Sierra Club Outings and Carbon Offsets
We are proud to announce our partnership with NativeEnergy Travel
Offsets. Now when you book a trip with us, you can calculate the approximate
amount of carbon emitted by your travel to your destination and pay a
corresponding sum toward a wind project to help "offset" your emissions.
Want to try it out?
Calculate your emissions now.
Baffled by the whole concept? So were we! That's why we went through a
thorough research and proposal process to decide whether we should offer offsets.
Here are the questions we asked ourselves:
How does travel impact global warming?
Every time you drive or fly, you emit carbon, which contributes to global warming.
Worldwide, airline travel contributes to roughly 2% of carbon emissions. While
this may not seem like much, each flight you take does have an impact. For
example, a flight from New York to London emits approximately 2.8 tons.
Compare that to the average American's total annual emissions of about 20 tons,
and you can see that flying is carbon-intensive. (Compare it to the average
Nepali's annual emissions of 0.1 tons, and the picture becomes even more
Where does your money go and how does it "offset" your travel?
There are two sides to the carbon offset equation: On one side, you calculate
how much carbon a certain activity emits. Let's use as an example a
flight from San Francisco to Paris. Your personal
share of carbon emissions for that flight equals approximately 4.5 tons.
other side of the equation, the folks at NativeEnergy have identified a
potential wind energy project that needs additional funding to be built.
They calculate how much wind energy this project will generate over its lifetime
and assign a dollar figure to each killowatt-hour based on the cost of
generating it. NativeEnergy reasons that every killowatt-hour of clean
energy generated by its project replaces a killowatt-hour that would have
otherwise been generated by a "dirty" energy source, e.g., a coal-fired power
The idea of "offsetting" is that your monetary contribution is responsible
for a share of the wind project that equals the amount of carbon you've emitted
by your activity. In the case of our flight to Paris, you would pay $60 to
NativeEnergy to help fund the building of a wind farm.
This model has some obvious
pitfalls: First of all, the term "offset" might imply that you are
"neutralizing" the impact of your travel, and thus it has no impact. This is not
the case. Once you have emitted carbon, it is released into the atmosphere and you can't "take it back."
What offsetting does is help reduce carbon emissions elsewhere.
Next, the offset model attempts to neatly
compress a very complex set of calculations into a tidy equation, when in
actuality, it relies on a series of
assumptions and estimates. For example, the folks at NativeEnergy have to
estimate how many passengers are on an average flight and make predictions as to
how much energy a given turbine will produce over its lifetime. In addition,
there is a good deal of debate among global warming experts about just how much
impact flying has on global warming. So it's important to keep in mind that the
numbers generated by a carbon calculator are estimates.
relationship between your travel choices and carbon emissions is of course not
as cut-and-dry as is assumed by the offset model. After all, if you don't get on
that flight to Paris, the plane will still fly. The idea of course is that
cumulatively, the less we all fly, the less demand there will be for air travel,
and the less additional supply the airlines will deliver. On the other side of
the equation, the more market demand we can create for clean energy, the better.
Given all of these issues, you may be wondering why
we offer offsets at all. We have several reasons: One, we feel that letting you
calculate your carbon footprint is a valuable educational
tool. NativeEnergy's calculator gives you an idea of the relative amounts
of carbon emitted by various activities, and we think that this is the first step toward changing
your behavior and living a less carbon-intensive life.
Second, we think that the
wind energy projects sponsored by NativeEnergy represent a valuable step toward
becoming less dependent on coal-fired power plants. Even though the carbon
offset calculation is not quite as neat and tidy as is presented by many in this
industry, we believe that offsetting with NativeEnergy helps build demand for
clean energy. You should know that we went through a
detailed proposal process before choosing NativeEnergy, and we are confident
that their calculations are conservative and that they fund quality projects.
Why doesn't Sierra Club Outings offer "carbon-neutral" trips?
If you've been shopping around for travel, you know
that many of our competitors offer so-called "carbon-neutral" trips. As an
environmental organization, why don't we?
Quite frankly, we think that calling travel "carbon-neutral" is misleading.
Although we believe in the offsets we offer through NativeEnergy, it's
important to remember that offsetting your emissions does not "undo" them.
Rather, it reduces carbon emissions elsewhere to "offset" what you have emitted.
(See how it works.)
Sure, we could just raise our trip prices, take care of the offset payment
for you, and call ourselves carbon-neutral. In fact, we'd probably sell more
trips and make more money that way. Problem is, we'd be missing a valuable
opportunity to educate you about global warming and the impact that your
personal choices have. We'd rather let you calculate your emissions and decide
how you can reduce your overall carbon footprint by reducing travel or making
changes in other aspects of your life.
How did we choose NativeEnergy?
We take our responsibility as a leader in the environmental movement
seriously, and we know that our members trust us to help them make wise
environmental choices. So when we embarked on a project to find a carbon offset
vendor, we knew we couldn't cut corners.
That's why we consulted energy and carbon offset experts within and outside
the Club and conducted a detailed proposal and evaluation process. While there
are a number of reputable vendors out there, we decided on NativeEnergy for
- We like their projects. NativeEnergy helps build renewable energy projects that deliver on their carbon reduction promises
while also helping the communities where they are located. Learn more
about their projects on their
- They are transparent. NativeEnergy was very upfront with us about their projects and
calculations, and they are willing to let us audit their records to ensure that
the majority of your money is going directly to high-quality renewable energy
projects. We also feel that they are honest with their customers about what
offsetting can and cannot do.
- They're responsive to our needs. NativeEnergy
was very flexible in letting us select the projects we wanted to contribute to.
They have been very accommodating with us, which leads us to believe that they
will provide you with good customer service too.
Isn't this just "greenwashing"?
You've read it in the news: Celebrities are flying all over the globe in
private jets, then assuaging their guilty consciences
by buying offsets. Airlines and utilities are going "carbon-neutral."
Some offset vendors are making obscene profits and contributing less than 20% of
revenues to projects. So are carbon offsets nothing but "greenwash"?
to admit, we were a bit skeptical ourselves, so we did our homework before
deciding to offer an offset program. Here's what we concluded: Yes, there are
offset providers out there who are not delivering on their promises. This is a
new industry, and while there are several organizations that are trying to
establish standards for offset quality, the industry is currently largely
unregulated. So unless you really look closely at projects and ask lots of
difficult questions (which we did), it's hard to tell whether the money you
spend is actually doing any good.
We are also highly skeptical of
anyone who claims that carbon-offsets are a "silver bullet" that will solve the
global warming crisis. This simply is not true. As consumers, we will need to
make difficult choices in the coming years to reduce our personal carbon
footprint. We will also have to pressure our politicians to vote for real,
far-reaching legislation that will reduce our dependence on "dirty" energy.
Carbon offsets are merely a small part of the solution.
decided that the offset model has merit, and we believe that with NativeEnergy,
we have created a program that has a net positive impact on the energy landscape.
What else can you do to fight global warming?
The Sierra Club is working to reduce carbon emissions by 2 percent a year for the
next 43 years, which scientists tell us we all must do in order to curb the
worst impacts of global warming. Every individual and institution needs to
decide how they will reduce their emissions. For some, this may mean purchasing
a more fuel efficient car, for some it may mean canceling some travel, for others it
may mean investing in better insulation or more efficient appliances. We are
doing our part in the Outings program by reducing on-trip transportation and
insisting on sustainable practices by the local establishments we frequent.
While your personal lifestyle choices are important, they need to be coupled
with far-reaching political change on a local, national, and international
level. Learn more about what we're doing and how you can help.