Can I travel without expanding my carbon footprint?

By: Julia Layton

African Animal Image Gallery Ecotourists can stay at ecolodges, but how do they offset the emissions created by their flight to South Africa? See more pictures of African animals.
Clive Mason/­Getty Images

­In the last decade, ecotourism has exploded as a travel trend, now accounting for an astonishing 11.4 percent of consumer spending worldwide [source: GDRC]. Ecotourism is short for "ecological tourism," and it's a type and style of travel that has two primary, related goals: to minimize the environmental cost of tourism in general, and to actually provide ecological benefit to the travel destination.

Imagine, for example, a two-week African safari. An ecotourist might choose a housing destination that uses "green energy," recycles trash, has access to a water-treatment facility so it can reuse wastewater, uses only locally grown food (so it doesn't have to be shipped in from far away) and perhaps even donates a certain percentage of tourism profits to community-improvement projects. That would reduce the environmental cost of a typical African vacation. Going a step further, into benefiting the destination community, that ecotourist might choose to participate in those very community-improvement projects as part of the vacation.


­There's an inherent problem with even this high-level type of ecotourism: power requirements. Even with partially green-powered lodging, planes still fly on greenhouse-gas-emitting fuel. And the round trip flight from, say, New York to Tanzania is very long -- about 15,000 miles (24,000 kilometers). Then add in the gas-powered Jeep rides from the airport into the jungle and then from spot to spot within that huge tract of land, seeking out zebras and giraffes. We're talking about a whole lot of carbon dioxide emissions during that two-week trip.

This is where travel green tags come in. Green tags are carbon offsets -- the same thing you can buy from your power company to help reduce the environmental effects of your household power consumption. In the last five years or so, more and more travel companies have gotten in on the green tag trend to help travelers reduce the ecological effects of their trips.

In this article, we'll take a look at how green tags work and how they fit in with ecotourism. What exactly are you buying when you buy a carbon credit, anyway? And can they really make a gas-guzzling, 15,000-mile trip to Africa "carbon neutral?"


Green Tags: Flying Neutral

The carbon offsets you might purchase from your local power company go to offset clean energy such as wind power.
The carbon offsets you might purchase from your local power company go to offset clean energy such as wind power.
AP Photo/David Zalubowski

­When you buy a green tag, regardless of whether it's from a travel company or a power company, what you're doing, in essence, is making a contribution to clean energy.

Let's say you spend $10 per month on carbon offsets from your local power company. The typical (and simplified) process goes something like this: You're not buying actual wind or solar power, which is a difficult thing to do through the commercial power grid since energy from all different sources -- coal, nuclear, wind, water and solar -- are mixed together before the power is delivered to your house. Instead, you're m­aking a $10 donation that offsets the cost of that clean wind or solar power, as clean power typically costs slightly more to produce than dirty power. The idea is that contributing to clean power can reduce the overall emissions of the dirty power required to run your home, and the power company can afford to increase the amount of clean power it buys from places like wind farms.


In the context of travel, it works in much the same way. You buy carbon offsets in an amount that corresponds to the level of emissions generated by your trip. According to the Carbon Footprint Calculator at, we're talking about approximately 6,300 pounds (2,900 kilograms) of carbon dioxide per person for that roundtrip flight from New York to Tanzania [source: TerraPass]. So you buy green tags for the amount of clean power that replaces the amount of dirty power that would emit 6,300 pounds of CO2. The goal is to make your trip "carbon neutral" -- averaging out to no extra CO2 emitted into the atmosphere by your travels.

­This may seem like a tall order -- figuring out exactly how many green tags you need to balance out your trip. In fact, there are companies these days that make it as easy as clicking a button. And offsetting your emissions costs less than you may think.


Ecotourism: Buying Yourself Green

People planning carbon-neutral vacations sometimes buy green tags to offset their flight's emissions.
People planning carbon-neutral vacations sometimes buy green tags to offset their flight's emissions.
Mike Flokis/­Getty Images

­There are a lot of ways to arrange a potentially carbon-neutral trip.

The travel company REI Adventures, for instance, offers completely planned adventure trips with the green tags built right in. The company works directly with a nonprofit called Bonneville Environmental Foundation, which offers two different products: Cooler Future carbon offsets that buy 99 percent wind power and 1 percent solar power; and Brighter Future offsets for a 90/10 distribution (solar power costs more than wind, so the percentage of solar is lower across the board).


Other travel companies, such as Ecoventura adventure travel and Living Routes study-abroad programs also offer trips with carbon offsets built into the price. You don't have to go with one of these specific companies, though. If you've been on travel Web sites like Travelocity and Expedia lately, you may have noticed that you can buy carbon offsets for your trip as part of the online booking process. And you can buy offsets directly from organizations like Bonneville or TerraPass. You just go to the Web site, calculate your trip's emissions and buy enough green tags to offset your trip.

And just how much is it going to cost you? It's certainly not going to put you over your trip budget. That 6,300 pounds of CO2 you're emitting with your flight to Tanzania only costs about $40 to offset [source: TerraPass]. Green tags for flying across the United States, from New York to Los Angeles, will only run you about $18.

It's hard to be exact, of course. You can pretty easily figure out the number of miles you'll be flying, but it's harder to know how much gas you'll be using at your destination. You may have to call the people who'll be directing your tour to find out, or if you'll be renting a car, just keep track of your mileage and buy the green tags when you get home.

­It seems almost too good to be true to think that just $40 can negate the emissions of a flight to the other side of the world. And maybe it is. It's hard to prove the environmental benefits of carbon credits -- it's an inexact science. There are some who believe that green tags are mostly offering a way for people to assuage their eco-guilt about taking advantage of such a polluting travel method as plane flights. But considering that the other option is foregoing travel entirely, green tags are probably a good start toward truly eco-friendly tourism.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Conlin, Jennifer. "Going Green, One Spring Break at a Time." The New York Times. Feb. 25, 2007.
  • "Green Power: Tags vs. Delivered Products."
  • Higgins, Michelle. "Carbon Neutral: Raising the Ante on Eco-Tourism." The New York Times. Dec. 10, 2006.