I’m Cameron, Friendly Planet’s web developer. And each year around Earth Day, I get a little edgy.
Part is my frustration as I watch companies large and small trot out their green credentials. It’s encouraging to see so many businesses taking earnest steps to reduce their impacts. But with so many of them—maybe even most—all I see is a thick layer of greenwashing over business as usual. And lately, it’s getting hard to tell the difference between the two.
The other part is my own introspection. Who am I to judge? What are my green credentials? Am I doing enough to reduce the impacts of my lifestyle? All my careful recycling, all those LED bulbs I shelled out for, all those trips by bike—am I really making a difference? Or just making myself feel better?
My biggest eco-conundrum is that I love to travel. Nothing is more exhilarating. So I’m a lucky guy that I get to work for a travel company. I can probably blame my parents for my wanderlust. I was born in Australia to an American mother and a New Zealand father. Before I was three years old, we had already spent months hopscotching across the islands of the South Pacific. And once I was old enough, I began my own journeys. Wandering through the ancient streets and monuments of Istanbul. Gliding down the Ganges in a small skiff. Spending months becoming intimately familiar with London. Exploring an ancient, overgrown Mayan city in Guatemala. Watching the sun rise over the blue domes of Oia in the Greek Islands. Joining the locals in Carnival parades in a gorgeous Portuguese colonial town in Brazil. These experiences have been some of the pinnacles of my life.
So it’s quite vexing to know that perhaps the single biggest thing I could do to reduce my environmental impact would be to never set foot on an airplane again.
The impacts of travel
Case in point: last November, my wife and I headed to Australia, my first trip back since my family left in 1977. It was an incredible homecoming: I got to know the land of my birth, to rediscover the farm where I was born, and to meet up with cousins I hadn’t seen in 15 years. But yesterday, I ran the numbers on the carbon impacts of that trip. According to Sustainable Travel International’s carbon calculator, our round-trip flight from LA to Sydney produced 11.7212 tons of CO2—and that was just our share. Flights and driving within Australia produced another 0.68 tons. Grand total: 12.4012 tons of carbon emissions for a two-week vacation for two people.
To compare, I estimated the impacts of all our driving and home energy use for that same year, with the help of the U.S. EPA’s carbon footprint calculator. The total: 7.1304 tons. I was proud to see that our efforts to drive less and use more efficient lighting and appliances were paying off. But my heart sank when I realized that our short trip to Australia was responsible for 174% more carbon than all our driving, electricity and natural gas usage for the whole year.
I believe travel is one of the most valuable things a human being can do to appreciate other cultures and fall in love with Planet Earth. It’s difficult to understand how beautiful and fragile the whole thing is until you see it with your own eyes. Which is why some of the world’s most ardent conservationists are also some of the most well-traveled. So it’s ironic then that tourism is perhaps one of the more damaging human activities. According to various sources, tourism is responsible for about 5% of global CO2 emissions, most of it from air travel. And unlike things like eating and heating our homes, travel is a luxury that’s completely optional.
With that in mind—is there such a thing as sustainable tourism? There’s no shortage of so-called “eco-lodges” and companies claiming to offer green tour packages. But how much of this is simply greenwashing to assuage the guilt of first-world travelers like myself?
Steps for meaningful action
Here at Friendly Planet, this conundrum has been on our minds for some time now. Not only are we all travelers ourselves, but we want to be a force for good in the places we visit. That’s why we’ve worked for years on various philanthropic projects, such as providing clean water for villagers in Cambodia. We’ve tried to craft responsible tour packages that introduce our travelers to some of the more incredible (and threatened) ecosystems on earth—like Borneo, Costa Rica, the Galapagos and the Amazon. And it’s the reason we take our travelers to nature preserves and conservation projects that protect rather than exploit indigenous people and species, in places like Thailand, South Africa and Kenya.
Meanwhile, one incredible member of our staff is going much further. In her free time, 25 year-old Alyssa Ramos has founded a nonprofit organization, Schools for Sustainability, which is building a series of innovative learning centers in impoverished areas. Students obtain high school degrees while getting trained and certified in organic food production, water harvesting and purification, renewable energy, waste management, and more. The schools themselves will be built of sustainable materials and will serve as models of environmental stewardship. Development is already underway on the first school in Sabana Grande de Boyá in the Dominican Republic. Future schools are planned for Philadelphia, the Bronx, Tanzania, Haiti and Israel. Alyssa is an inspiration to us all.
With all that we’ve done so far as a company, we understand that it’s far from enough. That’s why we’re now working on a carbon neutrality initiative to mitigate the impacts of our tour packages and our office operations. We’re exploring possibilities including carbon offsets, renewable energy credits, and direct contributions to projects that reduce greenhouse gases. We’re certainly not the first company to embark on such a project. But as we follow the lead of other trailblazing organizations, we’re determined to offer our customers a way to travel that is both enlightening and responsible—a way to explore the planet while also doing less harm to it. Why? Because we want to live up to our name. Because it’s the right thing to do. Because we cherish the destinations we visit. And because we want to ensure they’re still there for our children to enjoy as well.
Solutions like carbon offsets and renewable energy credits are far from perfect. The best way to reduce carbon emissions is not to create them in the first place. But we believe there are so many overwhelming benefits to experiencing other cultures and places, and that offsets and credits offer probably the best solution right now to neutralizing the impacts.
Stay tuned for updates on our initiative. In the meantime, consider offsetting your own travel, using the Sustainable Travel International carbon calculator, or by purchasing carbon offsets through sites like the Carbon Fund, Native Energy or TerraPass.*
Cameron Clark has been Friendly Planet’s web developer and webmaster for over a decade, and is spearheading the company’s carbon neutrality project.
* These popular carbon offset websites are not necessarily endorsed by Friendly Planet Travel.