Carbon Offsets & Tourism

By Victoria Thompson

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In November 2017, Human Connections attended the World Tourism Market in London, a conference which included two full days of seminars and events focusing on Responsible Tourism. World experts discussed priorities for the Responsible Tourism agenda moving forward, and talked through the successes and failures since the Cape Town Declaration was signed fifteen years ago. While a variety of themes were addressed, the one major recurring priority moving forward was carbon. Experts agreed that carbon emissions from travel, and the resulting environmental degradation, could not go on unchecked.

The Responsible Tourism community is united by the belief that the global tourism industry can bring a vast range of benefits to host communities. And yet, carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions, and the resulting impacts of climate change, disproportionately affect developing nations and the world’s most vulnerable populations – many of the same people we claim Responsible Tourism can benefit. So the elephant in the room, so to speak, in any discussion about Responsible Tourism is carbon. As the United Nations World Tourism Organization succinctly puts it, “The sector contributes through its very existence to the warming process.”

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The tourism industry is responsible for about 5% of global CO2 emissions, and the transport sector, namely air travel, is responsible for about 75% of that. And yet, to propose that people simply stop flying or travelling would not only be unrealistic, it would also impact the livelihoods of people all over the world who are dependent upon the tourism sector. So how can we move forward?

For years, carbon offsetting has existed as a way to neutralize either an individual’s or a business’ carbon emissions. A carbon offset is a reduction in emissions of CO2 or other greenhouse gases, specifically made to compensate for emissions made elsewhere.  Paying for carbon offsets is surprisingly affordable. While prices vary, the cost of offsetting one ton of CO2 ranges from around $5-$15USD (you can read more about carbon pricing here). To put this in perspective, to neutralize your emissions from direct roundtrip airfare between New York to Puerto Vallarta, you would need to offset slightly less than one ton of carbon.

But how are the emissions actually neutralized? Offsets work by directly financing projects that reduce the emission of greenhouse gases – whether short- or long-term. Some examples of this include financing renewable energy projects, like wind farms or hydroelectric dams. Other financing options include forest management projects, avoided deforestation projects, and reforestation initiatives. All of these projects reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and/or reduce future emissions by investing in sustainable solutions.

While there are criticisms of the concept and its effectiveness, certifications and requirements have been put into place to ensure that your project or offset partner is meeting global standards and doing effective work. The Gold Standard (GS) and the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS) are important certifications to look for to ensure you are supporting ethical and worthwhile offsets. It is worth noting that these certifications include clauses around social benefit to local communities, and emphasize permanent and lasting solutions. There is no doubt that projects which address our dependence on fossil fuels are more sustainable than simply compensating for one’s own emissions in the short term, and it is important to perform your due diligence before selecting a project or offset scheme. As a starting point, the David Suzuki Foundation has some helpful guidelines and questions to ask when considering which offset project to choose.

To offer our own example, at Human Connections we constantly hone our own commitment to Responsible Tourism. After hearing experts repeatedly emphasize that carbon needs to be a priority for the Responsible Tourism movement heading forward, the opportunity for improvement within our own organization became clear.

We have partnered with an organization called Ecosphere+ to begin neutralizing the carbon emissions from some of our programs. Ecosphere+ finances forest carbon projects, such as community-driven reforestation, conservation, and sustainable land use management. With current projects in Peru and Guatemala, they make it financially worthwhile for local communities to protect forests and use land in ways that work to reduce future emissions and fight climate change. Ecosphere+ allows you to select which specific project you’d like to fund, and keeps you updated on its progress.

Visit Ecosphere+’s website to learn more about their model, projects, and certifications.

We are committed to offsetting the emissions from our student programs, neutralizing our participants’ carbon footprints for their entire experience with HC. We’ve built this low cost offset into our program budget, and everything from student airfare, to on-the-ground travel, to everyday usage will be offset. Participants will receive a certificate thanking them for their contribution, and stating how many tons of carbon have been offset on their behalf. We hope to soon extend this to our other programs.

Finally, we hope to work towards becoming a carbon neutral business as a whole. Online tools like Carbon Analytics can help you understand your business’s carbon footprint by analysing your accounting data. From there, you can not only buy offsets to become a carbon neutral business, you can gain insights into what parts of your business are the least sustainable. With this information, you are better equipped to make changes to your operations, technologies, and habits, and address the root cause of your emissions.

The conversation around carbon and travel is interesting, and complex. Ultimately, reliable and effective carbon offsets can be one part of a larger solution, which works alongside searching for and supporting alternative energy sources as they come along. We invite other travellers and businesses to learn about these tools and debates along with us, and would love to learn about any initiatives you or your business are taking to improve your carbon footprint.

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Photos by Britt Natalia