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Monday, August 4, 2008

Leaving a Carbon Footprint



Everywhere you turn lately, it seems, people are talking about climate change, global warming, carbon offsets and lower emissions. Is it just hype and bluster, as some would have us believe, or is it the end of the world as we know it? Roderick Eime looks at the arguments.

It would appear that even our most recalcitrant politicians have bent to the notion that the burning of fossil fuels is at least contributing to the climate change sweeping our planet. The jury is divided on whether it is the primary contributing cause or just part of an overall planet-wide cycle. Either way, pouring carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels like oil and coal and other greenhouse gases like methane and carbon monoxide is accelerating the process.

In a quick reassessment of the public mood, our government has launched their own website, www.greenhouse.gov.au, driven by the Department of the Environment and Water Resources and its vociferous leader, the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP.

He recently lauded the move by Virgin Blue to offer carbon offset packages to passengers concerned about their own “carbon footprint”.

“Virgin Blue customers can now go online and choose to make each leg of their air journey carbon neutral for an average of a dollar a trip,” the minister said.

“Australian air passengers have never before been able to directly offset emissions from their flights. This is a first for the Australian aviation industry and an important step for the transport sector.

“Air commuters choosing to offset their emissions will be able to make a difference to Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions of which the total domestic air aviation transport sector currently contributes almost five megatonnes.”

When we travel, whether it is by road, rail, sea or air, our desire for sightseeing and leisure is adding to the problem, especially when it involves long distance travel.

Environmentally responsible and sensitive travel is not a new phenomenon, but has certainly become a more widely recognised alternative in the last few years. Apart from travellers seeking out new and exciting destinations with an emphasis on nature and culture, operators are now enticing environmentally conscious travellers with taglines extolling their low carbon emissions and offset policies.

One of that rapidly growing number of tourism businesses claiming “carbon neutral” is Ecoventura, who operate a small fleet of expedition yachts in the Gal├ípagos. This iconic group of islands west of Ecuador is one of the most precarious eco-systems anywhere on the planet and has attracted all sorts of attention over the decades, including poaching, over-fishing and habit degradation from human intervention.

The CarbonNeutral Company, a climate monitoring company, has calculated the amount of carbon dioxide that Ecoventura emits and has come up with a number of projects to counteract those effects including funding for reforestation in Chiapas, sustainable energy projects in Sri Lanka and India, and methane recapture in the US.

Kerry Lorimer, an avid eco-conscious traveller and author of the Lonely Planet guidebook, “Code Green” offers this advice:

“Since virtually any type of motorised transport emits greenhouse gases, the obvious thing is to go for non-motorised transport such as walking, riding a bike or catching a train. Using public transport is another obvious way to lessen your personal emissions.

“Jet travel has had a bad rap for its high levels of greenhouse emissions. Look to the shorthaul and stay local where practical. If all you want to do on holiday is lie on a beach, do you really need to fly to the other side of the world to do it? For business, do you really need to have a face-to-face meeting? Could a video conference get the job done?

“And when you do fly, consider off-setting your emissions via organisations such as climatefriendly.com. Their websites (as well as some airlines such as Virgin Blue) have carbon calculators, which allow you to compute the amount of emissions for the kilometres travelled. You can then pay to 'offset' these through projects such as tree planting and community development projects.”

When it comes to destinations, Kerry adds:

“Do your bit for domestic tourism - choose a holiday destination close to home! We have some of the most amazing travel experiences in the world, right in our own backyard, yet many Australians think first of an overseas destination when planning a holiday.

“Walking or trekking holidays are one of the best ways to keep your carbon emissions to a minimum. Peregrine, for example, offers a range of trekking holidays around the world - close to home there are treks in Borneo, PNG and the Himalaya. The company is currently assessing all of its operations and has pledged that all its tours will be carbon neutral by 2009. Trekking is also a great way to get to know the locals and to reach views and villages that are otherwise inaccessible. There's only one way to the top of a Himalayan peak!”

Kris Madden, a consultant to government and industry on eco- and sustainable tourism, offers some balance.

“Although I acknowledge the contribution to global warming that mechanised travel can make, I’m still a little suspicious of all these carbon offset schemes popping up,“ warns Kris, “there is no framework of operation, no benchmarks and no real checks and balances under which these schemes operate. One has to wonder whether there is a real environmental benefit from some of them, or whether it’s just ‘greenwash’.”

The ‘greenwash’ to which Kris refers is the sceptics’ appraisal of these efforts to create a greener environment. In the competition for consumer sentiment, true carbon consciousness and fake green window dressing will be difficult to isolate as more and more businesses fly the “carbon neutral” flag.

“Sure, it’s better than doing nothing and it certainly raises awareness of the problem, but I fear it is more important for some of the worst offenders to be seen to be reacting to the climate change issue than actually making a real difference.”

Tree planting is one example. Although reforestation is a critical activity in many areas, trees planted today will take at least twenty years to reach maturity. The critics will argue that attention needs to be directed at “now” schemes. What can we do to offset emissions today?

Kris reminds us that it is perhaps the catch phrase “think globally, act locally” is just as important if not more so.

“People can really make a big difference if they modify their own behaviour on a micro scale. Walk when they don’t need to drive, change lightglobes to low power and generally use less energy than they have been. It’s like earning your own offset credits and you can feel less guilty when you decide to travel.”

Responsible and sustainable travel is not just about how much fuel you burn, it’s about how you treat the locals and how much cultural damage you do without even realising it. Genuine travel experiences are quickly vanishing in the rapidly globalising world and some of the lowest emission travel like walking, canoeing and cycling will enable us to maximise the few remaining truly enriching experiences.

Many experts believe our Great Barrier Reef will only exist for the next generation or two. Already it’s showing signs of decay from the small rise in water temperature and it’s one destination you should see soon.

The Arctic and Antarctic is thawing. Vast glaciers are collapsing at a frightening rate and they will soon be a past feature of the pre-climate change planet unless we turn the tide. These are certainly the predictions of the scare mongers, and can we really challenge these gloomy forecasts?

Clearly there will be a lot of “smoke and mirrors” in this climate and carbon debate with some entrepreneurs seeing an opportunity to be the new emissions trading millionaires. If you feel inclined to contribute or invest in these schemes, then do so carefully. The ultimate responsibility, however, falls with the individual. Do you really need to run a computer simulation of your intended journey to visualise your own part in the planet’s demise? Or can it be boiled down to simple common sense and more considerate and simple day-to-day living? You make the call. It’s your planet.

Some quick calculations by The CarbonNeutral Company [www.carbonneutral.com]:

Approximately one tonne of emissions is produced by 5000 kilometres of driving in an over 2.0 litre car.

The same amount of travel on commuter trains produces just 200kg.

A direct flight from Perth to London (14500km) produces 1.6 tonnes of emissions per person.

So, if you took the train every day to work instead of driving, you could earn enough carbon credits to offset your flight. For those who can’t do without their car, the company offers “offset packages” up to A$50 that come in a ribbon bound folder complete with certificate. The money is channelled to community projects and energy-efficient technology development.

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