This week, we’re taking a look at the greener sides of the ski industry. From plant-based ski products, carbon offsets to easy steps backcountry skiers can take to reduce their own impact, here’s a glass half full take on sustainable innovations and conversations in the ski touring world.
Can a simple click wash away the impact of flying for skiing?
While sitting in the Aspen airport recently awaiting a 15 hour journey to Milan, Italy, I couldn’t help but feel self conscious. Here I was, leaving the snow-drenched Rockies to spend a mere four and a half days in similarly lofty mountains a third of the way around the world. That I was going there for work didn’t erase that it was a very long flight for a very short time, a luxury at the least.
I’ve spent much of the past decade writing about diminishing glaciers and am no stranger to the negative impacts CO2 emissions have on climate and the environment. On an individual level, air travel is one of the biggest contributors to those emissions. Some estimates claim a round trip flight from New York to London emits more CO2 than a single person living in a developing country does in an entire year. According to the BBC, flights emit approximately 2% of global energy related CO2 emissions, a number that’s anticipated to rise with the growing popularity of air travel. My long-haul flight at least emitted fewer tonnes of CO2 than if I’d flown domestic (flying becomes more efficient over longer distances do to massive energy required during take off), but what if I could just wash away my CO2 emitting sins all together and fly guilt free?
In theory, I could. All I had to do was buy carbon offsets. Sounds easy enough. Sounds, in fact, too easy. How can simply buying something else equal out the impact of my frivolous travels? So I decided to do some investigating with one primary question in mind: what’s the value in buying carbon offsets for ski trips?
Here’s what I found out.
First, what is a carbon offset?
A carbon offset is essentially a small investment in projects or efforts that reduce or limit carbon emissions and greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. This can include renewable energy infrastructure like wind or solar plants, re-forestry efforts to naturally absorb carbon dioxide, collecting methane gas from landfills and projects providing clean burning stoves in developing countries that have traditionally relied on resource-depleting fuels.
The idea has been around for over a decade (Lou wrote on it in ’07) and has been met with enthusiasm and skepticism. While offsets make washing away one’s travel impacts as easy as buying toilet paper on Amazon, they have been criticized as a way to scapegoat one’s emissions rather taking personal steps to reduce them. The scapegoating concern has been even more salient on national levels, which Pope Francis called out in 2015, saying of offsets: “This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require.”
Despite the speculation, the system has continued to worm its way into the public framework of ways to deal with climate change. Carbon offsets offer an accessible solution in the overwhelming and often-anxiety inducing topic of how to make a difference. The sheer number of offset programs available support the notion that the system is working, or at least worth looking into.
What difference do they make?
Keep in mind, an offset is just that: a compensatory measure for something that already exists. That said, offsets won’t erase pollution, or prevent it from occurring in the first place. They typically don’t address bigger, industry level forces behind the majority of global carbon emissions. If you’re really concerned about your carbon footprint, riding your bike to your nearest mountains is probably the best (albeit most often unrealistic) way to go.
That said, some offset programs are more effective than others, and some programs are total frauds. To ensure your money is actually going toward planting trees, harvesting methane, building solar fields, etc., one thing you can do is look for programs certified by third party organizations. I found a few that fit the bill including Gold Standard and Green-E Climate Standard. Knowing your money is going to a legitimate project or organization is crucial insurance in it actually being used for good. Some organizations let you buy offsets for specific projects, while others just list a pool of projects that offset dollars contribute to. A little research and diligence on your end is required to ensure you aren’t throwing money away.
Shopping for offsets
By now you may be wondering what all this has to do with skiing. Well, feeling guilty about my 4.5 day ski stint in the Italian Alps (on quickly receding glaciers no less), I figured, what the heck, let’s try for recompense. A quick Google search of ‘how to buy carbon offsets’ produced overwhelming options. I decided to check out one of the first search results, carbonfund.org. The site listed partnerships with JetBlue, Alaska Airlines and other airline companies, a sign of credibility.
Before I could buy carbon offsets, though, I needed to know just how much CO2 my long-haul journey had emitted. This led me down another Google search hole into carbon emissions calculators, before I realized there was one right on the Carbon Fund site. My journey from Aspen to Denver to Milan and back totaled a little more than 10,000 miles round trip. According to Carbon Fund, a flight covering that distance emits 4,175 lbs or approximately 1.89 tonnes of CO2.
Now that I knew how much carbon I had emitted, I could start shopping for offsets. Carbon Fund made it easy. For air travel, a 10,000 mile flight could be offset for 20 bucks. Only twenty Washingtons for a clear conscience?! That’s pretty good. There was a catch: upon checking out, I realized I couldn’t actually see what kind of project my money was contributing to, only a list of projects the organization supports. This option required blind faith that my dollars would be invested in a project I deemed worthy.
I decided to shop around. On the aforementioned Gold Standard site, I found a long list of offset projects, including planting biodiverse forests in Panama (accompanied by an adorable photo of sloths), making cleaner cook stoves accessible in Rwanda, and supporting a 20 MW solar field project in Rajasthan, India. Gold Standard charges per tonne of CO2 and costs vary by project. I opted for the sloths (biodiverse forests) at $18 USD per tonne, bringing my total to $36. This whole conscience clearing thing wasn’t that cheap after all.
Since this is a ski blog, I checked out the mother of winter advocacy, Protect Our Winters. POW has their own carbon calculator that conveniently ushers you to specific projects you can choose to put your offsets toward. Their calculator was a little more generous with my total emissions than Carbon Fund; the roughly 10,000 mile round trip amounted to 3429 lbs or roughly 1.7 tonnes. For that number, I could choose to contribute to a variety of projects including landfill gas capture and combustion, and domestic forestry efforts. I opted to support the Henrico County Landfill Gas Combustion Project in Henrico County, Virginia for the whopping total of… $6.79. I can’t even get a breakfast burrito in Aspen for that cheap. I pressed the purchase button.
Well, not yet. First I was given the option to round up to the nearest dollar to contribute to POW’s advocacy efforts. Then I landed on a screen with an encouraging infographic in which my 3429 lbs of CO2 had a strike through it. One thing I’d hope to see is an email a few months from now updating me on the progress of the landfill gas capture project, though that might be too much to ask. Yet to be seen.
It’s fun to travel and ski in new places, but the best way to truly reduce carbon emissions is to just stay home (or close to it). Even after all this research I’m still skeptical; buying carbon offsets to undo emissions from ski trips just sounds too good to be true. I do, however, like the idea of contributing to organizations that have potential to make a difference, so long as they’re legit. At least it’s an option for those times when the powder in those distant peaks is calling…
Commenters, I’m curious to hear your input.
Manasseh Franklin is the editor of WildSnow. She spent a lot of time thinking about all this while pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing and Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming.