Navigating Through Carbon Confusion

Travel is a powerful tool for increasing people’s appreciation for the natural world, but to effectively offset the pollution generated by their trips, consumers need to carefully study the options

12-01-2007 // Mark Wexler

TRACY ARM is a 30-mile-long, 1,000-foot-deep fjord in southeastern Alaska that culminates at an enormous ice field called Sawyer Glacier. Framed by towering peaks and dozens of waterfalls, the narrow inlet is an otherworldly place that more than a century ago inspired John Muir to write: “No ice-work I have ever seen surpasses this, either in the magnitude of the features or effectiveness of composition.”

Last spring, I found out why Muir was so enthralled. Along with 22 other NWF travelers, I sailed into the fjord on a small Lindblad Expedition ship called the Sea Bird that maneuvered through a minefield of icebergs to take us to the edge of the gigantic glacier. On the way, we saw mountain goats walking vertically up the granite cliffs and watched brown bears and bald eagles feeding along the shore. Icy mist from the waterfalls froze the smiles on our faces. “I feel fortunate,” said NWF Expedition traveler Charlie Chace, an electrical engineer from Massachusetts, “to have the opportunity to experience this.”

I agreed. Tracy Arm was unlike any place I had ever visited. But by traveling to such a remote location, was I contributing to the very problem—global warming—that someday could destroy Sawyer Glacier?

According to an online calculator provided by NativeEnergy, a company that invests in renewable energy on U.S. tribal lands, the round-trip flight between my home in Washington, D.C., and Southeast Alaska alone generated 1.86 tons of greenhouse-gas pollutants. To counter those and other emissions my trip produced, I bought carbon offsets, a type of purchase that allows consumers to help fund projects to reduce demand for fossil fuels or plant trees to absorb carbon dioxide. The offsets I purchased were designed to support clean-energy projects. But selecting which projects to invest in, I discovered, is not an easy task.

While carbon-emissions trading in the 38 countries that signed the Kyoto Protocol is regulated by European Union standards, no such criteria exist for the U.S. market, where several dozen companies now sell voluntary offsets with prices ranging from about $5 to $25 per ton of carbon. “Almost anyone can sell you almost anything and claim the purchase will make you carbon neutral,” says Mark Trexler, an energy services expert who last year completed an extensive study of retail offset providers for the group Clean Air-Cool Planet. “Consumers should take time to investigate the market before making purchases.”

Trexler recommends buyers obtain offsets from “transparent” providers that supply specific information about their projects and can demonstrate that the same offsets are not being sold to multiple buyers. Customers also should ask providers to break down exactly how the money will be spent. “It’s important to ask for offsets that reduce greenhouse gas pollution more than would happen otherwise,” adds Kurt Zwally, NWF’s global warming solutions manager. “If a renewable energy project would occur even without offset purchases, it doesn’t represent a reduction to someone’s personal carbon footprint.”

While they can have great benefits for wildlife, carbon offsets involving tree-planting programs can be especially hard to assess. But even when they make informed purchases, consumers should not assume they are off the hook. In addition to pushing lawmakers to pass measures to improve the nation’s energy habits, Americans need to reduce their own carbon emissions by at least 2 percent each year to help solve global warming. “While offsets can help reduce the impact of air travel or other activities where increasing fuel economy or avoiding pollution is difficult,” says Zwally, “they are not substitutes for taking steps at home to be more energy efficient.”

Such steps can include switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), installing a programmable thermostat and insulating a hot water heater. The bonus: Homeowners also can save money over the long run. According to NWF research, for example, replacing just five commonly used incandescent bulbs with CFLs cuts greenhouse-gas emissions by 1,150 pounds a year and reduces electricity bills by about $50 annually.

Offsetting travel emissions is a much tougher challenge. But as I discovered on the NWF Expedition to Southeast Alaska, travel also can be a powerful tool for increasing people’s awareness and appreciation of the natural world. That seemed evident when I looked at the faces of my fellow passengers as the Sea Bird sailed out of Tracy Arm.

When the ship moved into wider waters, we found ourselves front-row center to another spectacular display—this one by several humpback whales that had migrated from Hawaii to feed in Alaskan waters. Only a few yards away, the 50-foot-long animals repeatedly dove below the surface, their huge flukes slapping the sea, then rose back up out of the water with mouths agape. Each dive produced cheers from everyone aboard the Sea Bird.

“This trip has been a real eye-opener,” said passenger Dick Millman, a corporate CEO from Texas. I can’t help but think that John Muir would have agreed.

Editorial Director Mark Wexler and his wife have taken several steps recently to reduce their carbon footprints at home, including buying a hybrid car, replacing conventional light bulbs with CFLs and taking advantage of the local utility’s program to supply some of their electricity from renewable sources.


Sound Practices

As part of its ongoing efforts to incorporate sound environmental practices into its trips to wildlife destinations around the world, NWF Expeditions is teaming up with NativeEnergy to purchase carefully selected offsets for all travelers in the program in 2008. For more information, visit www.nwf.org/expeditions or call 1-800-606-9563. For tips on reducing your carbon footprint by 2 percent each year, see www.nwf.org/globalwarming.

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