Neutralize your travel!

 

Why and How...
Especially for environmental scientists.

 

Tami Bond (yark -at- illinois.edu)

New July 2004

Last update 6/2007

 

[Why? (Rant)] [Lessons] How? (Brief list of offsetters)]

 

Why offset?

If you are not in the mood for what I call "straight talk" and what some people call "a rant," come back later. Or go to one of my other pages. Most of them don't ask you to do anything.

Yes, I'm talking to you: the environmental scientists of industrialized countries. You're doing great things for the world. You're working on problems that need attention, accepting lower income and a frenetic job in exchange for working on something you're passionate about. Good for you. You've got vision. You bike to work. You recycle. You vote. You buy organic produce. You're thinking about long-term sustainability. You donate to "good causes."

It's also likely that you're responsible for emitting more CO2 than 95% of the other people on this planet.

Think about it. Living in an industrialized country, you already emit more than 85% of the world's population. If you fly once a month, your CO2 emissions run about 12 tonnes per year.* That's right-- your airplane trips alone emit more CO2 than the average person living in Europe. If you drive 20,000 km a year in a midsize car, your driving emissions are about 7 tonnes. You might double your vehicle mileage by driving a hybrid car (I do), but you still don't make up for your jet fuel. It's no trick to see that high flyers are high emitters.

(*) Assumes one round-trip coast-to-coast in North America. Shorter trips balance out intercontinental travel, roughly.

If you're a working environmental scientist, it's likely that your income ranks in the upper 50% and your level of environmental concern in the upper 10% of your national population. If you aren't willing to pay for mitigating climate change, you can bet that nobody else will. Let's say you earn $40k USD per year. (*) Even if you made two round-trips every month, the cost of offsetting the emissions would be less than $400 annually-- less than 1% of your income. That's far less than the estimated cost of the Kyoto Protocol, which won't even begin to fix the climate-change problem. (**) If you-- a person of sufficient means and interest-- won't take that hit, then there is no hope for "climate stabilization." And if there's no hope, I suggest that we skip directly to adaptation. Do not pass Kyoto, do not collect $200. Just send money to build dikes in Bangladesh, ships to evacuate Tuvalu, and get it over with.

(*) Estimated average over graduate students, post-docs and scientists of all levels.
(**) Granted, percentage of GDP is different than percentage of personal income, but you get the point.

This is a test. It is only a test, but it is a real test. Sure, your work for the environment is great. But accountability is a little more uncomfortable; that's what we struggle with when it comes to taking action on climate change. Who will do it, if not us? Should we let the National Football League and the World Cup take the lead? Oh, we already did...

Our research group does offsets and I pay the bill. You can do it, too. When you're ready to take this challenge, e-mail me. Feel free to add the carbon-neutral sticker (top of page) to your poster or presentation.

Caveats:

I am not trying to make anybody feel guilty. I am identifying an inconsistency between "walk" and " talk" that is frequently glossed over. If you feel guilty about this, thatís not my intent. Thinking about human effects on climate is what I do for a living--I canít help it! Also, although I generally operate as a scientist, I've been trained as an engineer, which I interpret to mean: (1) Examine status quo; (2) Identify areas for improvement; (3) Pose solutions; (4) Choose and implement the best one. Guilt ain't a part of that equation.

I'm not really a climate advocate. I'm a climate agnostic, actually. Any of the following could be open to question: natural vs anthropogenic, mitigation vs adaptation, Kyoto vs something else. I do believe in using the best science possible to assess the required course of action, which is why I do my sort of work. I also believe that if you are going to claim that climate change is important, the way you do your work ought not make the situation worse.


Lessons

As of June 2007, I've offset research travel for myself and the 6-9 other people in my group for about 3.5 years. Do I think this will actually affect future climate? Nope, not a nanodrop in the bucket. But it does provoke some thoughts. The biggest change is that I've become a consumer of carbon credits, and a consumer is a quite different animal from a theorist. I'm critical about quality, and I wonder whether I should spend my money on other things.

In the last couple of years, there's been a sea change (pun marginally intended) in attitudes toward carbon offsetting. British Airways teamed up with Climate Care. Expedia teamed up with TerraPass. Conferences like IGAC are going carbon-neutral (AGU would be a bigger prize, though). Prince Charles and several universities have also done so (not mine, alas, but the signatories tend to be smaller and thus easier to tackle). Wow. On the less-conventional side, Crispin Pemberton-Pigott and I set up (I think) did the first flight offset with black carbon from cookstoves through the Renegade Traders Association. (I don't do this very often.)

At the same time, offsetting has also gotten a bit of a black eye. Specific approaches or projects have been criticized, but the ethics of the whole business are questionable as well. (See The Carbon Neutral Myth: Offset Indulgences for your Climate Sins, or Cheat Neutral for a more tongue-in-cheek look.) Climate mitigation costs money. That's lesson #1, and offsetting will teach you that. I think that more people should try it. But there's a second lesson: greenhouse-gas reduction is a zero-sum game. It really is. Offsetting (or for that matter the Clean Development Mechanism) doesn't teach us that. Until we do, don't cancel those dike construction orders.


How? (Solutions)

Offsetting sites are popping up very quickly, and I'm not going to keep track of all of them. Tufts University has done a review of offsetting sites. Below are some of the ones I've used.

carbonfund.org (U.S.-based offsets, and a calculator based on accessible indicators of energy consumption)
co2.org (I've purchased some fixed offsets from this site. The calculator is limited--few airports.)
TerraPass (Nice calculator, lets you work by flight segments. Decent prices, verified, at least 33% renewable.
myclimate (verified offsets, good air travel calculator, but really expensive)
Climate Care (a little pricey, but nice project information)

Emission calculators
chooseclimate.org (click FLYING)
SAS Airways (most detailed calculator, very cool! however, lists only SAS fleet jets)

Wish List

Attention offsetters: I do not like land-based (or most other) sequestration. Give me more options! The old travel.500ppm.com was very nice because you could pick your projects. I'd like to see biomass cofiring, biomass energy generation, renewables, generation efficiency, end-use efficiency. If specific projects are comparatively expensive, so what? Let us, the consumers, decide if they're not worth it. If we, as a society, are going to contemplate climate-change mitigation, I think we ought to know what these individual measures cost.