Four years ago, Better Places was the first tour operator to report on and compensate for all travel undertaken by our travellers and staff, at our own expense. We started to buy carbon credits in bulk from the South Pole Group, and invest these in a clean cooking stove project in Ghana. Two years later, the Dutch Tour Operators Association (ANVR) followed our example and started to offer all members the opportunity to buy carbon credits in bulk through the South Pole Group. We are very proud that in 2019 our initiative was taken to the next level by the Adventure Travel Trade Association.
But for us, it doesn’t stop there! Since pioneering the way forward in carbon offsetting in the travel industry, we have realized that offsetting (alone) is not the answer.
What is CO2 offsetting?
Everyone is free to offset, or compensate for, their own CO2 emissions, whether it’s from flying, driving a car, or even showering. There are organisations set up to handle CO2 offsetting for you. Based on the amount of CO2 you have emitted, you pay a certain amount to the organisation. That money is then put into projects that aim is to reduce or prevent CO2 emissions elsewhere, for instance by planting trees or building windmills. Trees clean the air that we breathe by absorbing CO2, while windmill parks replace polluting energy power plants and prevent more emissions being produced. So far so good. So what’s the problem?
A false sense of security
The biggest danger of CO2 offsetting is generating a false feeling of “doing enough”. By opting for a compensation scheme, you can travel “carbon neutral” for just a few extra euro/pounds/dollars. In reality, the journey has still taken place and a certain amount of CO2 has been emitted. When you think of CO2 compensation as THE solution, you don’t have a reason to structurally change your behaviour and fly less.
Compensation takes too long
Compensation schemes do not offer the possibility to immediately limit or reduce environmental damage. The emissions of your airplane journey will cause an adverse effect on the environment today, while it can take months or even years for the same amount of CO2 to be compensated for or removed from the atmosphere. For instance, it takes 15 to 30 years for trees to start absorbing enough CO2 to truly offset emissions. We don’t have that kind of time if we want to reach goals set out by the Paris Agreement. It is much more effective to fly less and stimulate alternatives, such as train journeys.
Emissions are difficult to measure
Both the composition and amount of greenhouse gasses emitted are difficult to measure. It starts with a very basic question: how do you calculate emissions? Should a travel company only compensate for the part of the trip that they offer? Should the flight be included in the calculations? If so, should we also think about other greenhouse gases being emitted through flying (hydrogen oxides, water damps, black soot, flight lines, etc), as these have a far more damaging effect on the atmosphere than CO2 alone? At the same time, it is difficult to calculate how much CO2 a tree will take out of the atmosphere in 30 years’ time.
Then why offset?
While CO2 offsetting may not be the answer we are looking for, we still believe that it has a role to play in the current travel industry. While we look for more long-term solutions, we can already start changing our (travel) behaviours by, for instance, cycling more often to work, eating less or no meat, flying less frequently to faraway destinations and choosing used over new items. After all, what you don’t emit, you don’t need to offset. With a long haul journey, the flight to the destination accounts for the majority of the total CO2 emissions. You can often considerably reduce the CO2 emissions of your journey with a few simple steps, without compromising your travel experience.
What does Better Places do?
At Better Places we do everything we can to minimize the CO2 emissions of our journeys. For example, we advise our clients to travel less often and for longer periods of time, whenever possible. We have put all our sample itineraries under a magnifying glass, which resulted in developing our maximum positive impact trips. These are 3-week long itineraries which include stays in small-scale accommodation owned and operated by locals, excursions with local residents, visiting to nature parks and conservation areas, and overland travel on destination. Recently we also started to offer adventure trips within Europe to unique destinations that can be reached by train. Finally, since 2018 we have imposed a voluntary flight/carbon tax on ourselves, whose proceeds go entirely to supporting and promoting clean energy initiatives and research towards less polluting options for flying.
We won’t stop pioneering a way forward to a more sustainable travel industry.
Airline pollution is soaring: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-03-10/airline-pollution-is-soaring-and-nobody-knows-how-to-fix-it
Flying shame and the climate emergency: https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/7/25/8881364/flying-shame-climate-change-airline-greta-thunberg