“How do you ride your bike across the Atlantic Ocean?”
When I tell friends about the tour I am planning they will slyly pose some version of the pointed question above. It’s clearly problematic to fly in a fossil-fueled tube over to a climate conference dedicated in part to severely limiting exactly that kind of travel. But that is what I am planning to do. While it’s a regrettable compromise I have come to believe it is worth it.
If I had more time I would take a freighter over to Scotland. If I had rich friends with sailboats and even more time I would sail. But I don’t have those options, and I believe I can do much more by being physically present at the COP26 gathering than I can via Zoom. If you have followed this sort of climate-flying conundrum, you know what’s coming. Offsets.
When I first contemplated this tour pre-covid I looked into the upsides and critiques of offsetting carbon emissions. The basic idea is to pay additional money tied to the amount of carbon emitted by an activity to projects that will prevent or sequester an equivalent amount of carbon. Driving cars, heating with gas or oil, or using fossil-fuel-generated electricity are carbon-emitting activities that might be offset. Planting trees, improving agriculture, supporting renewable energy are the sorts of projects that offset providers usually fund.
This seems fairly straightforward, but the devils are in the details. Some projects don’t do what they claim, some double-count emissions reductions that would have happened anyway, some are much less permanent than hoped. Third parties certify good offset programs, but in many cases it’s just hard to really know that some very distant action has happened in a durable way.
With this in mind I have created a local offset program with Climate Smart Missoula, a local NGO. We take in funds to offset personal and business carbon emissions and then use that money locally to help low-income people get better insulation and heating equipment (e.g. heat pumps) in their homes. This has a demonstrable carbon benefit for the climate, helps people of little means with their energy expenses, and supports local jobs in energy efficiency work. I can also see the projects in person and know that they are real and enduring. We are hoping to expand into supporting local agriculture and forestry with rigorous standards.
I’ll pay for double offsets for my flights to London and back to feel that I am definitely covering the emissions of that travel. Even our local offset program is not perfect by any means, so a big margin makes sense. It also offers the potential that from a carbon accounting perspective my travel will be net-positive for the climate.
Offsetting carbon emissions is not the long-term solution, but for the moment it can help get us through to better future options. Like maybe an ocean-going bike?
Calculation of offsets: D.C. to London and London to Seattle flights total 2.25 tons of carbon for one traveler in economy class. (Done with myclimate.org) The Footprint Fund price of carbon is $30/ton, so paying double offset fees adds to $135.