What Happens When I Click on “Fly Green” at Expedia.com or “Be a Hero, Go Zero” at Travelocity.com?

What Happens When I Click on “Fly Green” at Expedia.com or “Be a Hero, Go Zero” at Travelocity.com?

Q: What Happens When I Click on "Fly Green" at Expedia.com or "Be a Hero, Go Zero" at Travelocity.com?

A: There's been a lot of interest in this question. I received calls on the subject from the New York Times and National Public Radio within the space of 30 minutes one recent morning! Although the Better World Club first gave air travelers the opportunity to go carbon neutral for their flights more than five years ago, you know the subject has "arrived" when it shows up on Travelocity and Expedia!

What Happens When You Click on the Link?

At Travelocity.com, you first have to make sure you find the link at the bottom of the page. If you go right to booking a flight, the "Go Zero" option doesn't seem to be presented to you again. If you do start your visit to the site by clicking on Be a Hero, Go Zero, you're given the opportunity to offset your emissions at a cost of about $10/person (covering flight, a one-night hotel stay, and a one-day car rental). The site doesn't distinguish between trips of different lengths, although variables like trip-length and number of stops have a dramatic effect on actual emissions. The website doesn't even tell you how much carbon dioxide you're offsetting for $10. The offsets themselves are purchased through the Conservation Fund and result from planting trees. As a result, the offsets probably won’t actually happen for decades, since it takes trees quite a while to grow. This doesn’t mean forestry offsets are lower quality than other offsets, but the time factor is something that the Travelocity.com website does not clarify.

At Expedia.com, the consumer is consistently presented with the opportunity to purchase offsets when moving through the ticketing process. You're given the choice of paying from $5.99 to offset 1,000 pounds of GHG emissions, to $29.99 to offset 5,000 pounds of GHG emissions, based on the length of your flight (you choose the number; it's not automatically calculated based on your ticket). Differentiating cost by flight length is much more accurate than Travelocity's average trip. Expedia’s offsets are offered by TerraPass; the projects listed as supplying the offsets are: renewable energy generation from a wind farm, capture of methane from cow manure at a dairy farm, and the purchase and retirement of credits from the Chicago Climate Exchange.

Overall, not much effort is being made by either of the two travel giants to encourage consumers to buy offsets, inform consumers about climate change and why they should buy offsets, or explain where their money is really going. Many consumers will never even notice the new carbon neutral option.

What Are You Actually Buying?

The key question for both websites is whether you, as a consumer, can have confidence that your money will actually go towards offsetting the emissions of your air travel. The Fly Green and Go Zero pages never even actually quantify your emissions, which is unfortunate. But more significantly, you’re really not given the information you need to be confident that you’ve actually bought a carbon offset in the environmental sense.

The offsets being sold to you need to represent greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions that are "additional" to what would have occurred "but-for" the purchase of the offset. For example, if offset funding pays for the collection and destruction of methane at a landfill, what otherwise would have happened to that methane? If the methane would have been collected and destroyed anyway (whether because it is required by law or is standard business practice), then buying those methane reductions as offsets is not resulting in “additional” environmental benefit. To really neutralize the emissions of your air travel, there needs to be a clear causal link between your offsets and the fact that there’s a voluntary market for carbon offsets.

Neither Travelocity.com nor Expedia.com provides you with enough information to determine whether that’s the case. You, the consumer, are essentially left making a potentially philanthropic contribution, without knowing what you’re really buying. I should emphasize that this isn’t just a problem for Travelocity.com or Expedia.com. In the absence of a clear quality standard for carbon offsets, the development of which poses major challenges, there is no certifying entity that can provide these sites or others offering similar services with a seal of approval. The lack of such standards, however, makes it all the more important that companies offering offsets for sale explain to consumers what they’re buying and why the offsets are high quality.

Travelocity.com and Expedia.com have a tremendous opportunity to direct the emerging retail offsets market and help provide information to a broad audience; currently, neither one is taking advantage of that opportunity, which is unfortunate.