Tagged trees fill a hillside as part of Treeflights, a Welsh-based operation which offers a way for travelers to plant trees for every trip they take.
Tagged trees fill a hillside as part of Treeflights, a Welsh-based operation which offers a way for travelers to plant trees for every trip they take.
Tom O'Leary
ECO-CENTRIC

A Little More Green, a Little Less Gas

Treeflights, a Welsh-based operation, plants trees for travelers who want to mitigate the environmental damage caused by their trips. A tree can absorb more than a ton of carbon dioxide during its life.
Treeflights, a Welsh-based operation, plants trees for travelers who want to mitigate the environmental damage caused by their trips. A tree can absorb more than a ton of carbon dioxide during its life. (By Tom O'leary)

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By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 31, 2006

Plenty of people concerned about global warming have replaced their household light bulbs with compact fluorescent ones and bought hybrid cars. But even the most politically correct Americans are loath to cut back on their biggest contribution to climate change: airline travel.

Commercial aviation worldwide ranks among the biggest single emitters of greenhouse gases linked to global warming, contributing nearly as much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year as the United Kingdom or Canada, according to the advocacy group Environmental Defense. So a few entrepreneurs and environmental groups have devised a simple way to compensate for this damage: Plant a tree.

Trees serve as what scientists call a "carbon sink," each absorbing more than a ton of carbon dioxide from the air over the course of roughly a century. At least two companies, the Welsh-based Treeflights and the U.S.-based travel booking site Travelocity, now offer a way for travelers to plant trees for every trip they take. While this will address only a fraction of the pollutants linked to climate change, it's a gesture that has become increasingly popular among American and British consumers.

"The whole world is looking for a solution to the biggest problem we've ever faced," said Ru Hartwell, the Welsh professional tree planter who runs Treeflights. "I seem to have stumbled across something that could help and is easy to understand."

For about $18.70, Hartwell will plant the tree of your choice in his Welsh forest. He estimates that the average tree absorbs 1.25 tons of carbon dioxide over the course of its lifetime, which is equivalent to the amount emitted by a commercial airline during a round-trip flight between New York and London. (The amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by a given tree varies according to species and region: The Conservation Fund, a Virginia-based environmental group, estimates that the hardwoods it plants in the U.S. Southeast absorb 1.33 tons of carbon each over 100 years.)

Hartwell, who has planted 1,000 trees since starting his operation in July ( http://www.treeflights.com/), estimates that 40 percent of his online customers come from the United States. He also has formed partnerships with British travel agents and tour operators, who offer their clients the option of paying a bit extra to help mitigate their trips' environmental damage. Customers have the choice of either buying directly from Treeflights or, if they're working with a participating travel agency, incorporating Hartwell's fee into the price of their ticket.

Hartwell has three planting sites with room for 40,000 to 50,000 trees. The Forest Stewardship Council, a Washington-based nonprofit group, is in the process of certifying his operation. Hartwell has yet to turn a profit on his venture, but he's hoping to in the coming months.

While Treeflights is a small operation -- Hartwell's biggest concern is that demand will outstrip his ability to plant trees on the 60 acres he owns -- Travelocity has launched a more ambitious partnership aimed at soaking up its customers' greenhouse gas emissions.

In concert with the Conservation Fund, the online booking agency offers customers three levels of environmental commitment. A $10 contribution offsets emissions stemming from one person's cross-country air travel, a one-night hotel stay and rental car. Compensating for a couple's cross-country flight, a four-night hotel stay and rental car costs $25. And for $40, a Travelocity client can atone for four individuals' flights, a four-night hotel stay and rental car.

The Conservation Fund will plant its first grove of Travelocity trees in the Bogue Chitto National Wildlife Refuge, permanently protected federal lands that lie 45 miles north of New Orleans. The area provides a wildlife habitat for migratory birds and is a popular site for canoeing, kayaking, hiking and fishing; the fund will plant 2,500 trees there in January, many of which will help compensate for Travelocity's own corporate footprint.

Using trees to absorb carbon dioxide remains controversial among some environmentalists, who see the programs as delaying action on more meaningful regulatory curbs on air pollution. Moreover, any benefits from planting a tree disappear once it is burned for fuel (which often happens in developing countries), since its sequestered carbon dioxide then reenters the atmosphere.

But Scott Doney, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who studies climate change, praised the idea of planting trees to compensate for air travel.

"It's good because it raises the visibility and awareness of the issue," Doney said, adding that travelers should keep in mind that the programs do not amount to quick fixes. "The carbon has to remain somewhere for a long period of time, preferably a hundred years, for it to make a difference."

Other travel companies are joining the trend. The Bonneville Environmental Foundation in Portland, Ore., has established a SkiGreen program, in which skiers can buy a $2 tag at the lift ticket booth at about 20 commercial ski slopes nationwide to offset the carbon they emit driving to and from a nearby mountain, or a $20 tag along with a season pass. The nonprofit group says it reinvests all its net revenue into renewable energy and conservation projects.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company


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