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On Carbon & Travel

Jan 26 2015
By Henry Borrebach
“Look here,” said the Medical Man, “are you in earnest about this? Do you seriously believe that that machine has travelled into time?” “Certainly,” said the Time Traveller… — H.G. Wells, The Time Machine

If my seatback map was correct, that is the equator, as seen from my flight from Dubai to Cape Town

“Look here,” said the Medical Man, “are you in earnest about this? Do you seriously believe that that machine has travelled into time?”
“Certainly,” said the Time Traveller…
— H.G. Wells, The Time Machine

Every time I book a flight, whether it’s to travel to Italy or South Africa for a NatCap workshop or back to Pennsylvania for a brother’s wedding (the highlights of my 2015 travel year), my first and strongest feeling is a wince of guilt. My carbon footprint feels (and is) deepest when I travel by jetliner. At the same time, I am regularly astounded by taking flight, and brought into an intimacy not only with modern technology, but with what it means to be alive in a time when our worldview includes seeing the clouds from above.

Transcontinental flights strike me as more akin to time travel than any other form of transportation. To wit: I departed San Francisco on a Saturday afternoon, and when I landed in Cape Town, it was still the afternoon, but the calendar had moved ahead by two days. We are living in the future that minds like H.G. Wells predicted a century ago.

Beyond being wooed by the marvels of flying, I appreciate the working camaraderie that it makes possible. It’s often been the case for me that collaborations blossom into personal friendships. Human connections arise from and with the emergent, shared mind of close co-working. When you work for a team as distributed, committed to collaboration, and with as wide a reach as NatCap (with projects in over 20 countries), that means that you wind up with friends all over the world.

But our collaborations aren’t free. Every transcontinental trip leaves a carbon footprint in the sky. When I traveled to Italy to co-lead an InVEST workshop in the Dolomites, I was thrilled to see my friend (and NatCap alum) Martin for the first time in nearly a year. My pleasure was marred only slightly by the nagging thought of the 4.5 tons of carbon emissions created during the 15,000 mile round trip journey.

Martin and other friends, old and new, together at our NatCap Workshop in San Vito di Cadore, Italy

While in South Africa for a working group after the Ecosystem Services Partnership World Conference in November, I was impressed by the tremendous amount we accomplished in two days, a product of the focused synergy made possible by being in the same room with a team usually scattered across the globe. I tried to let that override the thought of how much jet fuel had been burned for us all to get there.

Traveling is what brings us closer to the communities who most need the natural capital investments we are trying to facilitate. Consider Leah Bremer’s account of what makes water funds work: flying to Peru allowed her to to develop the community relationships and depth of knowledge that’s helping to make AquaFondo a successful project. I hear it often—from our founders, our leadership, and my peers—how it is the relationships we form that motivate NatCap’s work.

A group presents possible scenarios to our mock smallholders at a NatCap Workshop in Stellenbosch, South Africa

But NatCap is, at its core, about discovering trade-offs and finding ways to minimize unintended consequences. We are now tracking and exploring the offsetting of the carbon footprint of all staff air travel associated with the more than one dozen training courses we’ll be leading around the world.

We have not yet landed on which organization(s) we’ll be using—there are dozens of programs to choose from, with a range of dollar amounts charged per ton of CO2 emitted. I would love to hear recommendations from any of you about organizations and methods for carbon offsetting that you have found to be most efficacious ( Beyond that, we’re also steadily expanding our online courses (have you taken our MOOC yet?), webinars, remote workshops, and other networked learning materials, so that we can reduce the amount of travel that goes into our training program. Already we’ve developed fruitful remote relationships with people working in countries as far flung as Chile and Bhutan.

Budgeting for carbon offsets for NatCap staff to fly to our courses does not mean that we’ve solved this problem of carbon emissions and travel. But it does mean that we are aware, and are trying to find that balance between the value of flying around the world and the costs, now and in the future, of contributing to climate change. As with all of our work, we strive to thoughtfully weigh options and to help make our future Earth one that is worth time traveling to.

Henry Borrebach is on the Natural Capital Project’s training team, overseeing the Natural Capital Symposium, and managing NatCap training courses around the globe. Henry has extensive experience in applied pedagogy and international education, and he is passionate about making the science behind conservation accessible to the public. He is currently working with the team to develop online training courses that make NatCap’s approach and tools available to a wider audience. Henry holds a B.F.A. from Carnegie Mellon University and an M.F.A. from Florida International University. Before joining the project, he co-founded the O, Miami international poetry festival.