Green Travel – Companies Shift from Carbon Offsets to Conservation

The travel industry seems to have landed right into the middle of another contentious debate – carbon offsets vs conservation.


The standard bearer of green travel companies – Responsibletravel.com – has issued a carbon caution,  labeling offsets as a ‘dangerous distraction’ that is not helping cut emissions.

Their decision was apparently based on a report by Friends of the Earth, which concluded that offsetting isn’t leading to global emissions reductions or benefiting developing countries.

Justin Francis, MD for UK-based Responsibletravel.com, says that “We believe that the travel industry’s priority must be to reduce carbon emissions, rather than to offset.”

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And instead of simply touting partnerships with carbon offset companies, a host of major travel companies have whole-heartedly waded into mega-conservation projects and research to ensure consumption reduction and a green experience for consumers.

On October 12, 2009, Qatar Airways successfully flew the first commercial alternative fuel flight – an Airbus A340-600 aircraft fueled by natural gas - from from London to Doha, Qatar. Air New Zealand and Virgin Atlantic have likewise been testing biofuel flights since last year.

In September, the airline industry promised the UN Forum on Climate Change in New York that it will cut carbon emissons in half by 2050. On Oct 8, at the ABTA conference in Brazil, travel & tourism companies in the UK – including British Airways and Thomas Cook – adopted the 2023 Tourisminitiative, which aims to create a commercially sustainable tourism industry by 2023.

Newsweek’s 2009 Green Rankings list rated the environmental performance of America’s 500 largest corporations. Companies including Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Marriott International, Wyndham Worldwide, SouthWest Airlines and MGM Mirage have scored big on consumption reduction and implementation of green initiatives.

MGM’s CityCenter project in Las Vegas - slated to open in December, has already scored 3 LEED certifications for its hotels and towers from the U.S. Green Building Council, with more in the pipeline, including one for the world’s biggest LEED certified project.

The over 10,000 workers employed by CityCenter during the construction phase are now trained in the techniques required for green buildings, and this knowledge, as it spreads through the hospitality and construction scetors, promises to have a far-reaching impact well beyond Las Vegas and Nevada.

End game here is that as far as the travel industry is concerned, going green is no longer simply a public relations matter. Travel is now serious about conservation and cutting emissions.

The question still remains, of course, about whether removing carbon offsets is going to help or hurt the environment. Many environmentalists and travel organizations, as you might imagine, are in favor of continuing offset programs while attempting to reduce emissions.

San Francisco recently introduced carbon-offset kiosks at SFO, so that passengers can purchase carbon offsets on-the-go. The City also has a Carbon Fund -  a carbon offset program that funds only local green activities.

And you can’t deny the fact that if you must fly, then flying with a carbon offset is better than flying without one, as far as the short-term environmental impact is concerned.

The question is whether we can trust people to minimize consumption while offsets are around, and secondly, whether we can allow travel companies to continue pushing offsets as an alternative to emission reductions.

This debate isn’t likely to end until technological innovations – like natural gas flights, hybrid taxis, and hotels which use alternative energy – are more widely accepted and implemented.

Photo by said&done