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Carbon Offsets Aren't Just Thin Air for Business Travelers

By / May 12, 2014 (iStock/Thinkstock)

While eco-friendly carbon offsets remain a niche product for individual consumers, many organizations are maintaining or increasing their offset purchases connected to business travel, and travel companies are expanding their offerings.

Carbon-offset programs may not be fully connecting with everyone, but the sustainable approach to replacing the waste caused by travel (think airline emissions) with sources of renewable energy and vegetation appears to have supporters in the business world.

It’s not a new phenomenon—the practice has been around since at least the late 1990s—but as it’s matured, the trend has become synonymous with corporate social responsibility. More details on where it stands these days:

Offset programs expanding: Last month, United Airlines added a new way for travelers to take part: letting them spend their frequent-flier miles on carbon offsets, to cover emissions resulting from their travel or cargo shipments. Earlier this year, Hilton Worldwide expanded its offset program in Southeast Asia. And new companies that attempt to take the guesswork out of purchasing carbon offsets continue to crop up, including TripZero, an online travel firm that covers the offsets for consumers who book hotels on its site. These endeavors help to fund projects that make up for the environmental losses that travel causes.

But do most travelers care? Maybe not. There’s evidence that consumers’ interest in buying carbon offsets, which had soared, dropped after the economy took a nosedive. Skift notes that travelers buy carbon offsets for just 2 percent of the international flights they take, and in the tourism industry, offsets have remained a nonstarter. Stefan Gössling of Western Norway Research Institute’s sustainable tourism center noted that the financial crisis and floundering climate-change negotiations caused individual consumers’ enthusiasm for the concept to largely evaporate. Those still buying credits “are really the hardcore environmentalists, the people who are really concerned about climate change and prepared to pay for that,” Gössling said.

Companies keep offsets in business: But offset purchases remain strong among businesses interested in practicing corporate social responsibility. For example, The New York Times notes that Microsoft has reduced travel in its field offices by 59 million miles by increasing the use of videoconferencing. And for employees who must travel for face-to-face meetings, the company mandates carbon offsets. “If I travel to New York, I would have a plane trip, and I would have a carbon indicator and a carbon fee associated with that trip—and Microsoft would offset that carbon I used,” the company’s chief environmental strategist, Rob Bernard, told The Times. “That’s all visible to me when I book the trip, and the fee my group pays is based on that.” Skift observed that even as tourism-based offsets lag, corporate offsets grow. The publication cited an Ecosystem Marketplace study that found that organizations, governments, and corporations bought 101 million metric tons’ worth of carbon offsets in 2012—a 4 percent increase from 2011.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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