(eTN) – I didn’t know it at the time, but I have flown with the “world’s first and only zero emissions airline”. But don’t get too excited: I’m not talking about a new paradigm in jet propulsion, or the revival of the airship. This airline still uses fossil fuels just like every other.
In the summer of 2006, while conducting interviews for my book The Final Call: In Search of the True Cost of Our Holidays, I took a short flight from Punta Islita on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast to the capital San Jose. I joined a dozen or so other passengers aboard one of NatureAir’s de Havilland Twin Otters, thereby avoiding the best part of a day’s travel on Costa Rica’s notoriously bad roads. The flight was memorable for me because it carried us over some stunning rainforests and mangroves at a low enough altitude that you could appreciate some of the detail below.
What I didn’t know at the time – most other airlines would be ramming such marketing gold dust down your throat at any given opportunity – was that the airline supports a range of local projects in Costa Rica aimed at reducing emissions. The most notable of which is a scheme whereby 200 hectares of rainforest on the Osa Peninsula have been protected from loggers. This, the airline calculates, compensates for roughly 20,000 tons of carbon dioxide that it has emitted into the atmosphere since 2004.
I’m highly sceptical about carbon offset schemes – and NatureAir’s actions are no different really from those of any firm offering offsetting – principally because they often make decidedly dubious claims, they don’t encourage us to address our polluting ways but only disguise them, they lack independent verification, and rarely can they demonstrate “additionality” (that these actions wouldn’t have been undertaken without the offset scheme). But I am in favour of remedial environment projects that are located close to the problem. It makes sense for a Costa Rican airline seeking to atone for its carbon sins to fund and nurture environmental projects in its own backyard – even if I don’t buy the claim that the airline’s emissions can be said to be “zero” as a result. Nonetheless, the projects still appear to be worthwhile in their own right.
When I watch the tourism industry racing to paint itself green, I do wonder why more within the industry don’t try to play the “local” card, as you see happening so much within the food industry. I’m sure it would lead to a lot less cynicism about the true motivations and usefulness of offsetting. Rather than pay a sum to a faceless offset scheme, as most airlines now offer their customers the chance to do, I’m sure passengers would much rather know that this money was being spent on projects at the destination, thereby helping to improve the often strained relationship between the visitor and the visited. Perhaps a visit to such projects could be part of the trip?
The fundamental point is that we like to know where our money is being spent – and that it is being spent well. For example, there are very few fans of Advanced Passenger Duty (APD), the departure tax levied on the UK’s outbound passengers, outside of the Treasury, even though it claims to be an environmentally motivated tax. But if the £2bn revenue it raises each year was ring-fenced for certifiable and visible environmental projects, then it would instantly achieve much more support from travellers.
A fast-growing number of us appreciate that we must start paying the true environmental cost of our travel, but we are only ever likely to support the necessary green taxes that would curb the current runaway growth in emissions if we know and can see they are directly funding projects that also reduce or mitigate these rising emissions.
In Costa Rica, NatureAir is able to achieve a lot of “buy in” in relation to its offsetting initiative with its customers because passengers can look down and see the very thing that is worth saving below them. Just how you achieve that on, say, a mundane transatlantic flight is certainly a challenge, but the fundamental point remains: travellers must see that the tax hikes that will inevitably affect air travel in the coming years are truly benefiting the environment they have been introduced to protect.