Analysis - November 3, 2006



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November 2006


Print Issues, Sustainable tourism,

Going Carbon Neutral – The Greening of Travel

In the face of growing concerns about climate change, businesspeople, rock stars, and increasingly ordinary travelers are going ‘carbon neutral’ to counterbalance their contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. This trend is an important step towards improving the environmental performance of travel.

Tourism contributes to human-induced climate change, because it consumes non-renewable natural resources en-route and at the destination. Transportation constitutes approximately 80% of the total environmental impact of an average tourist while the rest is attributed to consumption of various goods and services such as accommodation, hospitality, entertainment, activities and so on. However, since tourism is a non-traditional industry involving many economic sectors, no comprehensive statistics exist on its exact resource consumption pattern.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that globally, the transportation sector contributes about 13% of all carbon dioxide emissions, with passenger aviation alone representing 2 3%. The percentage attributed to other tourism-related land or sea transport is not commonly documented. Both tourism and passenger aviation are forecast to grow 4-5% respectively per annum till 2015. Thus, the growth of the travel industry remains one of the biggest issues in sustainable tourism.

The aviation industry continues to invest substantially to ‘green’ the sector and mitigate its contribution to climate change. The rest of the tourism industry also continues to improve its eco-efficiency, but milestones are yet to be made across the entire sector. For example, aircraft fuel efficiency improved 5% in 2004-2005 alone and an A380 or a B787 can transport 100 passengers for 3 L of fuel per km, which compares favourably to most cars. However, no air travel can be considered sustainable at the moment, due to the burning of non-renewable fossil fuels. Additionally, airplanes emit many noxious gases, whose impact is 4 times worse at 30 000 feet than at ground level.

Therefore, individual travellers must become more responsible via their consumption patterns. Although there is a trend towards ‘greener’ consumerism, recent research indicates that most tourists are not fully aware of their individual environmental impact or contributions to climate change. Despite the growing surcharges on air travel, the real price of travelling does not reflect its true environmental costs.

Options to mitigate the impacts of travel

Two options exist to improve the sustainability of travelling. One is to reduce emissions directly and the other is to compensate for the pollution. At some destinations, one can sometimes choose less polluting forms of transport, as well as ‘more responsible’ tourism products and services. Since simply travelling less is not favourable in terms of economic development, option 2 becomes a necessity.

Carbon neutral travel involves the voluntary purchase of carbon credits in offset projects, which compensate for the emissions generated. The cost and choice of carbon-offset projects depends on where one buys the offsets (Table 1). Most companies offer a range of investment options in energy efficient technology or Renewable Energy Certificates in wind, solar, biomass or geothermal power. The contribution to carbon sequestration projects via tree plantations is also a common mechanism.

Voluntary emission offsetting is a growing trend and globally it has grown from 1 million tonnes of carbon in 2001 to 9.5 million tonnes in 2004. There are no readily available statistics on the size of the overall voluntary carbon market, and certainly none yet for the tourism sector. The Kyoto Protocol outlines compulsory and voluntary strategies to compensate for emissions. The tourism industry, including the aviation sector is not (yet) regulated, so at present it has no obligation to address matters concerning climate change. In 2005, British Airways launched its own carbon offset scheme and encourages its clients to contribute to sustainable energy projects. In fact, carbon neutral travel is a mechanism to assuage one’s guilt about travel and consumption. For this reason, some people don’t agree with emission compensation because it is perceived as the ‘right to pollute.’

Table 1: Emissions estimates and the equivalent cost of offset certificates
offered by five companies for a return plane between Montreal and Orlando.

** based on emission calculations provided on the websites of respective
companies for a return trip of 3500 km. Currently, the average price for
a tone of C02 equivalent from the voluntary offset market is $1.25 at the corporate rate.

Some offset projects are controversial, as most have inherent disadvantages. For example, biodiesel from crops such as sugar and corn raises issues about genetic engineering. Further questions surround the real benefits of certain projects in developing countries, such as monoculture tree plantations for carbon sequestration. These plantations also lead to biodiversity loss, amongst other problems, and their effectiveness is altogether questionable. In the Kaikora District of New Zealand, the local council provides tourists with the opportunity to plant a tree during their visit, which is numbered and can be revisited in the future.

Overall, emission offsetting has been criticized because of costs, measures and certification and because compensating does not put pressure on people to switch from using fossil fuels to renewable energy. It also does not regulate polluting activities. Nonetheless, it needs to be encouraged as an interim measure. Clearly, the use of alternative energy from renewable sources will appear more viable and cost effective as technology advances.

In the meantime, travellers can choose to travel more responsibly by investing in offset projects, especially in technology, that will ensure a more sustainable future. In any case, sustainable development implies the ‘polluter pay’ principle and so travellers must improve their environmental performance. As Table 1 shows, the costs are not exorbitant. But first and foremost, travellers need to be educated about the consequences of their impact and the associated benefits of counteracting them before they can choose to become more responsible.

* Carbon refers to carbon dioxide gas. Carbon offset projects sometimes involve compensating for other greenhouse gases.

– Baral, A. and Guha, G.S. (2004) «Trees for carbon sequestration or fossil fuel substitution: the issue of cost vs benefit.» Biomass and Bioenergy, 27 p.41-55.
– Becken, S. and Lane, B. (2006). «Air travel and the environment. An interview with Hugh Somerville.» Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 14(2) p.216-219.
– Becken, S., Simmons, D. G. and Frampton, C. (2006) «Energy use associated with different travel choices.» Tourism Management, 24. p. 267-277.
– Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (2005) «News Release: Carbon offset scheme launched.» 12 September, 2005. 2 pp.
– Gössling, S., Bredberg, M., Randow, A., Sandström, and Svensson, S. (2006) «Tourist Perceptions of climate change: A Study of International Tourist in Zanzibar.» Current Issues in Tourism, 9(4-5) p.419-435.
– Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1999) «Special Report: Aviation and the global atmosphere. Summary for policy makers.» 23 pp.
– Lynes, J. K. and Dredge, D. (2006) «Going Green: Motivation for environmental commitment in the airline industry. A case study of Scandinavian airlines.» Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 14(2) p.116-138.
– Van Kooten, G.C., Eagle, A.J., Manley, J. and Smolak, T. (2004) «How costly are carbon offsets?
A meta-analysis of carbon forest sinks.» Environmental Science and Policy, 7 p. 239-251.
– Various authors (2006) «New Internationlist.» July 2006. Issue 391.
Sur le web:
Climate Care
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
International Air Transport Association website
My Climate via Sustainable Tourism International
Native Energy
Carbon Neutral Company


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