In late February, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—the group responsible for assessing scientific factors related to climate change—released its 2022 report. The report examines “the state of scientific, technical, and socio-economic knowledge on climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for reducing the rate at which climate change is taking place.”
Those who are familiar with the results of the report know (1) the outlook is stark, and (2) the need to take action is immediate. Indeed, it will take an integrated, holistic approach by governments, corporations, and individuals to combat the climate crisis.
Below, I examine one part of that equation—what individuals can do—as it relates to being a responsible global citizen and traveler. Specifically, I take a closer look at carbon offsets, a popular climate change-fighting offering many travelers have probably heard of, but might not be closely familiar with.
Let’s dig into what carbon offsets are, whether you should offset your travel-related carbon footprint, and what else travelers can do to lessen their impact on the environment.
What are carbon offsets?
Carbon offsets are purchases made to compensate for carbon emissions. Often, carbon offsets are an investment in a project or action. For example, you can offset the carbon emissions incurred by flying by investing in a project that plants new trees.
Travelers can purchase carbon offsets:
- Directly through the airline you’re flying. Airlines such as Air Canada, Air New Zealand, American Airlines, British Airways, Delta, JetBlue, Qantas, United, and Virgin Australia offer this type of carbon-offsetting program.
- Via certified carbon-offset programs, such as Gold Standard, Green-e, and Climate Action Reserve. You can learn more about the initiatives that each program supports, and then decide which offset project(s) to donate to.
Tip: TripIt’s Carbon Footprint feature enables you to track and understand the environmental impact of your air travel. Learn more >
In addition, some airlines (e.g., Emirates) automatically offset the carbon emissions incurred by their flights, so another way to benefit the environment—with your wallet—is to choose to fly on these airlines.
Should you buy carbon offsets for your air travel?
The answer isn’t as straightforward as you might think. Yes, making donations to certified carbon-offset programs is one meaningful way to mitigate your environmental impact.
However, some critics of carbon-offset programs say that offsetting puts the onus on individuals to take action and takes away from the more impactful solutions that could happen when, say, governments better regulate emissions or organizations make more meaningful changes in the way they do business.
But what about the individual? Should you do nothing to combat your contributions to climate change? Absolutely not. Is buying carbon offsets the only solution? Also no.
So, what can travelers do? In an interview with National Geographic, Kelley Kizzier, an expert in carbon markets at the Environmental Defense Fund, advised: “Consumers and companies should look first to [reduce] their emissions before looking to source offsets for those emissions reductions that are not possible or are not cost effective in the near term.”
What else can travelers do to limit their environmental impact?
If purchasing carbon offsets isn’t how you want to lessen your impact on the environment, or if you want to do more than offset your emissions, there are other meaningful ways to travel more sustainably.
- Embracing slow travel. Slow travel involves spending more time in fewer places and moving more intentionally from place to place, too. The concept rejects the idea of parachuting into major cities on a whirlwind tour; jetting from place to place with barely enough time to get a feel for one before you’re on to the next. Instead, you get familiar with your new surroundings—and make thoughtful choices about where you spend your time, where you spend your money, and how you can leave the destination as you found it.
- Traveling during off-peak seasons. Doing so means fewer tourists and lower prices, more flexibility and options, and it helps protect the natural and urban environments better—especially for destinations that are historically overrun during the busy season.
- Reconsidering where you travel. Aside from time of year, you can also switch up your travel experience by visiting “second cities” or off-the-beaten-path destinations that aren’t as popular, and thus, less likely to experience the detrimental effects of overtourism.
- Flying direct. During take-off, planes use upwards of 25% of the fuel needed for the entire flight. Once at cruising altitude, however, planes become much more fuel-efficient. In general, a direct flight has a smaller carbon footprint than a series of shorter hops.
- … and in economy. Flying economy—versus first class or premium economy—is the more eco-friendly choice. The seats at the front of the plane offer more space and amenities, meaning they bear a greater share of the plane’s weight. More weight. More fuel consumption. More emissions. Point for the cheap seats.
- Taking public transportation. By moving more people with fewer vehicles, public transportation helps reduce a city’s overall carbon footprint.
- Supporting local businesses. The strongest tool in your tourist arsenal is your wallet. The next time you travel, seek out opportunities to support your destination’s sustainable tourism efforts. Choose to support eco-conscious tour companies that employ local, full-time staff and highlight local businesses along your tour. You can also support local businesses that partake in sustainable practices; eat at restaurants that compost their food scraps; check out local farmers markets for freshly grown and locally sourced items.
Related reading: 10 Tips for Sustainable Travel
Fighting climate change is not an all-or-nothing pursuit. It will take every individual contributing in ways that are feasible, meaningful, and sustainable for them. It will take organizations stepping up in new ways to put people, planet, and profits on equal footing. And it will take global leaders following through on the commitments they’ve made to support a world where all of us can continue to thrive.