The travel industry has long been a leader in environmental protection, because it’s an industry that has a major stake in preserving the environment. As the environment is degraded, the tourism product is destroyed. Every year that terrible disaster called climate change gets more in your face.
The acceleration of extreme weather events in recent years has made believers out of many who previously stood on the sidelines. Climate change is real, and very serious. It’s not an exaggeration to talk of it as an “existential crisis” for life on earth, at least for the kinds of life human beings care for.
So, what are we supposed to do? It’s not an easy problem to take on. It’s huge and overwhelming. Where do you begin? Most of the ways proposed to meet the challenge seem either pathetically inadequate or hopelessly difficult. And every attempt meets the obstacle of a paradoxical, knee-jerk mentality that says, in effect: “We can’t afford to save life on the planet. We’ll run out of money!”
It doesn’t leave many acceptable options for the average well-meaning person who would like to help avert climate catastrophe but doesn’t know where to begin.
Leveraging Travel Industry Conservation
The travel industry has led the way with countless conservation efforts around the world. But, as Christina Beckmann, vice president of global strategy for the Adventure Travel Trade Association and co-founder of Tomorrow’s Air, told me last week, our efforts up to now have not been enough to ward off a climate catastrophe.
Beckmann took a trip to Antarctica in 2018 with a group led by explorer Sir Robert Swann. Her experience of being on “the front lines of climate change” had what she called a “visceral” effect on her.
“I’d been working in sustainable tourism,” she said. “Travel can do so much good for the world. Tourism dollars support conservation. They support protected areas, local livelihoods. I always felt I was on the right side in sustainable travel. But it was much sharper in Antarctica. I realized that this carbon thing could undo all the good that we’ve been doing, and we’d better get real, fast, on climate.”
Conventional Carbon Offset
One of the ways the industry has adopted to try to ameliorate climate change is through carbon offset. Carbon in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels is the cause of global warming, and through carbon offset you can plant trees that will absorb enough carbon to compensate for what you add to the atmosphere when you take an airplane trip.
Does the math really add up? Perhaps. But it doesn’t inspire a lot of hope of ending the climate crisis. It’s one thing you can do to decrease the net emissions added to the atmosphere. You can also sell your car and ride a bike, or turn down your heat in the winter. These are all well-meaning efforts, but they are little more than gestures toward solving the problem. If the world had joined seriously in those conservation efforts 50 years ago, it might have worked. Now we’ve waited so long it would be insufficient.
Unfortunately, going carbon neutral, even if done by millions, is not going to be enough to avert disaster. The carbon that is already in the atmosphere from a century of burning of fossil fuels is enough to cause a continuing annual increase in temperature. And that will not be sustainable if we want to preserve our civilization. The carbon that is in the atmosphere now will remain for thousands of years—unless we remove it.
But here’s the good news. Fortunately, we now actually have technologies that can suck carbon out of the atmosphere and store it. But like most new technologies, they are expensive until the scale of production reaches the point where the price goes down.
Christina Beckmann wants to harness the buying power of the global travel industry, one of the world’s largest industries, to invest in some of these new technologies to help get them to the point where the price goes down. These new technologies that suck carbon out of the atmosphere, help to negate the old premise that combating climate change would be too expensive.
As David Wallace Wells says in the book The Uninhabitable Earth, “Faster action on climate will save or gain the world enormous amounts of money ($26 trillion in potential growth by just 2030, according to one estimate; $600 trillion in damages avoided by the end of the century, according to another).”
Pulling Carbon from Ambient Air
There are several technologies that offer hope for removing carbon from the atmosphere. Tomorrow’s Air is focusing on a technology for carbon removal and permanent storage through a company called Climeworks.
“Climeworks offers direct air capture carbon removal,” said Beckmann. “This is a technology that today costs between $600 and $1,000 a ton. What we are doing is removing small, affordable increments in an effort to build demand and help scale the technology.”
Direct air capture, not to be confused with carbon capture and sequestration, is removing CO2 from the ambient air through a carbon collector. The machine is about the size of a small car and looks a little like a big air conditioner. It sucks in air with a fan, and into a highly selective filter that catches the CO2 molecules.
Once the filter is saturated, the collector is closed and the temperature is increased, and that releases the pure CO2. This can then be combined with hydrogen to make synthetic fuels. Or it can be mixed with water and injected deep underground into basaltic rock formations.
“Basalt is extremely porous, so this mixture finds all the fissures in the rock, mineralizes, and turns to stone within two years,” said Beckmann. “They’ve been doing this process in Iceland for 10 years. It’s safe and reliable.”
Tomorrow’s Air offers a way for individuals to buy into investments of carbon removal at rates they can afford. That way they can contribute to the process of scaling the technology to make it cheaper. You can go to the website and subscribe for as little as $10 a month.
The new technologies provide a way to shift into more positive messaging about the problem of climate change. Most of the information out there has a doomsday feeling, because at current rates, we are headed toward disaster. When people are given no meaningful ways to contribute to solving the problem, it becomes demoralizing and leads to apathy.
“What we’re studying is how to make climate communications positive, empowered and connected to something that’s tangible, and that’s amazing,” said Beckmann. “We are putting climate action education alongside travel. We have a program called Artists for Air. These are artists who are lending their art to a carbon removal message. We know that the arts give us an emotional language that we can’t get from scientific papers. Tomorrow’s Air is a collective that is using travel and art to help scale up carbon removal with permanent storage.”
Tomorrow’s Air is crowdsourcing carbon removal and providing new hope for individual citizens to contribute to solving the problem. The new technologies provide a window toward ways to effectively deal with the climate crisis, without having to return to the medieval world. Carbon removal is the game changer the world has been waiting for.
David Cogswell is a freelance writer working remotely, from wherever he is at the moment. Born at the dead center of the United States during the last century, he has been incessantly moving and exploring for decades. His articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Fortune, Fox News, Luxury Travel magazine, Travel Weekly, Travel Market Report, Travel Agent Magazine, TravelPulse.com, Quirkycruise.com and other publications. He is the author of four books and a contributor to several others. He was last seen somewhere in the Northeast U.S.