On Flier's Remorse

Illustration by Celia Johnson

Feel guilty about flying? New businesses promise ways to offset your environmental impact. However....

In the post-An Inconvenient Truth world, flying has been targeted as one of the larger culprits that contribute to global warming. To counter-act carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions from flights, a new breed of business sells carbon offsets; the money is used to help avert climate change, often by planting trees or investing in renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. All you need to do is visit a website and provide trip details to calculate how much greenhouse gas your flight is producing. In seconds, you find out how much to pay in order to be "carbon neutral."

While the trend is certainly a positive one, figuring out where to give your money is confusing. A Google search turns up dozens of carbon-offset companies--many of which are for-profit--and it's difficult to determine which are worthwhile. There's little consistency in the way the organizations calculate the emissions generated by a given flight. Prices charged for offsets also vary widely. For example, TerraPass, a California-based for-profit outfit, estimates that a Boston-Los Angeles round trip produces 1.02 tons of CO2, and charges $10 to offset it; German nonprofit Atmosfair, meanwhile, says that the flight creates 2.58 tons of CO2, and charges $65 for the offset. Other carbon-offset outfits request a flat amount without factoring in the exact mileage or the type of plane being flown.

Critics point out that offsets fall far short of solving global warming. "It's hard to truly offset your carbon impact," says Anja Kollmuss, the lead author of a recent study from the Tufts Climate Initiative that evaluates carbon-offset companies. "To really make a difference, people need to fly less and make lifestyle changes."

Still, while the study cautions that fliers shouldn't see carbon offsets as a way to buy "environmental pardons," it does allow that offsets might help spur innovation--including the financing of carbon-reducing projects--that otherwise wouldn't happen.

So which offsetters are most effective and deserve your donations? "It's a mixed bag," says Julia Bovey of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "You have to look carefully at where the money goes." Asking a couple of questions helps narrow the field.

How are donations used?
Only give money to organizations that will disclose the details of the projects they invest in, the percentage of funds that goes to those projects (versus regular business costs), and their status as a nonprofit (or not). They should also reveal how they calculate offsets--some factor in plane type, seat class, and other details, while others are less precise.

Are results guaranteed?
Delta Air Lines made news recently by becoming the first U.S. carrier to offer carbon offsets on its website. The airline gives passengers the option of donating a flat $5.50 (for any domestic round trip) or $11 (for international trips) to its partner The Conservation Fund. Most of that money is used to plant trees, however, which is less than ideal.

According to Brendan Bell, the Sierra Club Global Warming and Energy Program's representative in Washington, D.C., organizations that invest in renewable energy (like solar, geo-thermal, and wind) have a definite, measurable impact and are therefore a better bet than companies focused on reforestation--because the results of planting trees are difficult to verify. The Conservation Fund, which since 2000 has planted more than nine million trees that'll reportedly capture nearly 13 million tons of CO2, obviously disagrees; for more info, see conservationfund.org.

Is there a seal of approval?
The fledgling carbon-offset industry is largely unregulated, so before you give any organization money, find out if an objective, trustworthy source vouches for it. Created under the auspices of the World Wildlife Fund, the Gold Standard is the strictest and best-vetted system of verifying carbon-offset projects. Outfits that meet the standard usually mention the fact prominently and display the official seal on their websites. If an organization's projects aren't approved by the Gold Standard, find out if another trustworthy third party has verified the quality.

Do you have a pet cause?
As with all giving, you should give to an organization that's important to you. Some offset outfits allow people to steer donations one way or another. Carbonfund.org, which has begun a partnership with Orbitz, lets donors direct their money to renewable energy, reforestation, energy-efficiency projects, or some combination thereof. Other outfits are attractive because they focus on certain initiatives--NativeEnergy, for instance, helps Native American farmers. By all means, support your favorite cause: Just be aware that environmental impact varies widely.

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