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The winds of (climate) change: Do carbon offsets mean we can travel with a clean conscience?

Leslie GarrettToronto Star

August 23, 2007 - While you may have missed the news flash announcing "carbon neutral" as the 2006 word of the year, you've probably noticed that it's been the buzz phrase ever since, popping up everywhere from the U.S. presidential campaign trail to the Olympics to rock concerts.

And it's certainly being bandied about regarding travel and tourism, with travel companies like and Britain's Silverjet airline offering carbon offsets along with fares.

But what does it mean? Can those of us who suffer wanderlust - particularly in airplanes - mitigate our sinful ways by buying carbon offsets?

The answer, say the experts, is a very qualified yes.

The notion of carbon neutral or carbon offsets boils down to simple math: For the carbon dioxide you put into the air, invest in projects that take the same amount of carbon out of the air.

The amount is simple to determine, thanks to websites like and that calculate carbon emissions using the flight information a traveller supplies.

According to TerraPass, which Expedia uses to calculate carbon offsets, a round-trip flight from Toronto's Pearson airport to London Heathrow would release 1,254 kilograms of carbon dioxide per passenger into the atmosphere.

Less simple, however, is determining which offset projects to invest in.

While trees are a popular and inexpensive investment - a certain number are planted to absorb the carbon dioxide you release - the forestry solution has come under considerable fire.

Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of Hell and High Water, is a critic of tree-planting as a carbon offset option.

"Trees take a long time to grow and they can be cut down," he says. "I think planting and preserving trees is a good thing, but it won't solve global warming."

Offsets might "leave people with the impression that you can solve the climate problem by spending a few bucks," he says. "The solution is going to take a lot of hard work for many decades."

Still, he admits they are a step in the right direction.

"If you get well-credentialled offsets, it's a good idea," he says, suggesting that green-minded travellers seek out offset companies focused on clean energy projects.

Deborah Carlson, a climate change campaigner with the David Suzuki Foundation, says the foundation supports offset programs as long as they're part of an approach that includes reducing one's carbon footprint, not simply mitigating it. What's more, Carlson notes, offset programs are beneficial for their "educational component."

Measuring one's carbon footprint, or calculating emissions can be an eye-opener, she says.

Travellers may learn that globetrotting can add 50 per cent more carbon emissions to their annual "carbon footprint," says Tom Arnold, chief environmental officer with TerraPass. While air traffic emits about 4 per cent of greenhouse gases worldwide, these emissions enter the atmosphere at a much higher altitude, which increases their impact. In fact, as much as 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions today can be attributed to air travel.

Third-party certification programs determine which offset programs offer the most climate value for our dollar.

TerraPass, for example, and offers three classes of energy projects that include clean energy generation, greenhouse gas abatement projects (such as landfill capping, which would reduce emissions from landfills) and "cow-power," or electricity generation from cow manure. The company submits to an annual audit by the Center for Resource Solutions, a non-profit, third-party verifier, to evaluate whether TerraPass' carbon purchases match what they've promised consumers.

NativeEnergy develops renewable energy projects that benefit Native Americans and family farmers, and was commended by the non-profit Clean Air-Cool Planet's Consumer's Guide to Retail Carbon Offset Providers for meeting high standards.

World Wildlife Fund International, among others, created Gold Standard label, which is awarded to offset projects that also cultivate sustainable development. The Gold Standard label is endorsed by more than 44 non-governmental organizations worldwide.

This third-party verification is critical, says Romm.

"It's a key component to a good offset program."

Whatever offset program you choose, use it together with sincere attempts to reduce your carbon footprint. Travel takes its toll on the planet but you can lessen that toll, says Carlson, by adopting a few steps.

Try not to fly at night, when the clouds created by contrails trap heat. Consider video-conferencing rather than business travel. And, when practical, don't fly at all. Take the train or bus.


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