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Carbon Offset Kiosks Help Air Travelers Ditch Guilt

If you're an environmentally conscious traveler, you may be feeling a little bit guilty about flying these days.

Airplanes spew harmful greenhouse gases into the air. San Francisco International Airport is taking a step to help ease these concerns: It's the first airport to install self-serve kiosks where passengers can purchase carbon offsets for their flights.

The airport has partnered with a private company to provide the offsets. But carbon offsets for travel are unregulated, so will patrons get what they pay for?


Seeing The Intangible — In A Kiosk

Michael Wara, an environmental law professor at Stanford, says the idea is pretty abstract.

"I mean, what are you buying?" he says. "You are buying a piece of paper that represents the fact that an emission of an odorless, colorless gas did not occur somewhere else."

You are buying a piece of paper that represents the fact that an emission of an odorless, colorless gas did not occur somewhere else.

The airport is hoping to turn that abstract concept into reality. Kandace Bender, deputy airport director of communications and marketing says it cost $190,000 to develop the "climate passport" kiosks from scratch.

"We felt it was a good public service for our passengers and for the environment," she says.


The kiosks look similar to self check-in machines or small ATMs. Travelers input the number of miles their trip will cover, how long it will take and the number of passengers they plan to buy offsets for.

For example, for a 6,000-mile-long, 12 hour flight, the carbon offset cost would be about $34.34 for one traveler. The price varies from a few dollars for a short West Coast flight to as much as $70 for an international trip.

Guinea Pig

Ari Peskoe was the first passenger to try the carbon offset system. He paid $11 to offset his flight back home to Boston. Although Peskoe decided to swipe his credit card, he was unsure about what he actually paid for.

"That's a good question, right?" Peskoe says. He said he thought his money would help fund a carbon-offset project in the Garcia River Forest in Mendocino County, about 100 miles north of San Francisco. "I suppose that's what it goes to, but I'm not entirely sure."

Peskoe's money is indeed designated for the Garcia River forest, which spans 37 square miles and is mainly composed of carbon dioxide-trapping Redwood trees and Douglas Fir trees that have been logged several times.

The forest is now owned by the nonprofit Conservation Fund, which is allowing the trees to grow tall. The extra tons of carbon that get trapped from allowing the trees to grow tall are sold as offsets. Those offsets have the stamp of approval from the nonprofit Climate Action Reserve, which verifies that the offsets are legitimate.

'Better Than Nothing'

Wara says that the Climate Action Reserve's authorization is a step in the direction offsets need to go, but not all the way there.

"That's better than nothing," he says. "But it's not the same as, for instance, having the California Air Resources Board certify that an offset is real, or having the Environmental Protection Agency certify that an offset is real. I think that's the future, and that's going to make offsets a little more expensive."

Wara says he thinks consumers would be willing to pay a higher price for more certainty. In the meantime, he says customers should try to be educated shoppers — which isn't always easy in airports.

"How can you be educated when you're on your way from security to the gate trying to catch your international flight?" he says.

Those hesitant to use a kiosk while rushing through the airport have several other options for purchasing carbon offsets, including the airport's webpage, some of the airlines and several for-profit and nonprofit companies. For its part, the airport hopes that whether or not travelers end up using the kiosks or not, they will raise awareness about the environmental impact of flying.

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