Carbon Offsetting for Air Travel Pollution

It takes me the whole week to get over the jet lag. Just in time to get back on the plane to New York. Farewell to my dear, new Himalayan friends. And back home at my little farm in New Jersey, I’m once again beset with the sleepless state that comes with being on the wrong side of the world.

It’s a 5,000-mile roundtrip between New York and Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu – over Labrador, Greenland, the Arctic ice cap, Siberia, Mongolia and China. My destination is a meeting of Christian church and mission leaders from South Asia, to encourage and plan national movements to care for God’s injured creation – in ecological hotspots like Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka.

For years now, I have been dying to get to Bangladesh and Pakistan – two enormous countries facing existential threats from the effects of climate change. Rising sea levels, receding Himalayan glaciers, catastrophic droughts and flooding, salinization and severe water stress have made it difficult to see much of a future for tens of millions of my fellow humans in parts of these countries. At the Lausanne South Asia Creation Care Consultation, I would have access to co-laborers from these and other places, and maybe even find ways to help with their efforts.

Source: Foreign Policy

Source: Foreign Policy

But here’s the irony: If climate change is draining the life-blood of these communities, isn’t my carbon-heavy globe-hopping only making things worse? My share of carbon emissions from the flight, tucked back in the economy cabin, comes to 3,362 kilos of CO2, or 7,412 lbs. The average American generates 17.1 tons of CO2 every year. My 3.2-ton flight exceeds a couple of months’ worth of living for most Americans. Worse yet, it’s almost exactly the annual emissions of the average citizen of the Maldives, an island nation facing near-term inundation from rising seas. And it’s close to the average CO2 emissions for all people on earth, about 4.9 tons.

All for one single flight.

And while Nepal is admittedly a long trip, shorter ones are serious polluters too. New York to Paris will spew 1.6 tons of CO2 for an economy seat; a roundtrip to Los Angeles will add 1.1 tons; a drive to the family in Ohio accounts for 109 kilos, or 0.1 tons.

So, what am I supposed to do? Stop traveling?

Well, maybe. Or at least, I might travel with a bit more thought about the consequences. Even if airfare seems affordable, someone else pays the unpriced costs of climate pollution. Whatever our politics, I’m pretty sure we agree that that’s not right.

But some travel is clearly worth it, or simply unavoidable. If so, we’re going to have to get used to offsetting our carbon emissions.

Offsetting? Sure. It’s not hard to make a modest contribution to projects around the world that sequester carbon, in amounts equal to the emissions from our air travel. For me, I use Climate Stewards, an affiliate of A Rocha – the global Christian conservation organization. Climate Stewards directs my carbon offset payments to projects in Ghana, Mexico and Kenya, restoring forests and replacing inefficient cookstoves with new ones. The trees I’m helping to plant and the reduction in kitchen charcoal burning sequester about the same amount of CO2 as my share of the flight emissions.

And it doesn’t break the bank. Climate Stewards’ offsets run about $20 per ton of CO2. Offsetting my flight to Nepal costs me about $65, or around 2 percent of the total cost of my trip. For a flight to Paris, you’d pay $32; Los Angeles would set you back $21. And the drive to Ohio is scarcely more than a bit of pocket change.

Flooding in low-lying Bangladesh

Flooding in low-lying Bangladesh

It’s not difficult at all. Try it at Climate Stewards’ website. You’ll be done in a couple of minutes.

Listen, we know that offsetting is not a panacea. It certainly isn’t a way for people of means to indulge in wasteful and lavish lifestyles without any guilt. But while we look for ways to reduce our carbon footprints, why not offset the effects of pollution that can’t yet be avoided?

Eventually, of course, everyone will do this. The cost of carbon pollution will be baked into transactions for goods and services throughout the global economy. Pollution will no longer be free to polluters and costly to poor and vulnerable communities. But until then, you and I can pay our own little share when we travel simply out of a sense of fairness and decency.

I’m pretty sure you’ll stand a little taller once you start this. And you can know that you’re part of something that God’s people are doing in the world: acting a little more justly, loving a little more kindly, and maybe even walking a little more humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

Thanks, and God bless you.

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