tells you, by protecting forests that may otherwise have been chopped down, how many tonnes of greenhouse gasses you are offsetting. It’s surprisingly cheap — $10 per tonne — and it also is cool in that it allows you, if you want, to pick specific spots in locations in Asia, South America, Africa, Oceania and the Caribbean that you can put your money towards.

How to do it

First, go to this carbon emissions flight calculator and enter in your flight origin, destination, and whether you’re flying first class or economy (first class tickets are bigger carbon emitters because they take up more space on the plane which might otherwise have sat more passengers to split the emissions between). This will tell you the amount of greenhouse gasses your flight can be expected to emit. For example, a roundtrip flight from New York to LA will emit about 0.75 tonnes of greenhouse gasses.

Then, you can buy carbon offsets for that amount. This is easier on the Stand for Trees page, as they generally are geared towards smaller amounts of money, which offsets may not be. Grist recommends, if you want to go the offset route, simply investing or donating money to your local renewable energy products or to nearby environmental groups — this may ultimately have the same effect, and may cut out the middleman.

It’s important to note that the best thing for you to do isn’t to just keep emitting greenhouse gasses at your current rate while simultaneously buying carbon offsets. It’s better than not buying offsets, sure, but overall, the point is to try and lower your personal emissions as much as humanly possible. But regardless, this is one way that you can cancel out some of the harmful effects of your travel without having to give it up entirely.

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