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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:

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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 troubling.)


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.

On the 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 plant.

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.

Finally, the 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 several reasons:

  1. 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 website.
  2. 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.
  3. 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"?

We have 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.

Nevertheless, we 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.



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