Guidebook Author and Travel TV Host
It’s no secret air travel is a major contributor to climate change, so here is how I’m holding myself and my business accountable.
For decades, in my work as a travel writer and tour operator, I’ve seen the harmful effects of climate change firsthand. I’ve watched the Dutch reinforce their dikes with massive storm surge barriers and the English build floodgates on medieval streets where they never needed them before. Climate change is happening everywhere — especially in the developing world, where poor communities are often hit the hardest.
There’s no denying that air travel is a significant contributor to climate change. As global citizens, we should all recognize our responsibility and seek climate-smart solutions that will ensure future travelers have the opportunity to experience the world like we do. And, as a longtime advocate for travel who also runs a successful tour company, I’ve long been aware that my business contributes to the problem.
In the future, people will look back at our generation and see that there were three kinds of people: misguided deniers; those who knew climate change was happening but did nothing while it was still possible to make a difference; and those who recognized the problem and did what they could to help solve it.
At my company, Rick Steves’ Europe, we decided to recognize the problem, be honest about how we contribute to it, and take a long, hard look at how our specific impact could be mitigated. Standard accounting practices allow businesses to ignore costs to our environment — but I believe it’s ethical to pay our share of that cost. So, at the expense of our profit, we imposed a creative “carbon tax” on ourselves. And, until our government requires us to do so, we’re doing it voluntarily. I don’t see this as heroic. It’s simply ethical.
A round-trip flight to Europe emits roughly as much climate-changing carbon, per passenger, as six months of driving. Scientists and development experts figure it takes about $30 of careful investment in environmental initiatives in the developing world to mitigate the carbon emissions created by one round-trip flight between the United States and Europe. At my company, we take about 30,000 people to Europe each year on our tours. That adds up to about $900,000 for us, but we’re rounding up and figure that we owe $1 million annually to cover our climate costs. We’re not adding this cost on to our prices — we’re taking it out of our profits.
While some businesses address this issue by purchasing carbon offsets, I prefer to invest our $1 million directly in climate-smart agriculture and forestry projects in developing countries, as well as legislative advocacy here in the United States. We specifically selected organizations we believe directly address climate change in a way that empowers small farmers in the developing world to combat these negative effects. You can see the full list of our 2019 grant recipients in my company’s Climate Smart Commitment portfolio.
Some “flight shamers” would say that a better approach is to simply stay home. I disagree. I believe that international travel is apowerful way to better understand and contribute to the world in which we live. Travel is not only a great form of recreation, but also an important opportunity to broaden our perspectives by experiencing different cultures. Americans who travel gain empathy for the other 96 percent of humanity.
When it comes to fighting climate change, travelers can create as much good as bad. That’s mitigation. And for anyone who travels or sells travel, that’s part of the honest cost of getting to know our world firsthand. And now, at Rick Steves’ Europe, we’re paying our fair share.
I hope other travel companies will steal this idea — or find other innovative ways to mitigate their impact on the environment. It’s simply the right thing to do.
Happy (and sustainable) travels!