Carbon Offsets — Air Travel

Airplane in FlightSome of our family members are traveling by air and car during the holidays which got me thinking about carbon offsets so I decided to research the topic.

AAA projects 93.3 million Americans will journey 50 miles or more from home during the year-end holidays (5.6 million by air, 84.4 million by car, 3.3 million by other means). Fossil fuel powered travel by air, car, bus, or train is not green. However, purchasing carbon offsets may give a green tinge to holiday travel.

What is a Carbon Offset?

A carbon offset is a reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases made in order to compensate for or to offset an emission made elsewhere. Carbon offsets are measured in metric tons (2,205 lbs) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions.

If a company develops a project that reduces carbon dioxide emissions, every metric ton of emissions reduced results in the creation of one carbon offset. Project developers can then sell these offsets to help finance and operate their projects.

Carbon offset buyers decide how many metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions they wish to offset and receive a certificate.

Carbon offsets seem simple in concept but are complex to manage and track. The intent is that you purchase an offset certificate that is used to fund a specific project and then retired so that no one else can purchase that particular offset.

Purchasing Carbon Offsets for Individuals

There are two types of carbon offsets. One is for businesses and governments trying to comply with regulatory caps on the amount of carbon dioxide they are allowed to emit. The other is for individuals or businesses wishing to offset their air travel, car commuting, and energy use. In this post, we are dealing with individuals.

Carbon offsets are sold by for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations. In the travel industry, some airlines, car rental companies, and travel service companies offer carbon offsets as an add-on at the time of purchase.

Purchasers may utilize online calculators to determine their carbon footprint or carbon emissions for a single event, like a round trip airplane flight. Some sites provide “packages” where you may purchase an offset to cover your carbon emissions for a year. Calculators vary widely so check out what standards are used and what items are included. As an example for air travel, calculators may include all the pollutants generated per flight, while others factor in departure dates (it’s more fuel efficient to fly in July than in January), airline carrier and seat class (economy, business, first class.)

The types of projects funded by carbon offset purchases include:

  • Generating renewable energy via wind, solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal power.
  • Methane capture from dairy farms, landfills, and abandoned coal mines.
  • Creating carbon sinks through reforestation or avoiding deforestation.

Several certification standards have been created via collaboration among businesses, governments, regulators, environmental non-governmental organizations, and project developers. These include American Carbon Registry, Green-e Climate, Chicago Climate Exchange, Clean Development Mechanism, Climate Action Reserve, Climate, Community & Biodiversity Standards, and Gold Standard.

Criteria for projects generally includes:

  • The greenhouse gas or carbon reduction must be measurable, quantifiable, and verifiable.
  • It should represent reductions above and beyond business as usual. The reductions would not have occurred in absence of the project.
  • The reduction should be permanent for the useful life of the project.
  • The project should not cause higher emissions outside the project boundary.

Selling carbon offsets is a business with limited regulation. Buyers should research companies before buying carbon offsets. Look for companies that offer transparency and accountability.

  • Review information on carbon offset projects to confirm they are in line with your goals.
  • Read policies to make sure projects are selected based on accepted standards and verified by independent third party verifiers.
  • Check verification and audit reports.

Think About It

Carbonfund.org Carbon Offset Certificate ExampleAfter completing my research, I decided to purchase carbon offsets for my oldest son’s air travel for the year. I chose Carbonfund.org, a nonprofit organization, that will use it for a reforestation project in the U.S. It cost $12 to offset 6,000 miles of air travel.

Buying a carbon offset is a small way to take responsibility for personal carbon emissions and contribute financially to projects that reduce emissions. However, flying 6,000 miles still generates over 1 metric ton of carbon emissions that would not have been generated if the flights had not been taken.

We still need to strive to reduce our carbon emissions.

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Green Travel — Airport Water Bottle Empty and Refill Stations

Author's Reusable Water BottleAirport water bottle emptying and refilling stations make it easy for travelers to use their reusable water bottle and skip buying bottled water at the airport.

I am a committed reusable water bottle user but have to admit that air travel does add complexity to using it.

Passengers can take empty plastic and aluminum bottles through security checkpoints. They key word is empty. I usually leave the house with a full bottle and sprinkle any remaining water on the parking lot plants before going inside the airport. A few times while standing in the security checkpoint line, I’ve remembered I forgot to empty my bottle. I really like my reusable water bottle and would not want to give it up at the security checkpoint or cause a delay in line, so I’ve gotten out of line and emptied it in a drinking fountain or restroom sink.

After making it through the security checkpoint it can be difficult to find a public drinking fountain to refill my reusable water bottle, especially in an unfamiliar airport. Filling a water bottle with the trickle that most drinking fountains seem to produce is not easy.

Waste Reduction

Per a survey by AAA, holiday air travel is expected to increase 4.5 percent over last year to 5.6 million travelers in 2012. Even if just 50% of the travelers purchased a 16-ounce bottle of water at the airport, that would be 2,800,000 plastic bottles which is a lot of plastic waste to deal with for only one item and over just a 2-week period. Imagine how many plastic bottles are thrown away in a year. Even if people throw the empty bottle in the recycling bin, the airport still has to deal with collecting it and disposing of it.

Water Bottle Refill Station at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson AirportThe main reason airports are installing water bottle emptying and refilling stations is to encourage people to bring and use reusable water bottles and thereby reduce plastic bottle waste. The benefit for airport users is secondary.

The Chicago Department of Aviation estimates that each refill station will be used to refill approximately 100,000 water bottles annually, saving approximately 29 tons of trash from going to landfills, and saving approximately 17,000 pounds of CO2 emissions. Some refill stations have counters to let users now how many 16-ounce plastic bottles have been saved from landfills.

Save Time and Hassle

Liquid Disposal Station Chicago O'Hare AirportWater bottle emptying or liquid disposal stations are placed near security checkpoint line entrances. This makes it fast and easy for passengers to empty their reusable water bottles and other liquids. The upfront reminder to empty liquids helps minimize delays and hassles that are caused by passengers carrying liquids in containers over 3-ounces.

For relatively low cost, water bottle refilling or hydration stations can be installed near the exit of security checkpoints or existing drinking fountains can often be retrofitted with refill units. Most refilling stations offer easy hands-free use. Users place their empty bottle on the unit in front of a sensor and it is automatically refilled.

On a future trip, I look forward to trying out water bottle emptying and refill stations. A growing number of airports are installing the units in New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Chicago to name a few.

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