Easing carbon footprints

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Nonprofit urges voluntary fee on air travelers to pay for offsets

Peter
Krahenbuhl’s path to erasing carbon footprints began as a graduate
student witnessing ecological changes caused by harvesting trees in an
Ecuadorean village.

He later punted on a D.C. job and continued to travel in Latin America.

He then took his experiences and started an eco-tourism company
based out of Boulder. But even green tourism meant boarding a plane
that would dump tons of carbon dioxide in the sky.

Five years ago, he got together with Brian Mullis to form a nonprofit to help travelers and tourism operators tread lightly.

The company, Sustainable Travel Inc., provides educational
programs and services, including certifying resorts that practice
conservation and protect local heritage.

The company is now jumping on the latest green buzz called
carbon offsets. The idea is to allow passengers to offset their "carbon
footprint," or the carbon dioxide emissions created when flying in an
airplane.

The voluntary fee – ranging from a few dollars to up to $30 a
flight – is then funneled into energy-efficiency and renewable-energy
projects.

The nonprofit already is working to develop an offset program
for Continental Airlines. And Denver-based Frontier Airlines said it
has decided to tap Sustainable Travel as well.

Concerns about offsets

Krahenbuhl understands the skepticism about carbon-offset
programs. He openly acknowledges some predecessors have given it a bad
name by putting money into projects that created more greenhouse gases
than they reduced. Even "warm and fuzzy" projects like planting trees
can be failures if most of the trees die or are chopped down.

Some also grouse that carbon-offset programs are largely "feel
good" projects, a way for the self-indulgent to rationalize continuing
consumption.

The devil is in the details.

Jonathan Weiner, a professor of environmental policy of law at
Duke University’s Nicholas School and a carbon-trading expert, said
offset programs are likely to have modest impacts at first, but may
become a significant contribution to climate protection over time.

"One concern about offsets programs is that the claimed
reductions . . . may not be the real reductions if the program is
exaggerated or poorly managed," Weiner said by e-mail. "This requires
good monitoring by the seller and intermediary firms. But this is a
concern about any emissions-reduction program anywhere in the world."

Krahenbuhl said Sustainable Travel works with groups that
adhere to the highest international standards, many of which stem from
the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

"We want to make sure that what people are claiming is what
people are getting and that it’s audited, trackable and not
double-sold," he said.

Krahenbuhl, 35, tries to practice what he preaches about small
carbon footprints: He spent a decade without a car, relying mainly on a
bicycle to get around Boulder.

His office is a small room in his north Boulder house,
appointed with pictures from his travels and a bookshelf of travel
books, including one he wrote on Ecuador.

Working through Sustainable Travel’s model gives one an appreciation of the complexity and cost of offsetting carbon emissions.

Sustainable Travel has created a carbon calculator, which is
available on its Web site (sustainabletravelinternational.org). A
family of four traveling round trip between Denver and Washington,
D.C., for example, is responsible for 4 1/2 tons of carbon dioxide
emissions.

That’s obviously a staggering figure that’s not going to be
offset cheaply in the same amount of time it was created. But it can be
offset over time for a relatively palatable fee of $68.42, Sustainable
Travel estimates.

Carbon-offset portfolio

Sustainable Travel essentially works as a broker, the exclusive
U.S. carbon offsets provider for Swiss-based MyClimate, which
identifies and monitors the local projects.

Rene Estermann, MyClimate’s managing director, also said the
projects funded must meet international standards. He said MyClimate
"guarantees" the emissions offset will be realized within two years of
the fee being paid.

"The offset money is a driver to make the project happen," he
said in a telephone interview from Switzerland. "It’s not the only
factor, but it’s a tipping point."

MyClimate’s carbon-offset portfolio includes a fuel-efficient
stove project in Cambodia, biomass and solar energy projects in India,
a wind power project in Madagascar and solar energy projects in Costa
Rica and Eritrea.

Estermann said MyClimate chose developing countries because
they lack the money to invest in new technology themselves. The
organization also wants to help create positive side effects, such as
local jobs, higher living standards and know-how, or what nonprofits
call "capacity building."

Whenever possible, donors prefer to fund a local project
directly because international organizations typically take 15 percent
to 20 percent for overhead. But in this case, airlines would be paying
for a middleman’s expertise in finding and monitoring projects.

To avoid a double overhead cost, Sustainable Travel and
MyClimate have agreed not to take more than 20 percent combined,
guaranteeing at least 80 percent of the airline ticket fees go to a
local project. Krahenbuhl said Sustainable Travel can take a lower fee
because of the volume of the program.

Subtracting the overhead, the original $68 fee is now about
$55. While $55 doesn’t go far in the United States, it can be a
relatively large amount of money in a poor country.

However, local projects have overhead costs as well, such as
office rent, staff salaries, office equipment, four-wheel-drive
vehicles to deliver services, research and development costs.

Some critics argue it could take decades or even a century for the emission offsets to be realized.

Frontier spokesman Joe Hodas said his view is that the airline
has these choices: Get out of the airline business, do nothing or try
to do something. He said the projects sound like they would have a
positive impact, whether the carbon dioxide offsets are immediate or
not.

Does it make sense to funnel money into developing countries that contribute a minuscule amount to global pollution?

Wiener of Duke University said it doesn’t matter whether the
carbon dioxide emissions come from Colorado or Cambodia, the impact on
global climate is the same.

Nor does it matter that the more publicized environmental problem in Cambodia is illegal logging and deforestation.

"If it is more cost effective to invest now in Cambodia than in
the U.S., or in stoves than forests, the emissions reductions achieved
in one place will benefit the climate just as much as in the other
place," Wiener said. "And the lower cost encourages more purchases of
emissions reductions, thus benefiting the environment."

But Weiner added that all offset programs are vulnerable to
"leakage," in which reductions in one place are "negated by increases
induced in other (unregulated) places."

Educational tool

Krahenbuhl said another "beauty" of a carbon-offset program is that it is a valuable consumer education tool.

Wiener said carbon-offset programs "help people become aware of
their own greenhouse gas emissions and of ways to reduce those
emissions; and they help people understand and prepare for
participation in a larger, more robust emissions-allowance trading
system, which is highly likely to be enacted in the next few years."

Krahenbuhl remembers being asked recently by a "cowboy" in
Steamboat Springs: "Wouldn’t your money be better spent lobbying" for a
change in public policy?

But he said he views working with companies like Continental
and Frontier as a route to such change. Said Krahenbuhl: "These are the
guys that are going to affect policy change."

The impact

The airline industry has been under fire globally for
contributing to climate change. The industry maintains it is
responsible for less than 2 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide
emissions and is shifting as quickly as possible to more fuel-efficient
fleets. But critics counter that airline travel is growing rapidly,
emissions are released at high altitude where they can do more damage
and there aren’t any alternative fuels on the horizon.

The amount of carbon dioxide a plane emits can vary
dramatically depending on the plane and the route. Continental
Airlines, for example, is known for having a more fuel-efficient fleet
than many other U.S. airlines. In general, a 300-passenger airplane
traveling between Denver and Washington, D.C., round trip would emit
more than 300 tons of carbon dioxide, with the cost to offset that in
developing countries of about $5,000.

How Sustainable Travel’s carbon offsets work

Participants choose to pay a fee to offset their "carbon footprint."
For example, a family of four traveling round trip between Denver and
Washington, D.C., is estimated to contribute 4 1/2 tons of carbon
dioxide emissions. The total cost to offset those emissions is
calculated at $68.42.

About 20 percent of the fee would go to Boulder-based Sustainable Travel and Swiss-based MyClimate for overhead costs. (Sustainable Travel also works with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation in the United States).

The remaining 80 percent would go to energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects in developing countries. MyClimate
says it guarantees the offset would be realized within two years. It
says projects adhere to international standards stemming from the Kyoto
protocol and are verified by an independent third party.

What experts say

Strict monitoring and well-managed projects are essential to
achieving good results. Impacts may be modest at first, but could make
major contributions to climate protection over the long term. Such
programs raise people’s awareness of their greenhouse gas emissions.
Carbon offsets is a trend likely to increase in the U.S.

What critics say

Carbon offset projects are largely just "feel good" programs.

Sustainable Travel Inc. sustainabletravelinternational.org

Co-founders: President Brian Mullis, vice president Peter Krahenbuhl

Based: Mullis lives in Oregon, Krahenbuhl in Boulder

Founded: 2002 to help travelers and tourism operators tread lightly on the environment

Status: Nonprofit

Employees: Five full- and part-time

Programs:

Carbon offset: Programs to offset one’s carbon dioxide
emissions, or "carbon footprint." Works with Swiss-based MyClimate
(myclimate.org) and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation in
Portland, Ore. (b-e-f.org)

Eco-certification: Certification program of tourism
businesses that contribute to environmental conservation and protect
local heritage. Based on specific criteria.

Eco-directory: Guide to environmentally friendly tourism businesses.

Education and training: Programs for tourism businesses, government agencies.

Buy local products: Partnership with Brighter Futures, a
venture that works with and promotes craft producers in economically
disadvantaged countries. (www.shop.brighterfutures.biz)

or 303-954-5155

 

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