Travel Column: Offsetting Air Travel's Greenhouse Impact

Jonathan Tourtellot and Nandita Khanna
National Geographic Traveler
August 9, 2004

Updated from National Geographic Traveler magazine's TravelWatch and Smart Traveler sections

Global warming is threatening travel. What's more, travelers themselves are contributing to it. The good news is, they can do something about it.

With another heat wave in Europe, melting glaciers, shrinking Antarctic ice shelves, and revelations that Alaska's permafrost is turning to mush, it's clear that global warming is changing destinations around the world—especially high latitudes, high altitudes, and low seacoasts.

Some ski resorts, noting that heat is incompatible with their basic product, have started reducing their greenhouse gas output by converting to clean solar and wind power. Skiers who would like some day to see their grandchildren enjoy the slopes would do well to favor such resorts.

More significant, most scientists agree that the seas are rising. Low-lying destinations like Venice and the resort-rich Maldive atolls are already building protective dikes.

The tiny Pacific-island nation of Tuvalu has become something of a poster child for sea-level rise, but in fact the effects are far more widespread, as high-water marks slowly advance on the resorts and vacation homes along any low-profile coast.

As it happens, air travelers especially can actually do something about the warming. Say you've just flown the U.S. coast to coast. Each passenger, including you, has just accounted for an additional ton of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases per person pumped into the atmosphere.

That's twice as bad as driving the trip in a gas-guzzling SUV. Alone. (Trains, by contrast, emit only a third as much.)

Carbon Offset

"Carbon offset" provides a solution. To make up for the carbon dioxide your trip creates, you can support programs for planting trees, which consume CO2, or energy-saving projects that reduce CO2 emissions elsewhere.

Two years ago Susan Peterson, for instance, began purchasing wind energy certificates through the local utility provider for her Boulder, Colorado, home. Each certificate represents a unit of electricity added to the regional power grid by a wind farm instead of by burning fossil fuels.

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