The New York Times
February 18, 2003
Offsetting Environmental Damage by Planes
By HARRY RIJNEN
Do you feel guilty about global warming every time you get
behind the wheel of your car? If you are a frequent flier,
start feeling more guilty.
On a round trip from New York to London, according
to the calculations of the Edinburgh Center for Carbon Management
in Scotland, a Boeing 747 spews out about 440 tons of carbon
dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. That is about the same
amount that 80 S.U.V.'s emit in a full year of hard driving.
But short of swimming to London or jogging
to Los Angeles, what is the concerned business traveler
to do? The airline industry, busy trying to avoid bankruptcy,
is not offering tips on how to limit the environmental damage.
And chances are your travel agent has not given the matter
But a few organizations, among them the Better
World Club and American Forests in the United States and
Future Forests in Britain, have stepped into the breach.
They have devised ways for the environmentally concerned
to mitigate their role in the collective output of carbon
dioxide. For a contribution, they will plant trees in Siberia
or Texas; replace inefficient oil-burning boilers in Portland,
Ore.; supply energy-saving light bulbs in Jamaica; or take
some other conservation measure aimed at offsetting the
harm of an individual's commercial flight.
Take that Boeing 747's round trip to London.
It will discharge a total of 880,000 pounds of carbon dioxide,
or 126 pounds for each mile flown. At an occupancy rate
of 78 percent, each of the 317 passengers will be responsible
for 2,776 pounds of the pollutant.
Future Forests, which is based in London,
allows a traveler to help offset those emissions by planting
two trees or installing two energy-saving light bulbs in
a developing country for each round trip to London.
At Future Forests you cannot save the world
on the cheap: each tree or light bulb will set you back
about $12. Americans cannot deduct that from their taxes,
as Future Forests, which was created by British marketing
and advertising executives, is a foreign for-profit company.
On the other hand, its Web site (www.futureforests.com)
offers a wealth of information about the environmental impact
of lifestyles and travels and about the steps that can be
taken to soften that impact. It also features an impressive
database with thousands of airports worldwide. That once-in-a-lifetime
round trip from Akiachak Seaplane Base in Alaska to the
always exciting city of Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, England?
Chalk up 3,430 pounds of carbon dioxide on the debit side
of your environmental account, but still just two trees
or bulbs on the credit side.
Future Forests offers a no-frills menu of
one tree or bulb for each short-haul flight, two trees or
bulbs for each medium-distance trip and five of either for
each long-range odyssey. Each transaction will net you a
free luggage tag made of recycled leather.
Future Forests is not the only game in town.
The Better World Club (www.betterworldclub.com), the self-declared
environmentally friendly alternative to the AAA, offers
a simple alternative. Suggested donations of $11 for every
domestic flight and $22 for every international flight,
will be invested in new energy-efficient heating systems
in schools in its hometown, Portland, Ore. On trips booked
through its travel agency, Better World Travel, Better World
Club will pay part or all of the fees itself.
The group has rejected tree planting as a
solution, however, exposing a rift in the nascent movement.
"It is very difficult to calculate the carbon dioxide
absorption by trees," said Mitchell Rofsky, president
of the Better World Club. "It is easy to cheat, and
besides, as young trees absorb more CO2 than old ones, carbon
dioxide offsets may inspire the clear-cutting of forests
to plant new trees."
American Forests, a century-old nonprofit
organization in Washington, offers the cheapest option:
It will plant a tree for every dollar donated, and the donor
can choose from programs like Memorial Trees, which honors
those killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, and Trees for Tigers,
which is aimed at restoring the habitat of the threatened
Siberian Tiger. The minimum donation is $15. At its Web
site (www.americanforests .org), you can calculate the carbon
dioxide you produce in other activities like driving your
car or mowing your lawn.
So far, the number of Americans who pay to
undo the damage their flights inflict is negligible. The
Better World Club says it handles 1,500 to 2,000 requests
a year. American Forests says it receives more than 25,000
donations, though not all are related to air travel. Future
Forests says the majority of the 40,000 individuals who
have paid for environmentally friendly measures since it
was founded in 1997 are Europeans.
Should the general public become more uneasy
about global warming, though, these figures could explode.
In European countries like the Netherlands, Britain and
Germany, the practice has become much more common. And it
is not limited to flying. Avis Europe, for example, offers
clients who book a car online the opportunity to pay a small
extra fee to have trees planted. In the United States, Avis
a unit of Cendant said it had no immediate
plans to follow suit.
There may be cause for more concern in the
years ahead. Despite the current lull in air travel and
according to figures provided by the Edinburgh Center, an
independent consulting group, worldwide carbon dioxide emissions
from civil aviation will double from 1999 to 2015, to 900
million tons a year, despite a 20 percent increase in fuel
efficiency by the airline industry over the period. By 2015,
airplanes' share of human-generated carbon dioxide emissions
will rise to 3 percent from 2 percent in 1999.
While few in number, the American business
travelers who have signed onto the environmental campaign
have strong views. "The fact that the U.S. government
hasn't ratified the Kyoto treaty against global warming
was a big reason for me," said Martha L. Delaney, a
lawyer in Minneapolis and a regular flier to San Diego,
who joined the Better World Club last summer.
Shannon E. St. John, president of a nonprofit
concern in Durham, N.C., who makes around 20 business trips
a year, believes that the airlines should pitch in. "It
would be marvelous if they gave you the option to pay a
bit extra to offset the negative environmental impact of
flying," said Ms. St. John, who in December began paying
Future Forests to plant trees.
It might take a while for the airlines to
come on board. "We are extremely focused on financial
survival," said Tim Doke, a spokesman for American
Airlines. "CO2 emissions are not something we have
time for to think about."
Jonathan Shopley, Future Forests' chief executive,
says his appeals to the airline industry have fallen on
deaf ears. "They act towards this environmental problem
like the chemical industry 20 years ago: `If we ignore it,
maybe it will go away,' " he said. "But it won't."
Big business is not thinking a lot about the
issue, either, but here and there the movement has won a
corporate convert. For example, Nike; Interface, a carpet
maker based in Atlanta; and the American subsidiary of Tetra
Pack, the Swedish packaging concern, offset the business
air miles traveled by their employees.
Interface pays American Forests to plant a
tree for every 1,500 passenger miles its employees fly.
"It's part of our program to minimize our impact on
the environment," said Ray C. Anderson, Interface's
chairman. "The cost is minimal, and we create enormous