Carbon Offsetting | Solving The Awkward Dilemma of the Climate-Conscious Traveller

“We see it as a pollute as pay principle. You pay your individual price and we take care of the harm."

In the age of budget airlines it’s easier and cheaper than ever before to travel the world, which is great for fulfilling your wanderlust but, in a word, disastrous for the environment.

One long haul return flight from the UK to North America, spent in economy class, results in a warming effect equivalent to almost three tonnes of carbon dioxide per person on board.

The average amount of carbon emitted per person in Europe is around 8.4 tonnes per year (for Americans it’s more than double that), so one London-Vancouver return journey to take your dream trip to Whistler would use up over a third the annual average of a UK citizen.

“We see it as a pollute as pay principle. You pollute? You pay your individual price and with that money we take care of the harm”

Backpackers and those who travel to engage with nature, whether on a bike, board or on their own two foot, largely tend to be climate-conscious travellers. They tend to use reusable and responsibly-made gear, take care to leave no trace, and many eat vegetarian or vegan for environmental reasons, but the catch-22 of being a global traveller is that simply by flying from A to B, you are causing great harm to the environment.

This is where carbon offsetting comes in. It is, at present, the only way to live a carbon neutral life.

Carbon offsetting is the process of compensation for the carbon emissions that enter the environment as a result of your own personal actions and choices, by donating to a programme specifically developed to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

We got in touch with Kai Landwehr at MyClimate, a nonprofit climate protection organisation based in Switzerland and one of the world’s leading providers of voluntary carbon offsetting, to explain exactly how it works.

“We offer voluntary carbon offsetting,” says Kai, the Press Officer for MyClimate. “So you can calculate your CO2 footprint resulting from a flight or from your business, and then support some of our projects which will save the same amount of CO2, so you become CO2 neutral.

The MyClimate team. Photo: MyClimate

The ultimate aim of the company is “to avoid, to reduce and finally to offset CO2 emissions.” They also run educational programmes on becoming climate-conscious in Switzerland and beyond, and offer analysis and advice for companies looking to reduce their carbon footprint.

The offsetting projects themselves vary dramatically. One involves the renaturation of Mooreland in Schwändital, another helps coffee farmers adapt and use sustainable methods in Nicaragua and several focus on the introduction of efficient cook stoves with the aim of reducing deforestation and firewood use in countries like Kenya and Rwanda.

Kai talks me through the cookstove project in Kenya as an example of how offsetting works.

“This project started with Anton Espira, a Kenyan who studied in Oxford and then went back to his community, based around the Kakamega Rainforest, and saw that because of a lack of energy, people had to cook with open firewood taken from the rainforest,” says Kai.

Espira found a simple, local way of producing efficient cookstoves, the implementation and use of which would see a reduction in unsustainably harvested fuel wood cut from the rainforest and burned, and so a drop in CO2 emissions. On top of that, the stoves would burn cleaner meaning they would help avoid common respiratory infections suffered by cooking with firewood.

Pamela Omondi from Ng’ura village, a keen user of the cook stove. Photo: MyClimate/Robert Hörnig

“Anton came to us and asked for help building this as a carbon offset project, because without the additional financing from carbon offsetting this project wouldn’t have been successful,” Kai says.

But how do MyClimate, and their customers, know these projects will be successful, and that people, for example, will actually use the cook stoves? This is all taken into account.

“All of the projects in our portfolio have to meet the strongest independent quality standards in the world, which is the Gold Standard, and for reforestation projects, the Plan Vivo Standards,” Kai says.

The “Nyipinje CSL Group” in Kodweso Village is one of many Community Savings and Loaning groups in Siaya County, Kenya, making the efficient cook stoves affordable for all. Photo: MyClimate/Robert Hörnig

To reach these standards, each project must fill in a lot of paperwork (which is all available to read, and summarised in helpful bullet points on each MyClimate project page) and prove beyond doubt that their efforts really are making a positive, measurable impact.

“These standards are the guarantee for our customers that their contributions will go into these climate projects,” says Kai.

“Of course, we are an organisation so we have an overhead, but as we are an NGO that overhead is maximum 20%. The rest of the money directly goes into these projects.

“It would be wrong, though, to say that say, if you invest £10, £8 goes to Kenya and for that £8 four or five efficient cook stoves will be installed. It goes into the cook stove project which means it goes into the salaries of the people working there as well, into the raw materials and importantly, it goes also into the monitoring and the controlling of the project.

Helen Onma installing a cookstove. Since working as an artisan, her children can go to school. Photo: MyClimate/Robert Hörnig

“You only get the positive impact if the cook stove is running for a year or two. So you have to monitor the process and see, is it used on a day-by-day basis? This costs money but it gives you a security that there really is a saving on CO2 emissions. This is highly important.”

MyClimate offer various different option for offsetting. You can use their carbon calculators to work out the compensation needed to offset a particular flight, car journey or cruise incredibly easily, or you can work out your annual footprint for the year and make a larger donation to offset it. You can also make a one-off donation of any amount, so if you would rather pay off a larger donation in smaller instalments, that’s simple enough.

“People who offset are already environmentally cautious people, and sometimes they simply might not be able to avoid taking a flight… so what can they do? At least they can offset.”

All in all, travellers might find carbon offsetting surprisingly affordable. A return trip from Edinburgh to Heathrow would be £9 to offset and Manchester to Rome £15, though long-haul is, of course, more expensive. London-Vancouver return would be £81 to offset.

“You have an existing, standardised methodology, so you really know, and there is scientific consensus on this, how to calculate the CO2 emissions resulting on one flight,” Kai says.

“On the other side, you have the projects and you know that, say, one efficient cook stove, if it’s in use for one year, will save one tonne of CO2, because the efficient cook stoves prevent 600kg of firewood from being burned. And then you know the cost for having one of these cook stoves involved, all of these people connected to these cook stoves need paid, and finally you have all this monitoring done to meet the standards, so from those costs you get the price for the project, [and you can work out the offsetting fee].”

Linda Atieno, a field officer of the project, is 29 and gives training for a Community Saving and Loaning group. Photo: MyClimate/Robert Hörnig

You can play devil’s advocate, and ask, in similar style to vegetarianism, with the bulk of deforestation coming from large-scale companies, how much of a difference you’re making.

Kai responds, simply: “A lot of people have this feeling that ‘I’m just a lonely guy or a girl what can I do’? But it’s a petty argument for not getting involved or for not doing anything.”

There are also unhelpful concerns on the web on whether carbon offsetting actually “works”. The answer to this, effectively, is yes. Some early, sketchier companies involved in the early days of offsetting laid foundation to these concerns, but with companies like MyClimate, all the documentation is there in excruciating detail so you know where your money is going and exactly how it’s helping.

“We see it as a pollute as pay principle,” says Kai. “You pollute? You pay your individual price and with that money we take care of the harm and try and neutralise it.

Photo: Margo Brodowicz

“People who offset are already environmentally cautious people, and sometimes they simply might not be able to avoid taking a flight due to business or family or whatever, but they know this isn’t good for the environment so what can they do? At least they can offset.”

The aim is not to stomp out travel and airline flight, but rather to travel responsibly and conscious of the impact that you’re travel is having on the environment.

“People don’t want to stop travelling,” he says, “and they shouldn’t, because travel is a precious thing. It’s an exchange between people and cultures, it opens personal horizons and jobs all over the world depend on tourism. But if you travel by plane, what can you do?

“The technical solution, the innovation, might come. But the only thing you can do right now is take on responsibility for your CO2 emissions from travel and offset it.”

Kai does believes travellers are becoming more climate-conscious by the day, and concludes that education, another of the pillars of MyClimate, is the real key to our future.

At the drawing board in MyClimate HQ Photo: MyClimate

“The amount of people using our calculators has been growing all the time and in recent years we have had a really strong growth of 80 percent, and it’s still continuing,” Kai says.

“If you try to change your lifestyle and live more climate friendly you have to know about the consequences of your individual actions. So what does it mean if I commute by car or by public transport? What does it mean if I start to eat vegan or if I still have meat five times a week? When you have the knowledge about the consequences, you are able to and you are empowered to make – hopefully most of the time – the more environmental-friendly decision.

“Knowledge is absolutely critical. It’s not just about offsetting but it’s about avoiding as well.”

For more information on MyClimate, head on over to their website.

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