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The New York Times
February 18, 2003
Offsetting Environmental Damage by Planes

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 much thought.

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 good will."