[TRAVEL] Travel and climate change

In 2019, I had a big travel year. I moved to Singapore. I visited 12 countries. I returned to North America (twice). While I am so grateful for the opportunities I experienced, I also can’t help but feel guilty for my personal impact on climate change (especially while following the fires burning in nearby Australia).

Gold Coast, Australia, circa 2015

I wanted to understand the impact that my travel had on the environment this year. I started by looking at a calendar and adding all of the flights that I took in 2019 (25!). I next examined a few carbon calculators, including one from the World Wildlife Fund, one from a company called Wren, and one called Footprint Calculator. As these each asked different types of questions (and had different ways of asking about travel), they generated substantially different outputs for my overall footprint (Wren: 15 CO2 tonnes/year, Footprint: 28 CO2 tonnes/year; WWF: 65 CO2 tonnes/year).

I wasn’t satisfied with these results, so I decided to calculate my impact the long way. I found a different site called Atmosfair, which allows you to manually enter flights and calculate the impact. Those 25 flights worked out to a total of 200 flight hours (or 8.4 days spent in the air), 145,133 flight kilometers (or 3.6 trips around the world), and 35,610 kg of CO2 emitted. Ouch. Although I already knew that I had a big travel year, seeing these numbers in aggregate was especially jarring. I also recognize that this year was likely an unusually high outlier relative to other years (and technically, 40% of these flights were for work, and therefore count against Accenture’s impact, not my own).

So what next? Knowing my impact is one thing, but I need to consider what changes I am going to make. An obvious answer is to take fewer flights in 2020. This is challenging as Singapore is on an island, so travelling to most places does require a plane trip. I also want to see my family and friends in 2020 and there is no easy (or low-carbon) way to get back to Canada. However, I know I will have less travel this year and there are a few trips that I plan to take via ferry or bus.

I also decided that I personally wanted to look into carbon offset credits. It turns out that I am not the only one thinking about this – in the last few months there have been articles from National Geographic, the New York Times, Forbes, and Wired. A carbon offset is typically defined as an intervention that compensates for your emissions (by preventing emissions elsewhere). Crucially, it has to have “additionality”, meaning the project wouldn’t have happened without the purchase. While there are many complex opinions about carbon credits (do they work? Is it a “fair” solution? Shouldn’t we focus on regulation instead?), I liked this quote from the CEO of one offset company: “given the low cost and high potential to make a difference, it’s worth taking the chance”.

When I was researching companies to then purchase offsets, there were two companies that kept coming up – Gold Standard and Cool Effect. Both allowed you to choose to invest in a specific project (or donate generally across their project portfolio). Offsets ranged from $5-20 USD per tonne, depending on the type of project. I initially wanted to purchase my offsets from Gold Standard, but unfortunately Singapore regulations do not allow for payments via PayPal to foreign NGOs (and PayPal was their only payment service). I ended up purchasing offset credits for programs in China and Vietnam from Cool Effect to cover all of my personal travel in 2019. For good measure, I also decided to donate to WWF’s Bushfire Emergency fund.

I’m a Certified Carbon Fighter! (or at least attempting to be a Carbon Neutral Advocate).

In summary, I am glad I went through this exercise, as it was a good reflection on the impact of a crazy year. I also plan to add more environmental causes to my giving strategy (I currently make most of my charitable donations through GiveWell). Opinions? Questions? Let me know – there is lots to learn in this space.

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