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Environmentally aware travelers may feel a bit guilty about flying these days, knowing that airplanes emit lots of harmful greenhouse gases into the air, so one airport is offering a way to ease one's conscience. San Francisco International is the first to install kiosks selling carbon offsets.
Rori Gallagher explains how it works.
Unidentified Woman: Welcome to San Francisco International Airport.
RORI GALLAGHER: With the simple swipe of a credit card, travelers passing through San Francisco can offset their flight. What does that mean exactly?
Professor MICHAEL WARA (Stanford University): That's a very abstract concept.
GALLAGHER: That's Michael Wara. He's an environmental law professor at Stanford.
Professor WARA: I mean, what are you buying? You're buying a piece of paper that represents the fact that an emission of an odorless, colorless gas did not occur somewhere else.
GALLAGHER: The airport is hoping to turn that abstract concept into reality. Deputy Airport Director Kandace Bender says it cost $190,000 to develop the climate passport kiosks from scratch.
Ms. KANDACE BENDER (Deputy Airport Director, Communications and Marketing): We felt it was a good public service for our passengers and for the environment.
GALLAGHER: The kiosks look similar to self check-in machines or small ATMs. Bender demonstrates how the touch screen works.
Ms. BENDER: Let's say it's a long flight, 6,000 miles, about 12 hours. One person, enter Calculate My Flight, so $34.34.
GALLAGHER: The price varies from a couple of dollars for a short West Coast flight to as much as $70 for an international trip.
Ari Peskoe was the first passenger to try it. He paid $11 to offset his flight back home to Boston.
Mr. ARI PESKOE: Greenhouse gas offsets, that sound like a good idea.
GALLAGHER: Even though Peskoe did decide to swipe his credit card, he's unsure about what he actually just paid for.
Mr. PESKOE: Yeah, that's a good question, right? So I was reading about this Garcia River project. I suppose that's what it goes to, but I'm not entirely sure. I didn't have a chance to read all about it.
GALLAGHER: If Peskoe had more time, he would discover that the majority of his cash just traveled about a hundred miles north, to the rugged landscape of Mendocino County, the home of the Garcia River Forest.
(Soundbite of running water)
GALLAGHER: The forest spans 37 square miles, mostly carbon dioxide-trapping Redwood trees and Douglas fir that have been logged several times. But now the nonprofit Conservation Fund owns the forest and 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.
What does Stanford Professor Michael Wara have to say about that?
Prof. WARA: That's better than nothing. 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 bit more expensive.
GALLAGHER: Wara says he thinks consumers would be willing to pay more for more certainty. In the meantime, it's all about being an educated shopper.
Prof. WARA: Which I think is one of the biggest problems with these kiosks, quite frankly, 'cause how can you be educated when you're on your way from security to the gate, trying to catch your international flight?
GALLAGHER: Those hesitant to use a kiosk while rushing through the airport have several other options for purchasing carbon offsets, including the airport's Web page, some of the airlines, and several for- and non-profit companies. For its part, the airport hopes that whether travelers end up using the kiosks or not, they'll raise awareness about the environmental impact of flying.
For NPR News, I'm Rori Gallagher in San Francisco.
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