Carbon Offsetting Long Distance Travel

Increasingly, as a race, we live in a global community. Most of us have friends and family or work commitments around the world.  With this global community, long distance travel continues to increase in popularity and is often seen as a necessity, despite the impact on the environment and its contribution to global warming.  Most governments of developed countries agree that climate change is a serious issue for us all. Even increasing the temperature by 2 degrees could have a catastrophic impact.  It could create water scarcity for billions of people, put billions more at risk of hunger, make hundreds of millions homeless because of flooding and threaten the very existence of low-lying island nation states through sea-level rise. Mitigating the effects of climate change is an important issue for us all.

It is estimated that air travel accounts for 3.5% of greenhouse gasses generated by humans. Unlike many forms of transport, including cars, airplanes are probably as fuel efficient as technology currently allows, so as the population of the world grows and the use of air travel increases, this figure is predicted to double over the next 15 years.

In the past families knew that when relatives emigrated for work or other opportunities,  a journey home, or a trip to visit them would at best be a once in a lifetime event, certainly not a regular occurrence.  Instead they would keep in touch at special occasions and holidays by gathering around the telephone to try to speak with one another, in short, expensive calls. Thankfully those calls where we missed half of the conversation and interrupted each other due to the time delay, are now just a memory. Developments in technology have transformed the way people keep in touch both at home and at work.  We are able to regularly talk and see each other through Skype, or FaceTime and other web based technology. Those working within a global market, or those with colleagues in other locations, can communicate via the internet through email, remote meetings, webinars etc.   Even robotic medical procedures can be carried out remotely!  With so many ways to communicate, with web cams all over the world, not to mention the virtual worlds to explore, technology has reduced the need to travel and meet in person.

Long distance travel may not be as out of reach financially as it once was, but is still expensive and any travel, unless we are planning to walk, pedal or row our own boat, increases our carbon footprint, and has a potentially negative effect on the natural environment. The most eco-friendly way to reduce our carbon footprint is to not travel, but even communication technologies cannot realistically rule out the need to travel at all.  These may be the next best thing to being there,  but they sometimes they cannot replace actually attending in person- whether it be a family wedding, meeting  a new addition to the family,  reconnecting with friends and loved ones, visiting and appreciating the wonders of the world, or meeting face to face to clinch the deal.  If we cannot avoid necessary air travel, and ruling out the unlikely event that airline technology will be dramatically improved to reduce its contribution to greenhouse gasses, we need to consider all the other alternatives

A report by Friends  of the Earth in 2009 explains that climate change urgently requires major cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions. As a step towards this goal, developed countries agreed targets at Kyoto in 1997, to cut their emissions. Embattled negotiators introduced a practice known as offsetting to offer some flexibility in the way these targets could be met. 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.  In practice, developed countries are able to meet part of their targets by paying developing countries to deliver greenhouse gas reduction projects.  However not all carbon offsetting is as eco-friendly as they may appear.   Friends of the Earth refer to government or large organizations offsetting policies as “a dangerous distraction”.  They present a summary of evidence that creating an offset market is not leading to more and more ingenious ways to cut carbon, but is in fact leading to more and more ingenious ways to count things as carbon credits, ie creating accounting loop-holes.  It results in a huge distraction from getting massive investment into new low-carbon technologies in developed countries, and developing countries, and does little to encourage carbon reduction. They argue that global offsetting is failing the climate and people.

Whilst large scale Carbon Offsetting projects may not be as effective, by doing what we can to reduce unnecessary travel, and by working to compensate for the environmental costs, we can hopefully improve on the carbon footprint of our journeys. Currently air travel offsetting is voluntary, made by passengers who care about the environment.  We can support programs for planting trees, which consume CO2, or commit to energy-saving projects that reduce CO2 emissions elsewhere.  Some airlines provide a carbon calculator and an option for passengers to pay extra for carbon offsetting, such as this one:


Some schemes may allow you to choose to plant trees, and donate to other initiatives, whilst others may encourage you to make other life style changes to compensate.

The National Geographic lists the following ideas:

What You Can Do

Purchase wind certificates. Organizations such as WindCurrent (, NativeEnergy (, and Renewable Choice Energy (www.renewablechoice) allow customers to purchase certificates, sometimes known as green tags to offset emissions caused by automobile or air travel. Some of these sites have CO2 calculators that estimate your impact in tons.

Plant trees. Forests take CO2 out of the atmosphere and lock it away in wood, where it stays until the wood rots or burns. Maryland-based Trees for the Future ( offers a “Cool Car Certificate” that plants 300 trees (the estimated amount of trees it will take to offset one vehicle’s emissions in a lifetime) for $30.

You can offset air travel through its “Trees for Travel” program ($1 will offset a round-trip domestic flight, $3 an international one).

The United Kingdom-based Future Forests ( plants trees in more than 80 forests in the U.K., Mexico, India, and the U.S. A global flight calculator determines how many trees you need to plant to offset a flight—two trees, for example, for a New York-to-London round trip, or $30—as a part of the CarbonNeutral flight program.

Support other offset programs. U.K.-based Climate Care ( provides a mix of offset strategies with programs that save energy, that encourage clean energy and that remove CO2 (sample donation: $11 to offset a New York-to-L.A. round trip).

The Better World Club (, an eco-oriented auto club, offers members who book plane tickets through its in-house travel agency free carbon offsets on two domestic and one international flight each year. Nonmembers worldwide can purchase offsets—$11 for a domestic flight and $22 for an international flight.

Drive a hybrid car. With a fleet upward of 250 cars, EV Rental Cars (, offers eco-friendly cars at eight metropolitan locations including, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego, and Washington, D.C., through its partnership with Budget (

Enterprise Rent-a-Car ( followed suit in May and acquired some 2,700 Toyota Prius models for rent in select U.S. cities.

Switch to low-energy, compact fluorescent light bulbs. Bright and warm like conventional bulbs, they last ten times longer, use a third of the power, and prevent release of half a ton of CO2 by the U.S. power grid. Though pricey to buy, each bulb will still save you at least $30 on your electric bill over its long lifespan. Six bulbs will offset your continental round trip. Ten may well pay you for it.


On special events such as Christmas Day, our family gathers in front of the computer to talk to our relatives who live far away, some overseas.  Sometimes we watch each other unwrap presents and even share a meal time across the miles. My youngest still seems to think that the purpose of FaceTime is to show toys to people, regardless of the season, and who we are speaking with.  Invariably a toy is pushed in front of the camera at some point in the conversation. Video calls are so common place that even our pets join in.    Our dog and my sister’s dog have been known to exchange woofs. Our dog will also bark when she over hears a door bell or knock at the door over the internet  — barking at a visitor to the door in a home thousands of miles away! Much of this would have been unimaginable not so many years ago. I am grateful for emails with instant photos of new babies born, and for online webcam chats, but no matter how many toy sharing, or dog barking, catch ups we have had, nothing compares with the actual moments when we are able to do that in person.  Even our dogs finally meeting was a joyous event. I would not want to miss those golden moments, and those opportunities that long distance travel can bring.  It is great to know that we can do our part to reduce our carbon footprint generally and commit to offsetting as a way of personally doing what we can for the environment.

The true cost of an airline flight, and the success of carbon offsetting is difficult to quantify, but every effort we can make will be a step in the right direction.

Like what we’re doing? Want to share your story or tell others? Do you have a green business in Calgary and want to get in front of a large local audience? Let’s build a green community together!