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Is there such a thing as climate-neutral travel?

2016 saw record numbers of passenger flights. Budget airlines are giving large, established carriers a run for their money when it comes to attracting customers, and the cost of tickets is continuing to fall. This may be good news for consumers, but it is bad news for the climate: a single return flight from Germany to the Canary Islands emits almost as much CO2 as the typical car produces in an entire year. Organisations like atmosfair and myclimate support climate projects in exchange for offset payments, helping to assuage the traveller’s conscience. Is this just greenwashing or can offsets achieve genuine results in the fight against climate change? We take a closer look at the facts.

There is no doubt that flying is bad for the climate. A single medium-haul flight from Hannover to Tenerife (around 6,000 kilometres) emits nearly 1,600 kilogrammes of CO2 per passenger. By way of comparison, travelling double that distance by car (roughly the distance covered by the average car driver per year) generates 2,000 kilogrammes of CO2 emissions.

“Where it is possible to travel by train or by bus, these means of transport should always be preferred, as they are significantly less harmful to the climate,” says Dr Manfred Treber, who is a senior advisor for climate and transport at the non-governmental organisation Germanwatch. A return trip from Berlin to Cologne generates 42 kilogrammes of CO2 by train as opposed to 300 kilogrammes by plane. And Dr Treber practices what he preaches: in November 2016, he travelled by train from Bonn to Marrakech to attend the UN Climate Change Conference. “I  took a day off work for each journey and saw the trip as a kind of mini-holiday.”

If people need to fly, they should offset

Distant or overseas destinations can be very difficult or even impossible to reach by train or bus, meaning it is sometimes necessary to fly. Often, time constraints make travelling by alternative means of transport impractical. “If it is not possible to avoid flying, travellers should at least offset their greenhouse gas emissions,” says Treber.

Unlike Pope Francis, who in February 2017 called the offsetting of greenhouse gases a form of trade in “indulgences”, Treber believes offsets lead to actual reductions in emissions, making them a genuinely useful instrument in efforts to mitigate climate change. However, Treber believes the money raised through offset schemes should be invested in projects that aim to conserve fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by promoting technological innovation or green energy generation. He does not recommend using the funds to plant trees. “I am sceptical about afforestation measures,” he says. “If there are forest fires, these can release more greenhouse gases than can be stored by newly planted trees.”

Germany-Alumnus Allan Mubiru works for atmosfair gGmbH in Rwanda, a climate protection organisation with a focus on travel.


Offsetting schemes must be honest and transparent

Those wishing to offset emissions from flights can do so via organisations such as myclimate and atmosfair. According to Treber, it is very important to check which criteria an organisation uses to calculate the impact of a flight on the climate. “Some airlines market themselves as having low CO2 emissions per passenger. These emissions are often calculated by simply dividing fuel consumption by the total number of passengers. The resulting per-capita consumption is measured in litres of kerosene – for example three litres per person per flight.”

However, this calculation method is misleading. “CO2 emissions make up only one third of the damage done to the climate by air travel. Contrails produced by aeroplanes and the cirrus clouds they create have a considerable impact on the climate. For this reason, CO2 emissions for air travel should always be multiplied by a factor of three. Otherwise, the calculation will not produce a realistic and honest result.” Treber considers atmosfair’s method to be reliable as it follows this principle.

A market assessment carried out in August 2010 by the Federation of German Consumer Organisations concluded that atmosfair and myclimate could be ‘fully recommended’. The consumer organisation Stiftung Warentest classes atmosfair as “trustworthy” owing to its transparency, sound organisational set-up and effective monitoring process. The sustainability platform Utopia also puts atmosfair and myclimate at the top of its list of reliable offset providers, considering them especially responsible. One of the common features of the companies that do well in these tests is their adherence to the CDM Gold Standard for offset projects.

By preparing your travels thoroughly and making socially responsible and ecologically sensitive choices you are moving towards a holiday that will become an unforgettable experience for you as well as for the people hosting you. 

Picture gallery: 12 tips for fair tourism

Responsible and environmentally conscious travellers also have the option of booking trips via a travel agent who will automatically offset emissions and put together a package according to sustainability criteria. One port of call is the forum anders reisen, an association of more than 100 travel agents committed to sustainable tourism.

Despite the progress that has been made in the fields of climate-neutral travel and CO2 offsets, there is still much to do. A representative study carried out by the University of Kassel showed that less than ten per cent of German consumers offset their carbon emissions, and that more than 40 per cent were unaware of the possibility.

The study also showed that CO2 offsets do not diminish the scope or effectiveness of other climate protection measures. A further study, conducted by the University of Kiel in cooperation with the Umweltbundesamt, came to the same result. Overall, these studies concluded that people who show an awareness of climate and environmental issues in their everyday lives are also more likely to offset their greenhouse gas emissions.

Our interviewee Dr Manfred Treber considers the following three developments in environmental policy to be the most significant to date in terms of their capacity to address climate change:

1. Kyoto Protocol, 1997

The Kyoto Protocol is considered a milestone in international climate policy. It was adopted at the third meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 3) to the Framework Convention on Climate Change in Kyoto and was the first agreement to include binding obligations for industrialised countries to limit and reduce emissions. To date, 191 countries have ratified the Protocol including all EU member states and key newly industrialising countries such as Brazil, China, India and South Africa. The US has still not ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Canada withdrew in 2013.

Kyoto Protocol

2. Paris Agreement

At the COP 21 climate summit held in Paris in December 2015, 195 states entered into a legally binding climate agreement that, for the first time, included commitments for all parties. The international community has pledged to carry out resolute measures to mitigate climate change and to end the burning of coal, oil and gas by mid-century. A solidarity package has also been agreed for those who are especially affected by the impacts of climate change, which are already being felt around the world.

Germanwatch: United Nations Climate Change Conference COP 21

3. German Federal Government’s Climate Action Plan 2050

The Climate Action Plan provides guidance on the process of achieving Germany’s national climate targets across all the relevant sectors in accordance with the Paris Agreement. These sectors include energy, construction, transport, business and industry, agriculture and forestry

Dialogue process for the Climate Action Plan 2050

March 2017

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