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    How green is your journey?

    It's time to tackle flying's role in climate change, writes Danielle Teutsch.


    Next week I'm flying to Europe. As I soar above the clouds, eating my in-flight meal of rubber chicken and watching movies, I'll have the discomfort of knowing I am releasing 11 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.


    I can almost hear the polar ice cracking and an awful gurgling sound as another small island nation disappears into the ocean.


    Frequent flyers can no longer be in denial about their contribution to climate change. Plane travel contributes an estimated 2 per cent of global warming impact, but our obsession with criss-crossing the planet means this is set to triple in the next 50 years, says the Stern report into climate change.

    Air travel is a particular concern because the greenhouse gases released by planes at high altitudes increase the total warming effect.


    So it doesn't matter that I have signed up for green energy and drive a small car in an effort to reduce my environmental footprint. In fact, it wouldn't matter if I lived in a bark hut and survived on wild honey, because my single annual trip to Europe would still make me an emissions bigfoot.


    My return trip will release the same amount of greenhouse gases as driving my car for more than two years.


    Lonely Planet co-founder Tony Wheeler, the godfather of independent travel, admits the issue has been troubling him for years - and that he is "guilty, guilty, guilty" as charged. He admits he could not have foreseen the boom in air travel when he wrote his first guidebook in 1972. Each month, more than 400,000 Australians travel overseas, the Australian Bureau of Statistics says.


    "It's been weighing on my conscience," Wheeler says. "It doesn't make me feel good. But I'm not going to stop travelling. It's what my life is about."


    Wheeler neatly summed up our dilemma. Travel educates and broadens the mind, and connects us to the rest of the world - which is especially important for Australians.


    But how can we do it without being environmental vandals, especially as poor nations are expected to suffer the most from climate change?


    It's a question the travel industry is seriously considering. Last year Wheeler made a joint announcement with Mark Ellingham, the founder of Rough Guides, asking travellers to "fly less and stay longer" and donate money to carbon-offsetting schemes. Such schemes fund projects such as tree planting that supposedly neutralise the emissions air travel creates.


    In the UK, British Airways and the website lastminute.com offer customers the option of going carbon neutral. Tours by bands Pearl Jam, Coldplay and the Rolling Stones - as well as this year's Big Day Out - are carbon neutral.




    Australia has been slower to react to the carbon neutral trend but that's about to change. There are now a number of established carbon offset organisations such as Greenfleet, Climate Friendly, Easy Being Green, Elementree, Carbon Neutral and CO2 Australia, and the industry is taking note.


    Climate Friendly's managing director Joel Fleming says it is Australia's turn to "play catch-up" with Europe and the US.


    "This will be the year in which that happens," Fleming says.


    Last month, Intrepid Travel co-founder Darrell Wade announced that all air tickets sold would automatically include a carbon offset payment.


    "As passionate as we are about travel, we must be honest with ourselves and recognise that by taking a holiday on the other side of the world we are substantially adding to global warming," Wade said.


    Tourism Tasmania has just announced it will pay to offset the flights of US tourists coming to Tasmania. And the issue is on Flight Centre's radar, with a spokeswoman saying the company was "looking at a couple of proposals" from carbon offset organisations.


    Qantas has no immediate plans for an offset scheme but is updating its fleet with more fuel-efficient aircraft such as the A380, which a spokesman said could reduce emissions by 15 to 20 per cent.


    Airlines worldwide are feeling the pressure to stop spewing gases into the atmosphere, with the International Air Transport Association recently committed to replacing 10 per cent of its fuel with non-fossil fuel sources.


    With all this in mind, I logged into the websites of two organisations - Greenfleet and Climate Friendly - to see how I could go about buying a good conscience.


    It looks simple enough. I calculate my emissions on the website calculator, then pay a sum of money which the organisations use to invest in projects that directly compensate for the greenhouse gases I have released.


    But the more you delve into carbon offsetting, the more confusing it becomes.


    For a start, Greenfleet plants trees, while Climate Friendly invests in renewable energy. Which is better? What are these calculations based on? Is it bona fide? And am I really helping to save the planet or just paying for the right to pollute the atmosphere?


    Greenfleet's calculator says that my return trip to Europe produces almost 11 tonnes of carbon emissions, based on calculations from the Federal Government's Bureau of Transport Economics.


    This can be neutralised by planting 40 trees at a cost of AUD$94.12, using the Australian National Carbon Accounting System definition of a forest carbon sink. The basic principal behind tree planting is that growing vegetation acts as a carbon sink due to its sequestration of CO2 during photosynthesis.


    The money will go towards various tree-planting projects, the biggest of which is in the Murray-Darling basin.


    Greenfleet has faced problems with some of its planting projects, particularly due to the drought. Also, subscribers have to realise that it may take years for their carbon emissions to be offset as trees mature.


    But Greenfleet's acting CEO Sara Gipton says the trees will still have an environmental benefit while they are growing, and create wildlife habitats. She says the organisation is growing "in leaps and bounds", with a 58 per cent increase last year, and that tree planting projects are on target.


    But the problem with tree planting is that it doesn't reduce emissions at the source. At best, it is only ever compensating for the damage caused by fossil fuels.


    Danielle Ecuyer, a former investment banker now dedicated to educating the world about climate change through her organisation Women for Change Alliance, offsets all her emissions with Climate Friendly because it invests in renewable energy projects such as wind and solar power.


    "We need to reduce our reliance on coal-fired electricity plants," she says.


    An important part of Climate Friendly's scheme is that each time a new customer signs up, they build demand for more clean energy sources, which in turn will drive down the price for renewable energy.


    Climate Friendly's air travel calculator says my return trip emits 10.6 tonnes of carbon emissions, which will cost me $212 to offset.


    So far, Climate Friendly has funded two wind farm projects. They both sound worthy, but I'm still no closer to making a decision about who to go with.


    James Keating, general manager of Green Globe, an environmental certification company for the travel industry, agrees that the carbon offset market can be confusing because of the different calculation methods. "They are great in theory but there needs to be a consistent framework," he says.


    Keating believes this will happen in the next decade as carbon offsetting becomes mainstream, forcing the Government to implement uniform standards that will provide more accountability to the public.


    But the beauty of these programs is that they raise awareness of the environmental damage airline travel causes. "It's certainly better than doing nothing," Wheeler says.


    But there are other ways of holidaying with a conscience, he says. That may mean taking fewer long-haul flights, or taking high-speed rail where possible. It might mean thinking twice before succumbing to the temptation of ludicrously cheap fares offered by budget airlines. It might also mean choosing to stay in an eco-friendly resort.


    Because the issue of climate change is here to stay. And until we learn how to teleport ourselves, or someone finds a way to make battery-operated planes stay in the air, travellers had better get used to it.


    Source: http://www.stuff.co.nz

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