Does carbon offsetting work? Why your holiday will never be carbon neutral

This week, the leading travel publisher Lonely Planet launched Lonely Planet Experiences, a collection of sustainable "carbon neutral" tours in association with Intrepid Travel.

This comes just days after Cookson Adventures launched a range of "carbon neutral" trips to places as far afield as Kenya, Indonesia and the Solomon Islands.

Carbon neutral. Sustainable. For some people these words can be taken as a green stamp in the passport that reads "don't worry about me – my conscience is clear".

Sadly, it's not as straightforward as this. You can plant all the trees, build all the windfarms and dig all the wells you like. Selling a trip that involves flying thousands of miles as "carbon neutral" or "sustainable" is a fallacy. And a dangerous one, at that.

Carbon offsetting schemes were first launched to allow the largest polluting industries, which exceeded Kyoto Protocol emissions targets, to balance out their quota. By investing in clean energy projects and reforestation schemes, they would receive a shiny certificate proving that they were complying with international standards. A culture of "cancelling out" was born.

This model was soon scaled down to a voluntary market of people, governments and small companies. For years now, individuals have bought carbon credits for relatively small sums to offset the greenhouse gas emissions caused by their flights. By teaming up with trustworthy schemes, Intrepid and Cookson are putting the concept of sustainability at the heart of what they do.

Crucially, they are also putting it front and centre of what they are selling.

But how "carbon neutral" can long-haul travel ever be? Let's take the tree-planting schemes that these companies support. Yes, if we're going to curb emissions growth, trees need to be planted, existing rainforests need to be left untouched, and vital peatlands that hold and absorb carbon must be protected.

However, the effectiveness of carbon offsetting as a way of "cancelling out" the emissions caused by flying is questionable, when we consider the time frame we are working with. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that we need to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5C by 2030 if we want to avoid a climate catastrophe resulting in extreme heat, drought, coral bleaching and floods. The tipping point looms, they warn, and we need to reduce emissions by 45 per cent in 10 years to avoid it.

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"It's a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now," said Debra Roberts, a co-chair of the working group. "This is the largest clarion bell from the science community and I hope it mobilises people and dents the mood of complacency."

If we are to believe the IPCC projections, we are facing a problem that requires action now, not over decades. Trees planted today simply cannot grow fast enough to cancel out the carbon emissions caused by flying in the ten-year timeframe. Renewable energy needs to be prioritised, but will only start producing results once we stop the most polluting acts, namely building coal power stations and selling petrol cars. Oh, and the 4.3 billion bums on plane seats every year.

What Cookson, Intrepid and Lonely Planet are doing comes from a good place. They are drivers for change, and should be lauded for doing their bit. No doubt we will see more tour operators following suit in years to come.

However, by rubber stamping a trip as "carbon neutral" and "sustainable", the risk is that environmentally conscious travellers will wrongly cleanse themselves of any personal guilt or responsibility when, actually, they are perpetuating the problem they allege to care about.

Travel companies need to be braver and go further. In 2011, the outdoor clothing brand Patagonia ran a Black Friday advert that told customers: "Don't buy this jacket". The message was intended to start a conversation about the effect of consumerism on the environment, and they wanted their customers to purchase only what they need. Patagonia also introduced a lifetime warranty on their products, to reduce waste.

The travel industry needs to be similarly bold. Take fewer flights. Travel less frequently, but for longer. Or best of all – travel closer to home.

These are the messages and the types of trips that tour operators need to start putting at the heart of everything they do, and sell. Only then will we see our travelling behaviours shift on the scale needed to bring about meaningful change.

Professor Julian M Allwood, professor of Engineering and the Environment at the University of Cambridge, says:

"The travel industry can no longer pretend that there is any such thing as carbon neutral flying. An aeroplane, like a bunsen burner, takes in fossil fuel at one end and emits greenhouse gases at the other. Electric airplanes are in development, but won't be operating at global scale by 2050, and anyway they could only be carbon neutral when we have an excess supply of carbon-free electricity having met all our other energy needs.

"There are no meaningful offsets for greenhouse gas emissions. It must always require more energy to sequester carbon from the atmosphere than was released when the fossil fuels were burnt to put it there in the first place. Trees are part of the natural and balanced carbon-cycle, and we don't have enough land-area to expand our forestry at a rate comparable to our rate of emissions.

"Any suggestion that travel involving aeroplanes could be sustainable or carbon neutral is false. Under the UK's Climate Change Act, which now mandates a 100 per cent cut in emissions by 2050, domestic flights using fossil fuels will be illegal in the UK by 2050, and as public concern over the impacts of climate change grows, by 2050 this will have been extended to international flights.

"Flying in order to face away from famous sights and take a selfie is on the way out. Travel, involving journeys of discovery, does not require distance and is available in abundance."

"Playing carbon dodgeball means we all lose out"

Justin Francis, founder and CEO of tour operator Responsible Travel, says:

"Carbon neutral holidays involving flights don't exist. They're fake news: a powerful, but irresponsible, feel-good marketing scheme that helps justify increasing amounts of carbon being emitted by the tourism industry.

"The science is clear, we have to reduce our carbon from all areas of life, and that includes our travels. Carbon offsets are used to justify ever increasing amounts of carbon pollution, with no requirement being placed on those offering them to reduce their CO2 emissions.

"The industry has a responsibility to be honest and consistent on what's needed moving forward, and transparent with consumers on the impact of their travel. Playing carbon dodgeball will ultimately mean we all lose out."

"Carbon offsetting won't end climate change, but it can limit our environmental impact"

James Thornton, CEO of Intrepid Travel, says:

"Intrepid has been a carbon neutral travel company since 2010, which means that while we do reduce our emissions as much as possible, we also purchase carbon offsets to take responsibility for unavoidable emissions. We acknowledge that on its own, carbon offsetting won't end climate change, but it is one way that we can limit our environmental impact while also investing in solutions to reduce our emissions globally.

"Intrepid has committed to becoming a climate positive company in 2020, declaring a climate emergency and publicly sharing our seven-point plan to hold ourselves accountable. Without a healthy planet, we cannot have a healthy travel industry, so the best way to act on climate change is for all of us as individuals, businesses and governments to work together to reduce our collective carbon emissions."

"Green tour operators often sell the worst forms of travel: long-haul trips"

Professor Stefan Gossling, sustainable travel expert at Linnaeus University, says:

"Intrepid is an interesting case, because Darell Wade [co-founder and chairman of Intrepid] is a driver for change in the industry. I also think he is an honest guy who really wants to make a difference. So its efforts to compensate are positive in the sense that it acknowledges that something has to happen, and that perhaps options for tour operators are limited.

"Having said this, carbon offsetting is always only second best. It would be far more important to sell trips that are shorter in distance and longer in length of stay. Preferably not involving aircraft, or if necessary, operators could favour the greenest airlines as easily deductible from the Atmosfair airline index. None of this is done, and the "green" tour operators often sell the worst forms of travel – long-haul trips.

"What worries me is that Intrepid partners with Lonely Planet, which is known to bemoan the global explosion of air travel, climate change, and tourism's negative effects, but has been a key driver of these processes."

"There is a huge shift in attitudes among travellers"

A spokesperson from Lonely Planet says:

"The world is facing unprecedented environmental challenges, but at Lonely Planet we continue to believe that travel carried out responsibly can be a force for good.

"We're thrilled to have launched Lonely Planet Experiences, in partnership with industry leader in responsible travel, Intrepid. All elements of these tours have been designed to have a low environmental footprint: they are all led by a local leader, use local transportation and support locally-owned businesses.

"We are aware of the debate around carbon offsetting but believe that while it is not a solution to the climate crisis in its own right, it is a crucial first step as part of a wider cultural change in travel practices.

"We know there is a huge shift in attitudes among travellers when it comes to travel. In a recent survey of over 7500 members of Lonely Planet's dedicated community of travellers around the world, nearly seven in 10 (68 per cent) claim they now care more about sustainable travel than they used to.

"We consider it our duty to be responsible as a publisher to support this change. We have significantly increased our focus, in both our print and online content, to help people take the right steps towards travelling sustainably – whether it's through recommending land-based alternatives to flying where they exist, staying longer when in destination or perhaps taking action when on the road."

The Telegraph, London

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