Treading Lightly: Traveling Sustainably in the Age of Climate Change



“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." - Mark Twain


That I believe, much as Twain did, travel is an antidote for prejudice and bigotry (and that our friends and fellow citizens sorely need it right now), should be no surprise to anyone who knows me. I believe that if one travels with an open mind, it’s impossible to retain the idea that one is the center of the universe or that others' realities could somehow be “less than” our own.


If you know me, you would also know that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist who believes that human activities are negatively affecting the planet and that it’s our responsibility, as a society and as individuals, to address these problems. Our strong feelings on the subject have led my family to “deep energy retrofit” our older home and add a 7kW solar array to reduce our energy bills by over 90%. We also own a 60-acre farm where our main “crop” is managing the forest as it returns to what had been damaged farmland (a process that, in and of itself, sequesters over 200 tons of CO2 each year, making my family “carbon negative” in the extreme). Heck, I even wrote a book on the deep energy retrofit subject.


This begs the question: How can we maintain the benefits of travel while protecting the climate at the same time?


Travel, especially flying, produces outsized amounts of heat-trapping gases - a single roundtrip flight from San Francisco to Zürich generates 3.1 tons of CO2 per person, which is roughly a fifth of what an average American produces in an entire year (clocking in at nearly 16 tons per year, we Americans live one of the most carbon-intensive lifestyles on the planet).


To be sure, both individuals and the travel industry as a whole are well aware of this and are working to ameliorate the negative environmental effects of travel. More efficient (and even electric!) planes, carbon-neutral fuels made from captured carbon, electric cars, trains, and buses are all being deployed to reduce the carbon footprint of travel, but they currently represent only a tiny fraction of world travel modes.


Until those solutions come online fully, what can we do to reduce the carbon footprint of our travel? We can travel less, select the least carbon-intensive modes of travel, and, to soak up the carbon we can’t avoid emitting, we can purchase carbon offsets.


Carbon offsets are simply a way of taxing ourselves for the carbon emitted due to our activities. The money we spend on carbon offsets is invested in tree planting, renewable energy, or other carbon-reducing projects. The best carbon offset companies are third-party verified, transparent, and committed to projects that truly reduce carbon. When you’re looking for a trustworthy carbon offset company, make sure they’re third-party verified by organizations like The Gold Standard, a Swiss foundation headquartered in Geneva.


For Real Road Adventures, we contracted with MyClimate.org, a Swiss company, to offset all of our travel activities, from Swiss flights to driving our all-electric VW ID.4 and the crew’s follow-van. MyClimate is well-known as a reputable company that invests in real-world projects with real-world results, and they often make the ranks of top-rated carbon offset companies around the world.


MyClimate allows individuals to enter their travel details (or details about any other activities they might want to offset) and calculates the amount of carbon produced. Then, it offers various projects at different price points to offset that carbon. It’s an easy interface that not only helps to offset carbon production but also simply makes us aware of just how carbon-intensive our daily activities can be.


Carbon offsets may not be the long-term solution to our climate woes, but they go a long way in the short run to support the world’s transition to a low-carbon economy. Of course, there are lots of other things we can do to make our travel greener, many of which you can learn about in our Real Road Adventures series. I’ll cover green travel more generally in an upcoming post.


Have you modified your life or travels because of climate change? Do you use carbon offsets for your travel? Let us know your thoughts on the subject in the comments below!


And, if you’re interested in purchasing a copy of my book, The Greened House Effect: Renovating Your Home with a Deep Energy Retrofit, for $20, postage included, contact me here.


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