Is Carbon Offsetting an Effective Tool for Sustainable Tourism?

Is Carbon Offsetting an Effective Tool for Sustainable Tourism?

To continue with TIES’ weekly discussion articles on current issues, challenges and opportunities related to ecotourism, this week’s focus – as we follow the second week of the UN Climate Change Conference in Qatar - is on carbon offsetting. Do you think carbon offsetting is just another tool for greenwashing? Is carbon offsetting an effective approach for tourism businesses and destinations to mitigate their climate impact? What are you doing to offset your carbon emissions? Head over to TIES-EXCHANGE to add your comments and ideas related to this topic! (Member log-in required)


Tourism and Carbon Offsetting Tourism and Carbon Offsetting Tourism and Carbon Offsetting


As the discussions carry on for the second week of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP18) in Qatar, we take a closer look at carbon offsetting practices within the tourism industry. The Carbon Neutral Company defines carbon offsets as "credits for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions made at another location", for example, investing in wind farms to generate renewable energy to "offset" fossil fuel-derived energy. Some groups at Doha have advocated for the "Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)", which, through trading of carbon credits, aims to "balance the books" on carbon emissions.


Challenges with Carbon Offsetting Project Management

Tourism businesses and destinations can "offset" travelers' carbon emissions by calculating their travel-related emissions (air travel, local transportation, accommodation, etc.) and by making financial contributions to projects that address climate impact mitigation (e.g. tree planting, reforestation, subsidizing renewable energy, or increasing energy efficiency). Costa Rica, for example, with the help of CANAECO, is aiming to be a carbon-neutral destination by sequestering 20% of all yearly flight emissions and planting 400,000 trees every year.


Overall, quality carbon offset projects should consist of actions that would not have occurred without the extra support. Tree-planting, for example, is one of the frequently implemented approaches to carbon offsetting projects, and is a convenient tool. Well-maintained tree-planting projects can serve as a breeding ground for promoting biodiversity, and may help reduce erosion risks, as well as providing positive "side effects" for local communities through ecosystem services such as sustainable sources of firewood. Tree-planting projects that employ fast-growing, non-native trees provide far lower environmental benefits than those that focus on native species. In some cases, tree-planting may not be the optimal approach, as trees require more water than, for example, grasses and shrubs, and may require more skills and resources to manage and maintain.


Is Carbon Offsetting Fueling Greenwashing?

Many critics of carbon offsetting argue that carbon offset schemes often give businesses and consumers the "excuse" for generating carbon emissions. Moreover, they note that carbon offsetting is often used as a way of making businesses look more attractive to consumers and often does not achieve what it claims. In order to be as truthful and effective as possible, tourism businesses and destinations should always be transparent, providing accurate information on the carbon offsetting schemes that they are engaged in. They have the responsibility to not only get the technicalities right, but also to accurately explain to the consumers what they are doing and how they are achieving their goals.


Carbon offsetting, in addition, should not be employed as a stand-alone strategy to address a business or a destination's climate-friendly practices; rather, it should be considered as part of a mix of strategies including – measuring footprint, reducing emissions, managing impact, and compensating for the emissions that cannot be avoided.


Carbon Offsetting Standards

Carbon emission calculation methods and offsetting values vary from organization to organization. For accurate and credible approaches to carbon offsetting, reliable standards must be followed. The following are two examples of carbon offsetting standards used to evaluate offset programs:

  • The Gold Standard is an international certification standard for carbon mitigation projects that certifies renewable energy and energy efficiency carbon offset projects to ensure they really do produce greenhouse gas reductions; and
  • The Climate, Community and Biodiversity Standard identifies high-quality carbon offsetting projects, helps developers design credible projects, and assists governments and organizations in ensuring consistent quality.


TIES Members Examples

The following are some examples of tourism stakeholders incorporating carbon offsetting schemes into their sustainability practices:

  • AdventureSmith Explorations, a tour operator offering exploration cruises and wilderness adventures, has calculated the carbon emissions of their cruises for each year and has, through their Carbon Free Cruising campaign, offset these emissions as well as provided means for their travelers to make their own contributions.
  • Benin Ecotourism Concern, an NGO that works to ensure better living standards of communities through ecotourism, is offsetting carbon emissions caused by tourist activities by, for example, planting native, mangrove trees through their Ahémé Lake project.
  • Ecoventura - Galapagos Network, a small cruise operator in the Galapagos, has reduced their carbon emissions by more than 10% through the use of high performance filters and solar panels and wind generators, and has also invested in offsetting emissions from the company’s four yachts and sales offices.
  • Spirit of Japan Travel offers tours throughout Japan for travelers to experience the culture of Japan and is a carbon neutral company. They offset their tour-related carbon emissions by investing portions of their profit in environmental organizations and renewable energy devices as well as planting of native trees with local communities and travelers.
  • Tahi, an estate situated in the North Island of New Zealand, offsets their carbon emissions by planting native trees and shrubs, providing carbon credits and selling them, establishing their own carbon accounting system as well as balancing its activities for carbon offsetting through employing a carbon researcher.


Ideas, comments, questions? Join our discussions on TIES-EXCHANGE! *If you're not yet a member of TIES, and would like to access TIES-EXCHANGE and other member networking and learning resources, please consider joining TIES today.


Photo credits: (from left) Ecoventura - Galapagos Network; Benin Ecotourism Concern; TIES



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