For those corporate travelers concerned about climate change — as well as quarterly profits —frequent air travel may make you uneasy.
If you work for Google, Dell,UBS and dozens of other companies, both big and small, sit back and enjoy your flight because your employer has already purchased carbon credits to offset the greenhouse gas emissions created by travel.
“Most of our revenue comes from businesses right now,” says Eric Carlson, president of carbonfund.org Foundation. “Throughout the recession, business interest remained very high and I think that shows the importance of corporate social responsibility in the marketplace as a core part of attracting and retaining customers."
The carbon offset market, a byproduct of the Clean Air Act of 1991, enables consumers to balance their impact on the planet by purchasing tax-deductible credits toward a project that reduces carbon dioxide emissions elsewhere.
Those who donate to carbonfund.org, for example, one of several nonprofits that sell carbon credits, can select from the projects it supports. They include ones focused on renewable energy (wind farms), energy efficiency (compact fluorescent light bulbs and technologies to reduce tailpipe emissions from long-haul freight trucks) and reforestation in the Amazon forest and domestic wildlife refuges.
“Carbon offsetting is simply the process of neutralizing your footprint,” says Carlson, president of carbonfund.org. “If your car is responsible for 10,000 pounds of carbon emission, you plant some trees and boom, you’re carbon neutral.”
One carbon credit, he notes, is equal to one metric ton of carbon dioxide, or its equivalent for another greenhouse gas, such as methane, which are widely blamed for climate change.
According to the group’s website, a roundtrip flight between New York and Los Angeles would produce 0.89 metric tons of carbon dioxide. As such, the suggested donation to offset that emission is $8.94.
“It’s less than 5 percent of the cost of my flights,” says Geiger.
The cost is also tax deductible, like most other business expenses.
Where to Buy Them
As in most things green these days, the largest companies or those in the sustainability business itself are the most likely to be involved in the carbon offset business. If you want to sign up your employer or your own company, there are plenty of easily available choices.
In addition to carbonfund.org, certified carbon credits are marketed by nonprofits including the Nature Conservancyand Bonneville Environmental Foundation, along with climate mitigation services firms TerraPassand 3Degreesinc.com.
You can also purchase credits directly from airlines like JetBlue and United, and online travel companies OrbitzandExpedia, when booking tickets online.
Prices per credit can vary, depending on how the carbon emission is measured.
Some calculators, for example, 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.)
For its part, Terrapass in San Francisco aggregates direct donations from its online consumers and corporate partners, like Expedia, and uses those dollars to help emitters, including landfills and dairy farms, reduce their carbon emissions.
“We establish long-term contracts with them, and help them get the money they need to install capital equipment and implement process changes that reduce their emissions,” says Terrapass Chief Executive Erin Craig. She says her group helps complete the modifications as well.
It has a long and diverse list of corporate customers and partners, from Custom Building Products, the largest tile and stone installation systems in North America, to PE International, a management consulting firm.
Terrapass also monitors raw data from the emitters it works with to confirm that their carbon reduction goals are on track, independently verifying them through a third party auditor.
While demand for carbon credits from individual travelers has fallen off slightly since the onset of the recession in 2008, interest from the business community has remained strong, Craig says.
“Businesses usually offset their entire footprint for the whole year, including emissions from travel, information technology and power usage,” she says.
Indeed, the most recentState of the Voluntary Carbon Markets survey, by Forest Trends’ Ecosystem Marketplace and Bloomberg New Energy Finance, found suppliers in 2010 transacted the largest market-wide volumes of carbon offsets ever tracked, driven largely by corporate social responsibility.
Suppliers reported transactions involving the equivalent of 131.2 metric tons of carbon dioxide in the global voluntary carbon markets, up 34 percent from the previous year.
Land-based projects that emphasize deforestation and reforestation accounted for most of the credits purchased in the over-the-counter market, the survey found.
According to carbon accounting firm Brighter Planet, emissions per passenger per mile have decreased significantly as airlines emphasize fuel efficiency and embrace new routing and air traffic control technologies.
Between 2000 and 2010, it notes, such improvements have prevented 670 billion pounds of carbon dioxide from U.S. flights alone, saving airlines 16 billion gallons of jet fuel valued at over $33 billion. (The savings are calculated using data on flight volumes and fuel efficiency per aircraft model from the U.S. Transportation Bureau and Energy information Administration, along with jet fuel pricing data.)
While carbon credits themselves don’t directly reduce carbon emissions related to air travel, they do give consumers a mechanism to help the planet whenever they take to the skies, says Jeremy Sampson, director of marketing for Sustainable Travel International, a nonprofit that works with businesses to promote sustainability efforts.
The next step, he notes, is getting consumers and businesses to help develop a sustainable tourism infrastructure, one that protects the environmental, cultural and economic assets of travel destinations around the world.
“The dialogue has shifted away from getting people to simply offset their carbon footprint to looking at what projects are happening in the world around us that we can invest in because travel and tourism is an important economic engine,” says Sampson. “The airline industry and other industries are already interested in localizing these projects so they’re more relevant to consumers, which is helping to increase participation.”