Beyond Carbon Offsetting: Can we increase the value of our footprint?

by Kathy Dragon on July 23, 2009

My friend Greg Berry at nuance intelligence asked that I comment on his recent post:  Ethical Travel I’m not sure I offered anything towards the solution of our massive travel footprint but it allowed me a venue to post some thoughts. Thanks Greg.

Meeting new friends in Jordan

Meeting new friends in Jordan

Across the globe there are countless initiatives being discussed to address travel, air travel specifically, and climate change. Recent numbers I have read are that tourism trade accounts for 5% of the World’s CO2 Emissions.  If you allow for a second lens, tourism employees 10% of the worlds economy. Tourism infuses money into poor economies. Travel encourages protection of natural environments and finally, travel leads to understanding.

The reality is most travelers fall into two distinct categories. Those traveling for “vacation”-pleasure, education, adventure, experiences etc (we will include travelers taking part in National Geographic Tours private Jet Tours (!?) and those traveling for work.  Both groups are less likely to be focused on this discussion that we “conscious” readers are.

Consumers traveling for vacation purposes are not interested in feeling guilty about their travels. They’re on holiday! They want to enjoy their experience which includes using plush towels and wonderful bath products. It is a luxury they often don’t have at home.  Many argue correctly that the “towel” issues is much more about how the the hotels wash their linens than about how guests use them.  That’s followed by airline and hotel recycling programs etc etc. Good overview of what is all really means here.

Business Travelers are far more interested in convenience. For all of us who travel for a living I think it is safe to say that airline travel has lost any mystery and excitement it may once have had. The very thought of an airport is now worse than the fear of visiting the dentist.  Anything that makes this journey to our destination easier and less unpleasant will be used. Business travelers are focused on getting in and out with as little personal headaches as possible. Public transportation to/from airports is neither convenient nor well communicated.  Trying to negotiate rail and bus options is complicated enough for the budget traveler and even cities such as NY and Chicago have done a poor job.

Positive Steps:
Vacations: Tour Providers/Companies who have taken the initiatives (offsetting the carbon footprint of the ground portion of the tour) take the first step in educating and encouraging travelers to offset their flights.  Many “tour providers” carefully choose locally owned properties and restaurants and hire regional guides, all of which encourage an overall understanding and connection with the destination. I believe that future political and ethical decisions a traveler makes when NOT traveling will be based on these experiences.  Post travel we tend to read, shop, listen to and engage in topics that touch on a destination we have been to very differently than when we merely read about an issue in a far off destination. The Middle East and Africa are good examples.

Corporations who initiate green travel policies and wield enough status to encourage “green” rental fleets and “green” hotels partners are a start.  It will be interesting to see if this can translate into preferred carriers such as Virgin America‘s who’s young fleet of planes are arguably very efficient in both fuel consumption and emissions. Cities focused on ease of public transportation are improving their methods of communication via tools and applications which live on handheld devices.  Yes, booking connecting bus or rail connections when our planes land, knowing when the next local bus is due to arrive and various “share a ride” applications will become increasingly popular and used…once they touch interfaces, specifically mobile phones, and work.

Bottom Line: Meeting and collaborating using technology is effective up to a point in many but not all circumstances.  Face, real face, to face meetings, discussions and SHARED EXPERIENCES are invaluable to many of us.

Beyond reducing your carbon footprint: How about increasing the value of your footprint?

What if we started to think how the travels that we must or choose to make could have a more positive impact? I believe that conference, meeting, corporate travel planners AND individual travelers have a responsibility to make travel worthwhile.  “Offsetting” travel, even an entire conference, is not enough.  I’ve attended far too many conferences held at the Ohare and Orlando airports. I contribute little to nothing to the local economy and leave with little to no understanding of the destination I have just “stepped on”.  Green Conferences are becoming big business for destinations. Moving conferences to smaller venues which represent a destination (like the Chicago Cultural Center at which the conference is held) Being informed and encouraged to sleep, eat and shop local as well as incorporating these features into the conference venue, and making these choices easier, affordable, and demanded will increase adoption.  Eating room service in front of our computer or the TV is far too common for most business travelers, especially women who may be less inclined to venture out on their own for a meal or a morning run without the information and support of the concierge or hotel staff. Recommending and featuring hotels that embrace local/natural/organic within their walls and even encouraging taking an extra day to experience the destination may not reduce our carbon footprint but may offer some level of a positive exchange. Understanding a destination and the people who make up these communities has the potential for global value.

Would love to hear your thoughts on how to increase the value of our global footprint.

Still traveling, Kathy

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