This article originally published in the spring 2020 issue of Canadian Traveller magazine
You love to travel; However, you’re also becoming increasingly aware of the impact travel has on the environment. These days, balancing our passion for exploration with our commitment to the health of the planet is feeling increasingly paradoxical.
The people of Sweden, homeland of teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, have a word for that feeling: “ygskam” or, in English, “flight shame.” And it’s not without good reason.
According to the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) calculator, an economy class flight from Toronto to Paris emits an estimated 0.65 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per passenger, which represents a whopping eight per cent of the carbon produced annually by the average person living in a G20 country. That’s a lot of carbon from just one person travelling on a sold-out flight. If you’re flying business class, carbon emissions per passenger per kilometre travelled are about three times higher.
Perhaps the environmental shame that might come with booking international flights has inspired you to look into buying carbon credits, only to find that realm daunting and largely intangible. How does giving one organization money magically remove the carbon emissions generated by your overseas flight from the atmosphere anyway? And didn’t you read some- thing about how some of these organizations weren’t legitimate a couple of years back? Are carbon offsets effective, or just something to make us feel better?
And if not carbon offsets, what are your other options? Should we be driving or taking the train across long distances? Should we avoid flying altogether in these critical times?
It’s a lot to consider before you’re wheels up again. To help, Canadian Traveller took a closer look at carbon offsets and the effects of flying on climate change, as well as your options for alternatives.
Purchasing carbon offsets
“A lot of the time, people don’t actually know what happens when they offset their carbon emissions,” says Julia Zhu of atmosfair, a non-profit organization with a mission to help decarbonize the world. So let’s start with the basics. What is carbon offsetting, exactly?
As it turns out, carbon offsetting is how we define the economic “tool” first established back in the early 1990s as part of the Kyoto Protocol. This tool can be applied a number of ways, but the general idea is that people or organizations contribute money to fund renewable energy projects.
As Zhu explains it, carbon offsetting organizations “counterbalance” emissions created by your flight by saving it from being created somewhere else in the world. It is by no means a removal of the CO2 you create with your flight, but more like compensation for it; carbon offsetting doesn’t reduce emissions, it just neutralizes your impact.
Which brings us to our next question: What kind of carbon offsetting organizations or projects should you support?
As Zhu puts it, you should look for organizations that support small scale projects affecting rural households in developing nations.
“With [small scale, rural projects], the reality is that if we don’t subsidize them, they won’t exist,” Zhu says. “That’s why we have a lot of projects involving efficient cook stoves and reducing firewood use. In supporting those kinds of projects, you’re actually helping to keep more CO2 from being released into the atmosphere.”
Zhu also recommends ensuring that the organization you support follows the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) or the Gold Standard.
“We see the CDM as a very important standard in terms of scientific methodology,” Zhu explains. “It offers a very solid framework and all the project auditors there are credited by the U.N.”
Meanwhile, the Gold Standard is the program for non-governmental emission reductions projects developed by the Gold Standard Foundation. It was designed to ensure that carbon credits are real and verifiable, and that projects make measurable contributions to sustainable development.
Now that we understand how carbon offsetting works and which organizations or projects are best to support, we’re still left with the big question: considering carbon offsetting doesn’t remove CO2 from the atmosphere, would it be best if we simply stopped travelling all together?
“You should definitely travel smarter,” Zhu says. “That is something we can all agree on. We do think mass tourism, where people fly long distances for a short period of time, is not sustainable. We don’t think it’s feasible to tell people not to travel, but if it’s possible to stay somewhere longer, or combine two trips into one, that’s one way to make it more sustainable. Considering alternative destinations that are closer so you can drive or take the train would also be an option. We do have to think about the way we travel without stopping travel all together.”
Strategies for lower-impact travel
Carbon offsets and smarter transportation decisions aren’t the only ways you can travel more responsibly for the good of our planet. Follow this checklist to help ensure you’re doing your part to make travel more sustainable.
- Travel with a reusable water bottle
- Stay in eco-friendly or green accommodations
- Choose destinations that don’t attract throngs of tourists
- Book a zero-waste trip
- Cycle to explore a city rather than take a taxi
- Never use the hotel laundry as hotels typically wash each guest's laundry separately
- Take partially-used shampoos, soaps and lotions with you. Or better yet, avoid using them at all.
- Stay on marked trails
- Buy locally
P.S. Ever consider your laundry waste?
Did you know that annually more than 750 million plastic laundry jugs end up in our landfills? Tru Earth has the solution.