The advent of relatively cheap, safe air travel has literally shrunk the globe. Journeys to distant lands that would have taken months to traverse only a century ago can now be completed in several hours. With the exception of the highest mountains and the most remote corners of the Earth, there is virtually nowhere left on the surface of the planet that we can't reach by air.
The result is that fantastic journeys, once reserved for the very rich and the very brave, are now commonplace. Hundreds of millions of eager adventurers travel internationally every year. We hop onto jet planes almost as easily as we jump into our cars. For almost the same amount of time that it takes to drive through our most congested cities in rush hour, we can be relaxing on a sunny beach somewhere, visiting friends and family on the other side of the country, or taking care of business.
Air travel may be the fastest way to reach our destinations, but it's also the most carbon intensive. For example, a flight between London, England and Paris, France would load the atmosphere with 348 kilograms of carbon dioxide. The same distance, traveled by high-speed train, would release a mere 75 kilograms of carbon dioxide. Combining rail with boat travel, whenever possible, is even less carbon intensive. All tolled, a whopping 75 percent of the world's traded goods are shipped by a combination of rail and water, but only contribute 1.75 percent to our global greenhouse gas emissions.
Since most of us don't have the time to take a slow boat to China, or any other destination for that matter, the question becomes how do we protect the planet that we're destroying in our attempt to experience it?
An interesting solution is something called carbon offsetting. Simply put, travelers pay a voluntary carbon tax, based on the distance traveled. The money is used to fund projects that absorb, reduce or avoid an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases elsewhere.
Carbon offset programs have been running voluntarily in Britain for at least a decade with some success. Rock fans might remember the Rolling Stones 2003 World Tour that promised to be carbon neutral by subsidizing the planting of trees. Coldplay, another UK band, also pledged to be carbon neutral. The band funded the planting of 10,000 mango trees in India to offset the environmental impact of its 2002 release, A Rush of Blood to the Head.
While these planting projects have caught the public's attention in the UK, tree planting is not the most effective way to reduce our net carbon loading of the atmosphere. In addition, thanks to overhead costs that include salaries, administration fees and Britain's hated VAT tax (something akin to Canada's GST) a little more than half of these voluntary contributions has been used to fund projects.
In light of recent criticism about how carbon offset taxes are being spent, a new initiative is being launched in 2007 by Britain's three largest travel organizations - the Association of Independent Tour Operators, The Association of British Travel Agents, and the Federation of Tour Operators. Known as the Tourism Industry Carbon Offset Service, or TICOS, the goal of this latest organization will be to invest in renewable energy projects. According to the TICOS website,
"Our unique global outreach has been used to establish the scale and nature of potential projects in tourism destinations which will make a significant contribution to reducing and offsetting the amount of carbon in our atmosphere.
These projects from around the world include ideas for new alternative technology; new forms of non-fossil based fuels; the capture and use of natural power such as wind, wave and solar energy and ambitious goals such as a carbon neutral status for some tourism destinations."
In addition, the TICOS projects, "Have socio-economic benefits for local communities. TICOS hopes to improve the lives of those people living in tourism dependent areas."
Given the voluntary nature of TICOS and other initiatives currently operating in the UK, carbon offsetting will likely do more to raise public awareness than lower carbon dioxide emissions. But it's a start in the right direction. Canadian travel industry, please take note.
Check out The TICOS project
Britain's Guardian Newspapers Ltd.offsets all of its business air travel through its Climate Care program and also offers a similar option to readers who book flights through its marketing department.
The CarbonNeutral Company is another British carbon offset initiative. The website offers a carbon calculator for automobiles and homes as well as airline travel.