View: Carbon offsets may ease guilt about your trip, but they don’t save the planet

Sarah Faith is a content writer and curator at the activist travel company, Responsible Travel.

Book a flight and you’ll usually get the option to pay off carbon emissions. Basically, your contribution funds tree planting and other projects aimed at offsetting the carbon you emit.

It’s a clever marketing ploy. But carbon offsets are a dangerous distraction from the need to reduce emissions.

While global aviation emissions have nearly halved during the pandemic, they are expected to reach pre-pandemic levels by the end of this year. In fact, they are on the right track by another 25 percent by 2030 – With severe consequences for nature and climate-prone communities.

Carbon offset schemes perpetuate the idea that the climate crisis should not stop aviation from increasing. They relieve climate guilt, while passing the problem on to someone else.

Experts also agree that they don’t work. In 2017, a European Commission report found that 85 percent of compensation schemes Established under the Kyoto Protocol Clean Development Mechanism fails to reduce emissions. And last year, the European Union stopped counting compensation schemes in emissions reduction targets.

There are better ways to cut down on your vacation emissions. So, what should travelers do instead?

Travel Less, Stay Longer

Limiting the number of trips you take is the simplest and most effective way to reduce your carbon footprint during your vacation.

International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) data indicates that an economy return flight from London to New York emits an estimated 0.62 tons of carbon dioxide per passenger. This represents 11 per cent of Britain’s average annual carbon footprint, and equals Ghana’s average total emissions per year. The more you fly, the more weight your footprint will weigh.

So, travel less, and instead stay longer. You will enjoy a more relaxing vacation and the chance to explore your destination in greater depth as well.

swap planes for trains

Making the trip part of your vacation is a feasible option in most parts of Europe. Good links connect many popular holiday destinations. Taking a train from London to Madrid, for example, emits an estimated 174 percent less carbon dioxide than flying according to the Ecopassenger calculator.

Responsible travel They now offer more than 160 flight-free vacations to Europe, while other tour operators such as Byway Travel, Exodus and Cycling For Softies offer train travel as part of their tour packages as well. Alternatively, The Man in Seat 61 is an excellent resource for independent travelers looking to travel by train.

If an international flight is unavoidable, cut other domestic flights off if you can and explore your destination at a slower pace overland.

Explore destinations actively, or with zero-emission transportation

Human-powered exploration is not only emission-free, but often surprisingly unexpected and eventful. Walking, biking, or kayaking gives you a more intimate perspective on your vacation and can lead to memorable encounters with the locals. Electric bikes can handle stress when the lungs or legs can’t.

On the electric front, some safari lodges in places like Kruger National Park, South Africa or Ol Pejeta Reserve, Kenya, now have low-emission electric safari vehicles available. These have the added benefit of being quieter and less disturbing to wildlife.

Watch “Your Footprint” on Vacation

with 37 percent of global greenhouse gases come from food productionWhat you eat on vacation can significantly affect your overall carbon footprint, too.

Choosing to eat local limits the distance your food travels before it reaches your plate. Farmers’ markets and restaurants serving fresh, locally sourced produce are a good place to start. As a bonus, this usually gives you a chance to try local dishes and discover the dishes that make your destination sing.

If you want to go even further, a vegan diet can reduce your personal footprint by up to 73 percent.

New alternatives to carbon offsets

Major airlines including British Airways, Lufthansa and KLM have recently launched schemes that allow travelers to finance the use of sustainable aviation fuel (Sudanese armed forces). Mixed 50 percent with standard jet fuel, SAFs have the potential to reduce aviation emissions by up to 80 percent.

However, their long-term effectiveness in decarbonizing travel is still unknown and these schemes are still voluntary and expensive. What effect they will have remains to be seen.

When you fly, make it count

The pandemic has cast a severe shadow over what can happen when tourism stops.

According to the nonprofit organization Conservation International, the COVID lockdown has led to an increase in illegal mining and deforestation in Colombia and Brazil. The charity says the collapse of Africa’s tourism industry has led to an “alarming increase” in poaching and wildlife trafficking.

The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that tourism accounts for 319 million jobs globally. In addition to protecting forests from more extractive industries, it funds critical anti-poaching patrols, and has helped create marine and terrestrial reserves that preserve global biodiversity.

Saving the planet will need a reduction in carbon emissions, as well as large-scale regeneration. If you choose to fly, find positive nature holidays that actively benefit wildlife and habitats, and choose flights that ensure the money you spend ends up in the hands of the locals.

Carbon offsets are not even a thorny solution to our climate crisis.

Want to be a greener traveler? The truth is that you will need to reduce the number of flights and do more at your destination to reduce carbon emissions. And when you fly, make it count. You may find that it also makes you an unforgettable vacation.

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