Zerofootprint: To Offset or Not Offset, That is the Question

A UK travel company has accepted that it is not just its customers that are responsible for the emissions produced by their flights, and it now plants a tree for every booking it takes.

Flourishing UK holiday company TravelRepublic has gone one better than simply offering its customers the opportunity to offset the carbon of their air travel — the company has pledged to save a tree for every customer that books one of their flights. Working with international conservation charity World Land Trust (WLT), TravelRepublic is making a donation towards the protection of threatened rainforests for each customer."Through our carbon offsetting program, we have the opportunity to help people behave in a greener way if they choose, but we also wanted to demonstrate that we believed that there was merit in the idea [of carbon offsetting]," says Kane Pirie, financial director of TravelRepublic.

TravelRepublic is supporting a tropical forest protection scheme in Ecuador, where over 80% of the natural forest has already been destroyed. WLT, whose patron is the distinguished BBC nature program presenter Sir David Attenborough, works by buying land, and working with local non-governmental agencies and communities to establish long-term management programs for the standing forests that would otherwise be threatened with destruction.

Meanwhile, the voluntary carbon offset payments made by customers (rather than the company's contribution) goes to forest regeneration. This program is also being handled by WLT, and the funds are directed towards areas around protected standing forests. The aim is to restore cleared land, thereby increasing the size and biodiversity of the forest, and connecting fragments of forest to create more stable areas of trees, and to develop corridors that allow wildlife to move unhindered through the area, says Oliver Blakeman, carbon project manager for WLT.

TravelRepublic's Pirie has been encouraged by the take-up of the carbon offset programme so far. About 3% of customers are already offsetting their flights. This may seem low, but the concept is entirely new to most people, and Pirie expects participation to grow to 5-10% within a year as awareness of climate change grows and travelers begin to take more responsibility for their behavior. Pirie also denies that there is any contradiction in what the company is doing in promoting travel while recognizing that flights cause environmental damage.

"I believe in green causes, but I also believe in people taking holidays and enjoying themselves," says Pirie. "I don't think being green means that you have to restrict yourself to going on camping holidays in the local countryside, but we are only borrowing the planet and we need to ensure that it is preserved for future generations."

TravelRepublic has not increased the cost of its holidays as a consequence of its forest regeneration and planting schemes - "It comes out of our profits," says Pirie. Nor does the company take any administration costs for the customer carbon offset programme, passing 100% of customers' donations on to WLT.

Pirie, an accountant by trade, has been the driving force in TravelRepublic for the schemes. He investigated potential environmental partners carefully before choosing to work with WLT. Although there are other larger offset schemes in the UK and elsewhere, some, such as Climate Care, are for-profit or part charity/part for-profit, and Pirie insisted on using a registered charity. WLT was the final choice because it has an almost 20-year track record, it focuses on buying and preserving standing forest, and it is large enough to handle TravelRepublic's expected contributions. "We will be a significant donor to WLT," says Pirie.

WLT has done a number of offsetting projects, including for other travel companies. "Offsetting works well with air travel," says Blakeman. "It's hard to reduce emissions [from transport], and it hard to tell people not to travel. But people are becoming more worried about the impact of transport, and air travel is the most damaging of all because of where the emissions are released."

WLT has a number of conservation projects underway, including the protection and regeneration of Atlantic rain forests in Brazil and Ecuador, and creating forest corridors for elephants in India.

[Ron Dembo and Clive Davidson, Zerofootprint]