Tourism, aviation and carbon

CARBON NEUTRAL: Yeti Airlines has a policy to cut carbon use with more fuel-efficient ATR-72 aircraft, and battery-powered vans.

Last month, young climate change activist Greta Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic Ocean for 15 days on a zero-carbon yacht. After the UN Climate Action Summit, she will sail on to Chile for another climate meeting. Thunberg is trying to show people around the world that reducing one’s carbon footprint may be difficult, but it is possible. 

But for the 2 million tourists expected to arrive in Nepal next year, sailing is not an option. Road travel is not feasible. Their only mode of entry into Nepal? Flying.

With growing global awareness about the climate emergency, many air travellers have started thinking about cutting down on travel. Those who do take to the skies can shop on Google for carbon credits to offset the fossil fuel they burn.

A roundtrip flight on a modern wide body airliner from Europe to Kathmandu emits nearly 3 tons of carbon dioxide per passenger. With Nepal expecting 2 million tourists arriving in Visit Nepal Year 2020, passengers could be emitting a total of more than 4 million tons of carbon next year. 

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Although civil aviation contributes only 3% of the carbon dioxide that is blamed for the greenhouse effect heating the planet, the proportion is growing at 5-10% a year. Airlines like Emirates, Jetstar, Qantas and Delta are at the forefront of offsetting carbon emissions with bio-fuels or by buying carbon credits to offset their emissions. Qantas claims it has been carbon neutral since 2007 by offseting 2.5 million tons of carbon.

However, many environmentalists say carbon offsetting does not go to the heart of the problem: cutting consumption, and being less wasteful. Besides, they question carbon offsetting itself, which has become a big business.

In Nepal, Yeti Airlines has made an effort to offset its carbon emission by fulfilling the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal #8, which targets climate action to reduce carbon emissions.

With help from the UN Development Programme, Yeti conducted a carbon audit, then implemented CO2 reduction measures with help from Impacti Solutions, which designs sustainability solutions for businesses.

Yeti Airlines had to offset 19,655 metric tons of CO2 emitted by its aircraft, ground vehicles and buildings. The company created a three-fold carbon neutrality plan, which includes buying carbon credits, reducing fuel consumption for vehicles and replacing its fuel-guzzling BAe Jetstream 41s with ATR-72-500s, cutting emissions per flight by 20%. 

Yeti bought carbon credits from a hydropower company in Sikkim and Himachal Pradesh in India at 50 cents per metric ton of carbon. Both companies used the funds to plant trees around their project site and improve their operational efficiency.

While Yeti says it would have preferred to purchase UN certified credits locally, the ones available in Nepal have hefty price tags and are limited.

“Buying carbon credit at $15 per metric ton of carbon from REDD at $5 per metric ton of carbon from the Alternative Energy Promotion Centre (AEPC) was not viable for us,” explained Yeti Airlines CEO Umesh Rai.

One problem with carbon credits is that there is no guarantee funds will be used for the activities they are designed for. The credits may go to credible companies, but planting trees and commitments to energy efficiency need to be monitored.

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Yeti Airlines is also moving to reduce plastic use, and has replaced half a million plastic cups with paper ones and donated its tyres to Shanti Sewa Griha, a non-profit group that that recycles and upcycles them. It is also trying out Mahindra electric vans to replace its petrol ones.

Adds Rai: “Each of our vans travels 150km a day and emit 5 tons of greenhouse gases a year. If we convert all our vans into electric, we will not just save money but reduce our carbon footprint as well.”

While these efforts are admirable and set a precedent for other airlines in Nepal, environmental activists say offsetting carbon emissions offer only a band-aid solution. However, Yeti’s Rai says: “Once you start the journey to go green, you gain momentum. There is a shift to a greener mindset in the company, but real change will only come with greater public awareness.” 

 This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.  

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