Climate Change and Carbon Offsets
Climate change has become one of the most important issues that the world has ever faced. As responsible travelers, we must look seriously at how our travels affect the environment and do whatever we can to minimize our carbon footprint. Participating in a carbon offset project is one way we can do this.
Climate change refers to long-term changes in average weather patterns around the globe. These changes are largely the result of human activities. In particular, the use of fossil fuels which trap heat within our atmosphere causes what is called the greenhouse effect. Greenhouse gases (GHG) have been increasing steadily since the industrial period. Scientists say that this must turn around quickly if we want to save our planet.
Until the current Covid-19 situation, air travel had been steadily increasing. The International Air Transport Association has predicted that the number of airline passengers could almost double by 2037. It is too soon to predict what life after Covid-19 will be like, but once there is a vaccine for the virus, one can assume that air travel will continue to grow. Air travel is responsible for less than 3% of carbon emissions globally, but it is expected to triple by 2050. The United Nations created the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) to help airlines offset their carbon emissions by purchasing carbon offset credits. Offsets are measured in metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalents. As passengers, we too should consider what our flights are doing to the environment and how to best mitigate our own impact on climate change.
“Carbon offset” refers to actions taken to reduce GHG emissions to compensate for emissions created by our actions. On a large scale, this refers to corporations who want to offset the emissions caused by running their businesses. They are often referred to in terms of carbon offset credits, an instrument used to denote one metric ton of CO2. These credits must be certified by the government or an independent certification process. While most of the GHG produced by our actions are CO2, there are others that contribute to climate change as well. By using carbon offset credits, we can compare different emissions on the same scale. The goal, of course, is to become carbon-neutral at a minimum, with the ultimate goal of having a negative impact on GHG. Scientists are using 2050 as the target for achieving “net-zero” emissions but emphasize the importance of ending all CO2 emissions from fossil fuels by the end of the century.
There is some controversy around the use of carbon offset projects and for good reason. The first concern is the validity of these projects. How can we be sure that the level of GHG reduction reported is valid? This is often a very difficult thing to prove. It has been found that many projects claiming to reduce emissions are really taking credit for reductions that would have happened anyway.
Another major concern is the potential of incentivizing companies to continue producing GHG. Carbon offsets are only one small part of the solution. To save our planet, we need to completely eliminate CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. This cannot be achieved if companies have the mindset that their participation in a carbon offset project is enough, thus seeing no need to actually reduce their own emissions. It is understandable why there is a division in thinking with regard to carbon offsets.
The process of certification is daunting, taking many factors into consideration. One important factor in the quality of a carbon offset project, which is integral to our beliefs at Kindred Women Travelers, is its effect on the local community. A project must ensure that there are no harmful social or environmental changes as a result of what we are doing. A quality offset project must show how it will benefit the local community by creating employment, improving the quality of water or air and conserving biodiversity and biological habitats, to name a few. These co-benefits of carbon offset projects are an essential part of a quality project. With the jury still being out on the effectiveness of carbon offsetting, it is important to know that the project is helping in a variety of ways. Carbon offset projects involving planting trees are one way of providing many of these co-benefits. Therefore, Kindred Women Travelers has chosen to participate in a reforestation project in Nicaragua that is near and dear to my heart.
Kindred Women Travelers has signed on with a new carbon offset project run by Dr. Eric Olson, a tropical ecologist with many years of experience in the field. The project location is near the coastal town of Ostional, in the township of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. Dr. Olson’s interest in the San Juan del Sur township stems from his involvement with a “sister city” connection in his hometown of Newton, MA. Dr. Olson sits on the Board of Directors and has been traveling to this township twice a year for quite a while and has gotten to know the community very well. For the past 40 years, Dr. Olson has been teaching and researching in Latin America. After a long career as a professor at Brandeis University, he is now retiring and relocating to Nicaragua to devote his time to this project.
The Nicaragua Reforestation Project involves partnering with landowners by planting trees on their unused pastures and crop fields (and they are currently not living on.) This is a win-win situation where landowners get someone to take care of their land and repair their damaged fences, while the project gets to use the land without the need for a huge financial investment. The community leaders are very excited about this partnership as it will provide employment to locals.
With Dr. Olson’s expertise in forest ecology and his knowledge of measuring carbons in forests and soil, this project has great potential to “draw down” thousands of tons of CO2 in a new forest. They started in 2019 by planting 5,000 trees. Now with 30 acres of land, they are getting ready to plant 14,000 trees in 2020. They are focusing on native trees, planting 17 different native species and only one non-native, as native trees are more likely to survive. They provide many co-benefits not found in fast-growing, non-native trees. Such co-benefits include providing rural employment, slowing erosion by intercepting rain during intense tropical storms and improving filtration of water in soils. Planting such a diverse array of tree species will result in greater sustainability in the long run.
Using a conservative calculator that takes into consideration the high elevation of air travel, Dr. Olson has determined that a 4-hour round-trip air flight emits one metric ton of CO2. Two and half trees, grown for 15 years, will have absorbed one ton of CO2, giving us a net zero result. The cost of planting the trees in this project is $1 per tree. At such a low cost, we can easily round this up to four trees, or one tree per hour of travel, to make up for trees that don’t survive. A $20 contribution would cover the cost of planting 20 trees, which would absorb 8 tons of CO2. These calculations, combined with the co-benefits previously outlined, make this a very rewarding project to be associated with. It is very exciting to get in on the ground floor of such a project.
Individuals traveling with Kindred Women Travelers are strongly encouraged to participate in a carbon offset project. It is not a requirement to participate in Dr. Olson’s project, but I can personally vouch for his qualifications and integrity. I will be traveling to Nicaragua and Costa Rica in 2021 and look forward to seeing the reforestation project. Perhaps some of you will join me!
For more information on Dr. Olson’s project, you can contact him at .
Air Travel and Climate
Nicaragua Reforestation Project
Dr. Olson has a PhD in evolutionary biology and ecology from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Master’s degree in forest science from Yale University. I have known Dr. Olson for over 20 years and have always been amazed by his level of expertise in this area. I am thrilled that he has started this reforestation, and that we have the opportunity to offset our fuel emissions with this carbon offsetting project. Since the project is new, it will be a long road for it to become a certified carbon offsetting project.