Measuring emissions and understanding carbon offsetting
Tourism is about seeing the world, being inspired by other cultures and nature experiences. The big question is what kind of world we want and will see in the future. Humans’ predation on nature has reached a scale that is really impossible to take in and the world we know is being changed by it.
Up to 8% (!) Of global greenhouse gas emissions can be related to tourism, and engaging in tourism can unfortunately never be 100% climate friendly
Climate change and global warming
The vast majority of climate scientists in the world agree that the climate is about to change due to human greenhouse gas emissions. But what exactly are climate change and greenhouse gas emissions?
First and foremost, we have to distinguish between weather and climate. When someone says that they do not believe in global warming because it has been a cold summer, it is the weather they are referring to. The weather is what you see out your window every day, while climate is an average of the weather over time. It is not possible to see that the climate changes from day to day. We have to measure the changes over years and decades.
We know that the climate has changed in recent centuries because regular measurements have been made of for example temperature, amount of ice, precipitation and pH value in the ocean. We also know that the changes will continue in the years to come.
These are some of the observations researchers have made:
Global warming. The average temperature on Earth is higher now than it has been before. Each of the last three decades has been warmer than the previous one. In the years to come, warming will be faster and more powerful the further north you go. It has the greatest effect in the Arctic due to the melting snow and ice.
The sea is rising and at the same time becoming more acidic. When glaciers melt and the temperature in the ocean rises, this causes the ocean to rise faster than before. The ocean also has the property of capturing CO2. Around 20% of CO2 emissions are being stored in the ocean instead of released into the atmosphere, and therefore it can be said that the ocean helps to prevent temperature rise. Unfortunately, this also leads to the ocean having a lower pH-value.
The ocean has become as much as 26% more acidic and the consequence of more acidic oceans is a lower ability to capture CO2 and the biodiversity in the ocean is weakened. You can probably imagine how tragic this is for countries like the Maldives or in Denmark and Norway for that matter.
Over the last 20 years, glaciers around the world have shrunk in size. The ice in Greenland, the ocean ice in the Arctic, the snow cover in the northern hemisphere and the ice in Antarctica are getting smaller and smaller. The temperature in the permafrost has also become higher all over the world.
There will be more extreme weather and precipitation patterns change due to climate change. Some areas will experience less rainfall, while others will experience an increase in rain and snow.
As we know, we have an layer of air around the earth, the atmosphere. This layer of air protects us from radiation, particles from space and it contributes to our planet having a livable temperature. The greenhouse effect is the atmosphere’s ability to let in sunlight and retain heat, without which the average temperature would have been around 18 degrees. The greenhouse effect is regulated by so-called greenhouse gases. Water vapor, carbon dioxide, ozone, nitrous oxide, methane and chlorofluorocarbons.
The climate is changing because more greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere than is natural. The increased emissions of greenhouse gases are due to us humans. Our most common energy sources are so-called “fossil fuels”, such as coal, gas or oil. Fossil fuels contain the substance carbon. This substance is released into the atmosphere as CO2 when burned.
CO2 is part of a complex, global cycle, called the carbon cycle, where CO2 is emitted and captured by, for example, oceans, tundra and forests. The natural carbon cycle is in balance. The problem arises when human emissions of greenhouse gases are in addition to the natural emissions. Then more is released than nature manages to capture, and the greenhouse effect is amplified.
The imbalance between release by combustion on the one hand and uptake into the ocean and into the biosphere of the earth’s surface is thus the reason for the net increase in CO2 in the atmosphere. More is released than nature manages to capture. This imbalance contributes to less heat escaping through the atmosphere. Thus, the globe becomes warmer than it would have been without the gas, so the climate changes.
For every degree that our planet heats up, there will be 7% more moisture in the atmosphere. For everyone who knows the water cycle, this also means that rivers, lakes and oceans have 7% less humidity, while we will have 7% more extreme weather. Direct effects of this are storms, floods, severe droughts, higher risk of fires and extreme heat which in turn leads to for example loss of wildlife and crops.
How can we stop climate change?
The world’s leading scientists agree that climate change will be impossible to control if the temperature in the year 2100 is more than 2 degrees warmer than it was in 1850. Therefore, in the international climate negotiations, they have agreed to limit the temperature rise between 1850 and 2100 to 2 degrees. This is also called the two-degree goal. The Paris Agreement, where the sustainability goals were set, states that the countries of the world will try to limit the temperature rise even more, to 1.5 degrees.
Stopping climate change can only be done by emitting much less greenhouse gases than we do today. In addition to reducing emissions, we must also find good ways to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. This is called carbon capture, or carbon storage. Mankind has a good overview of how much greenhouse gas has already been released into the atmosphere, and how much can be released before the temperature will rise by more than two degrees. This means that we know how much greenhouse gas the world has left on the so-called “carbon budget”.
It is possible to reach the two-degree goal if all the countries of the world roll up their sleeves and reduce their emissions immediately. That is why climate change is considered the most precarious environmental crisis. We must act immediately. And that certainly includes those of us who work in tourism. We in the tourism industry are in fact doing some of the worst damage.
Let’s take a look at why.
The carbon footprint of tourism
The tourism industry is responsible for around 5-8% of global emissions. Half of this share comes from transport, mainly air transport, and the other half comes from accommodation and food, among other things. There is reason to believe that emissions from tourism will continue to grow, although Covid-19 has slowed it down a bit. The development has been increasing since the 1950s as travel has become both cheaper and more accessible, and not least as new populous markets, like Asia, has grown.
Every time someone travels, CO2 and other greenhouse gases are released. The most important mode of travel is by flying. Airplanes emit greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, from burning fuel. Each passenger’s emissions vary from flight to flight and are affected by factors such as distance, aircraft type and the class in which they are flying. For example will an airplane round trip Beijing-Oslo, 1st class, cause emissions of 8 tons of CO2. This is 4 times more than what the average person, in most countries in the world, emits in a whole year.
One thing that surprises many when it comes to flights, is that the lowest emissions per passenger are at low-cost airlines. But the more you think about it, the more sense it makes. They save on everything, they have fuller planes and lower weight per passenger. The contrast to first class and even worse, private jets, is enormous. So it’s not the case that a higher cost give you a better conscience. But nevertheless, prices on flights are generally too low, so an environmental tax on flights is a good move to regulate traffic. So in that way, a higher price will help.
Although airplanes are the biggest cause of emissions in tourism, we have a long way to go in other areas as well. Food, accommodation, trains, boat trips, heating and electricity require energy and cause emissions. Food waste is a huge problem that is severely underestimated in terms of climate, and it is just wasteful when you use energy to produce food that is thrown away.
Because of Covid-19, the world as we all know has a breather right now. Hopefully this will be used as a catalyst for change in the future. I still have my doubts since most people scatter around with nice words and wash their ships and planes with green paint *, while their actions indicate otherwise. Greenwashing is misleading marketing where a product or business is presented as better than it actually is in terms of impact on climate, nature and people. Read a little about it here on the greenwashing.
But enough about that for now.
Everyone knows the importance of reducing emissions in tourism in order to prevent global warming. According to the Paris Agreement, we have less than 12 years to make a difference. Climate change is also one of the biggest threats to the places we visit. Ironically, tourism is not only a contributor to global warming – tourism is also a victim of climate change.
Both local communities, natural resources and the tourism industry are affected by what is happening.
Consequences for the tourism industry.
As we have seen in recent years, the direct effects of warming the planet have serious consequences for the whole world, but also concrete consequences for the tourism industry. We have already seen how tourism is affected. Here are some very concrete examples from 2019:
Flood in Venice
Venice was hit by one of the most serious floods in Italian history last year. The tourists who waded with water to their knees through St. Mark’s Square were flooded 60 times. More storms, rising rivers and heavier rainfall causes Venice to slowly sink into the sea.
The bushfires in Australia
In just under six months at the end of last year, Australia experienced one of the worst bushfire seasons of all time due to extreme drought and soaring temperatures. 10 million hectares ended up as ashes. Animals and vegetation were lost. Such fires are part of the cycle in Australia, but researchers warn that they are both more powerful and more frequent with a warmer climate.
More frequent hurricanes in the Caribbean.
When the ocean gets warmer, we get more hurricanes. And with high humidity levels in the atmosphere slowing them down, this makes them hit harder than ever. People are dying, homes and infrastructure are being destroyed. The Caribbean islands are also the world’s most tourist-dependent destinations. Many of the islands have not been able to welcome tourists for long periods during the reconstruction from the latest hurricanes.
Heat waves in Europe
In the summer of 2019, Europe experienced two extreme heat waves with temperatures rising above 40 degrees Celsius. Hot days are getting hotter, and they are coming more often. Nowadays we see temperature records more and more often. The rise in temperature affects travelers. Extreme heat can be positive for a country like Norway, as a summer destination, but in our neighboring southern Europe, you will risk a heat stroke and dehydration. So not so positive. Tour operators need to adapt to a new everyday life and adjust their routes.
I’m not sure if the winter destinations in Eastern Norway want anymore snow poor winters? The fact that we have such bad winters that there has been talk of building indoor ski halls, makes it shudder down my spine. Will Norway, the ski nation, be something you read about in the archives, or at best be reserved for mountaineering in the North and in Western Norway? Winters will vary from year to year, but the climate is still not weather, and shorter winters is now a fact.
The money machines in the Alps might have to look for other ways of income in the future.
These were a few concrete examples of how climate change has a direct impact on the tourism industry.
As tourism players, we must help to stop, or at least limit our emissions and thus help keep destinations safe and healthy both for locals and travelers. Everyone involved in tourism directly and indirectly emits a significant proportion of CO2. The more tour operators that reduce their CO2 emissions, the more we can actually reduce global warming.
If our shared responsibility is not enough motivation, you may be motivated by the fear of losing your job and income. It is also important to recognize that for the modern consumers, sustainability is becoming an increasingly important aspect when choosing who they shop from.
Take the time to stay up to date on research and how the company’s business can impact it. The measures you take should be based on science, and measured to have an effect. You must first get an overview, and measuring your carbon footprint is a good start.
You get it by adding up all the CO2 that you or your company is responsible for. You can and should minimize this when you travel and when you plan other people’s travels. A good example is to preferably avoid flights, but if you have to, direct flights are better than stop-overs. No matter how sustainable your travel habits are, there will always be some emissions that are simply inevitable.
Some benefits of reducing your carbon footprint are:
- You will help limit climate change by slowing down the effects
- You will prepare your company for a future with less CO2
- You will reduce operating costs by reducing transportation, energy and waste expenses
- You will develop the brand’s recognition and credibility
- You will attract a new generation of travelers who want to make a difference
- You will attract new partners
- You will feel better!
Once you are aware of your carbon footprint, you can set goals and go from there. As a tour operator, you will not just have emissions of your own office and business trips, but you will be indirectly responsible for all emissions from traveling customers. Gaining insight into the emissions from trips, activities and transportation of the products you sell is crucial to making an actual change in your overall carbon footprint.
Here are three easy steps you can take:
Step 1: Measure and identify your carbon footprint
Step 2: Take steps to minimize your carbon footprint
Step 3: When you have reduced what you can. Compensate for your remaining carbon footprint. A good practice is to triple it.
Step 1 Measure and identify your carbon footprint
There are a number of good calculators to help you. I just want to explain a few concepts first:
In short, your carbon footprint is a calculation of all greenhouse gases released due to your business. All the activities you carry out, directly or indirectly, emit CO2 into our atmosphere. Only when you have insight into your emissions and are able to identify the largest sources, will you be able to lower your carbon footprint and make a lasting change in your business.
CO2e, or carbon dioxide equivalent, is a standard unit of measurement for carbon footprints. Some greenhouse gases have a stronger heating potential than CO2. Therefore, the emissions of these greenhouse gases are converted to CO2 equivalents, which is a common measure of how much impact a given amount of greenhouse gas has on global warming.
As an example, it will be 25 times worse to emit one kg of methane, which is the gas cattle burps the most, than one kg of CO2, which is emitted from e.g. cars. If you emit one kg of methane, it corresponds to 25 kg of CO2e.
As mentioned earlier, as a tour operator you are indirectly responsible for the emissions from the tours you sell, and there are different types of emissions. To measure your carbon footprint, it is important to know the different emissions. You can identify the extent to which they are relevant to your business, and measure accordingly.
Type 1: Direct emissions
Direct emissions are emitted on site or by company vehicles. These emissions are only relevant if you own company vehicles, otherwise they are seen as indirect emissions (type 3).
Type 2: Emissions from electricity
This is by far the easiest to measure, as it focuses on emissions from heating and cooling, lighting and electrical use. By looking at electricity, gas and water bills, you can easily find your emissions.
Type 3: Indirect emissions
Here you measure all indirect emissions from other sources such as business travel and employees, paper, waste, but also emissions from the trips and activities you offer.
Tools for measuring your carbon footprint
Measuring the entire carbon footprint of your business on your own is a huge task. Fortunately, carbon calculators are designed to make it a lot easier. Google it and you will find many of them.
Here are a few:
A 100% accurate calculation is complex, maybe even impossible, so it’s best to keep things simple and calculate the activities that make up the bulk of your emissions. Add a little extra afterwards, just to be sure.
Step 2: Take steps to minimize your carbon footprint
Once you have an overview of your own carbon footprint, you can also identify the specific areas that have the greatest impact. To structure this process, you can develop a carbon reduction plan. It does not matter if you have a short, medium or long term plan as long as you keep a clear focus. Below you’ll find a typical step-by-step approach you can use:
1. Review your carbon footprint and reflect on climate goals
Once you have gained insight into your own carbon footprint, you can compare it with industry averages. How do you compare to others? What are other tour operators doing to achieve their goals? Use, for example, the UN’s sustainability goals as inspiration.
And not least, think about how you can be best in class. That is something that will also help your business.
2. Select focus areas
When identifying your focus area, be smart and look for what will give the best effect. Where can you reduce the most emissions and where can you save the most money? Also think about relevance. For example, do you need to upgrade your equipment this year? Can you solve several problems at once? Can the initiatives you take at the same time improve the guest experience or satisfaction of your employees?
Feel free to combine general climate goals and industry averages from the previous point with your focus areas.
3. Set goals
Define where and how you want to reduce emissions in your own organization. For example, you can divide your goals into direct emissions (office, equipment, business travel) and indirect emissions (customers’ trips and emissions).
Absolute goals aim to reduce CO2 emissions by a certain amount. Example: Reduce total emissions by 25% by 2025.
Intensity goals set goals in relation to economic growth. Example: Reduce footprints per booked trip by 10% by 2025
4. Consider going public with your goals
By publishing your goals and describing to the world how you want to reduce emissions, you set a good example for both the customers and the rest of the industry. It is a strong signal that you are serious about reducing global warming and doing your part. As long as you work hard to achieve these goals, it is not green washing.
5. Create an implementation plan and possibly a green team
Reducing your CO2-emissions is an extensive job and for larger organizations it is often not enough to develop a plan to reduce your footprint. So in addition to an implementation plan, you can set up a green team responsible for realizing the plan. A green team with committed employees will make a big difference. The more the merrier.
Even if you are unique and there are many types of tourism players, there will be an overlap of focus areas when you reduce CO2-emissions. It is, in general, important to prioritize low emissions. Transparency is important to achieve your goals. Work with your employees, owners and customers to implement the changes and find new opportunities.
Here are some quick tips that you can do specifically to reduce your emissions:
- Encourage employees to travel by bicycle or public transport, alternatively carpooling
- Facilitate working from home and online meetings
- Reduce the use of disposable items, and thereby waste
- Identify opportunities to reduce water and energy
- Buy local and vegetarian options for lunch
- Reduce indirect emissions during trips
- Book direct flights for your customers
- Avoid domestic flights where possible
- Include options for public transportation, such as buses or trains
- Promote low-carbon activities such as hiking, biking, canoeing, horseback riding
- Book eco-friendly accommodations
- Encourage customers to avoid plastic, food and water waste
Step 3: Compensate for your remaining carbon footprint
You’ve probably heard of being carbon neutral. When you buy things, you can often choose a climate-neutral alternative. You can also buy yourself a better conscience by smoothing out your total emissions, for example through the Norwegian company Chooose. When bands like Coldplay or Pink Floyd release so-called carbon neutral albums, or travel companies claim to be carbon neutral, it’s not obvious how that works.
So, how does carbon offset actually work?
Although it may sound complex and overwhelming, carbon offsets are really quite simple. Carbon calculation allows you to balance the climate impact by either reducing CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions in other parts of the world, or by investing in measures that capture CO2. Carbon calculation allows you to mitigate the climate impact of air travel and other travel emissions, while giving back to nature and local communities.
Once you have estimated how much CO2 you are responsible for, you are ready to offset the emissions. If your carbon footprint is 1 tonne of CO2, you must offset at least 1 tonne of CO2. It’s actually not that complicated. When you buy carbon offsets, you are simply making a financial contribution that will be invested in carbon reduction projects.
Some tour operators have even higher ambitions and go above and beyond to achieve net zero carbon emissions. They know that calculation is not completely accurate so some will buy double quota. They will then compensate for their carbon footprint and thus create environmental benefits by removing more CO2 from the atmosphere. This is called carbon negative and climate positive. So it’s not only its own share of the footprint, but it also takes responsibility for the environment and slows global warming by removing more.
One thing is important to notice: climate-positive must not be confused with carbon-positive, where more renewable energy is produced than necessary, which is then returned to the grid.
What does CO2 compensation cost?
Until the moment we reach a zero-carbon tourism industry, the most cost-effective, efficient and fastest solution is to buy credits and invest in projects that reduce our carbon emissions. It is extremely difficult to accurately estimate all the damage caused by climate change. There is no agreement on how much it costs to compensate for one tonne of CO2. So most certification schemes charge different prices for compensation, which is often confusing.
There are two main reasons for the different prices between the different schemes:
- – There are several ways to estimate the impact on the climate. Different calculations will show different effects of e.g taking a flight as opinions are divided on how it really affects global warming.
- – Not all compensation schemes invest in the same projects, and some are more expensive than others. The projects that are not only there for CO2 impact, but also aim to create a better future for everyone, are especially more expensive.
The industry is full of cheap ways to compensate for emissions, and it is also pretty easy. Environmental economists estimate that in order for us to be in line with the objectives of the Paris Agreement, we need a price between € 35 and € 65 per tonne of CO2 to achieve our goal. In reality, the price is lower and determined by supply and demand from the market. For example, if you want to offset a flight from San Francisco to Paris, you normally only have to pay a contribution of between $15 and $20. That is not a lot.
To get started, you need to choose a carbon offset provider. There are a number of organizations that offer carbon offsets, but it can be difficult to decide which one. You want your initiatives to have the best possible effect, right? So when balancing your carbon accounts, it is important to go through an organization that is transparent, that knows what they are doing and that create lasting effects.
To help you navigate, we’ve put together a list of things to look for when choosing a CO2 offset provider. If you follow these tips, you can be sure you won’t be cheated and that your contribution will make a real difference.
Has the project been verified and validated by a serious third party? All projects must be accredited by internationally recognized standards, such as Gold Standard or VCS. This means that the projects meet strict criteria, and you can be sure that they are legitimate.
Gold Standard has more than 80 NGOs behind it and 1400+ certified projects in over 80 countries that create billions of dollars in climate and development projects worldwide.
The VCS program (Verified Carbon Standard) is the world’s most widely used voluntary emission reduction standard. Nearly 1,600 certified VCS- projects have reduced or eliminated more than 450 million tonnes of carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere.
What type of projects does the supplier offer? Stay away from organizations that exclusively market tree planting projects. It is difficult to prove the duration of these newly planted trees, and they do little to change our dependence on fossil fuels. Forestry projects can be very effective since trees bind CO2, but make sure they do more than plant trees, such as protecting existing forests and biodiversity, as well as providing other societal benefits.
Other types of efficient displacement projects include wind farms, which may also be controversial because it seizes land areals, but which help to reduce the amount of non-renewable energy needed from the national grid.
Third-world water filter programs contribute to reducing the carbon produced by cutting down and burning wood to boil water. And there are many more.
PS: Their projects must be measurable
Make sure that all their projects provide ‘additionality’.
Additionality is a defining concept for carbon shift projects. To qualify as a true carbon offset, the reductions achieved by a project must be “in addition” to what would have happened if the project had not been carried out (for example, continued as commercial as usual. If a project is viable in itself, for example through sale of electricity, or due to government funding, regulation or other policies, it cannot be used as an offset project, as it would have been carried out independently of secured investment through carbon markets.
The additional concept is important, as only carbon credits from projects that are “in addition to” the business scenario, represent a net environmental benefit. Without the requirement for “supplements”, there is no guarantee that emission reduction activities will lead to a reduction in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Therefore, if simple terms are assigned to activities that would have happened anyway, the emissions allow it to increase without a corresponding cut elsewhere, and therefore make the process meaningless.
Any business or individual considering purchasing carbon credits must ask questions to ensure that the standard or system support of the credits requires additional proof.
How do they “retire” the emissions credit?
Carbon credits are purchased from the international carbon market and then withdrawn immediately, which ensures that credit is not counted twice. Double counting refers to the same reduction or elimination of greenhouse gas emissions that is counted more than once to demonstrate compliance with mitigation targets.
All projects should be listed in a register, and shift providers can use these to “retire” projects and ensure that the credit you have purchased is not resold and double-counted for climate prevention. Many offset vendors work directly with the project developers to ensure that the offsets are pulled.
Is the organization non-profit?
Choosing to offset your footprint with a non-profit (or NGO) can be a great way to make sure that most of your money reaches the project you want to support. And when you are compensated through a mission-driven organization instead of a commercial one, you can also know that you also support broader sustainability measures and goals.
Do they offer advice on how to reduce carbon footprint and live more sustainably?
Balancing carbon should be the last resort, and is done only after the carbon footprint has been reduced as much as possible. If the offset provider does not offer advice and suggestions on how to do this, they may not be as concerned about the environment as you are.
Do they teach their partners / clients / members about facts about climate change?
Knowledge sharing is important when it comes to climate change. Your provider should educate or teach you why there is a problem and what we can do to mitigate it.
Do your projects go beyond carbon calculation?
Each project has an enormous potential to provide societal benefits and protection against biological diversity. Find out which of their projects provide employment opportunities, health benefits, education and protection of certain species. These effects are often called co-benefits and checking that the projects comply with the UN’s goals for sustainable development can be a good place to start.
Do they have experience with carbon calculation?
Many organizations are new to carbon offsets and may not have technical expertise and established relationships.
Are they transparent?
A reputable and good organization will of course have information about their projects, methods and quality assurance protocols easily available on their website. They will also be willing to answer your questions. If not, it’s a good indicator that they’re trying to hide something. If you do not immediately understand how they work then there is probably something wrong.
So make sure that the methods used by the organization are clearly defined, and that any questions you have about your support get answered. Example: annual reports online.
Compensation is not a final solution
Money can’t buy you love, and money can’t buy you a good conscience. You can’t just throw in some money and be done with it. You must work actively to reduce emissions. In order to actually slow down global warming, we need to reduce our CO2 emissions. Compensation is not an easy way out, but go hand in hand with reduction. Priority numero uno should be to reduce our own footprint as much as possible, before we compensate the remaining share.
Be aware. In many cases compensation and offsetting lead to more total emissions.
Take small steps. Be transparent. Involve employees, owners, partners and locals as much as possible. After all, you are contributing to your own and our common future by working for the environment and slowing down global warming.