Climate Smart Commitment: How and Why

Climate change is a reality. Humans are driving it and travelers — with our long-haul flights to Europe — are major contributors. But what can we do? Our answer: maximize the positive and minimize the negative, come home with a broader perspective…and pay for your carbon. Each year, Rick Steves' Europe pays a self-imposed carbon tax of $30 per tour member to creatively mitigate the carbon produced by our travelers' round-trip flights between the US and Europe. Then we invest the "tax" into a portfolio of non-profit organizations focused on agriculture, conservation, and agroforestry projects in developing countries and advocacy in the US government.

Frequently Asked Questions

How did you come up with the figure of $30 per traveler invested in environmental initiatives in the developing world can creatively mitigate the carbon emissions for one round-trip flight between the US and Europe?

Our framework for the Climate Smart Commitment is based on considering the global community — and the earth itself — as a shareholder for our business and ensuring we’re providing it with an adequate return.

To determine the proper amount, we consulted a number of carbon offset calculators (including this one) and determined one round-trip, economy class seat on a flight between Seattle and Frankfurt generates 2.3 tons of carbon dioxide. In the traditional offset market, this would translate to about $25 of investment in the developing world, which we rounded up to $30.

Once we established that price point, we confirmed our approach with our advisory partners and settled on $30 as the average we were comfortable with.

Why do I find a wide range of variability in the needed investment with other environmental initiatives?

Other carbon calculators — and other offset programs — might propose a different number because the dollar value of carbon offset calculations often depend on the area of the world where projects are being implemented, the overhead associated with them, the efficiency of the project, and other factors included in their calculations.

We believe that any organization offering carbon mitigation does their best to come up with an honest estimate of how much money it will take to have the desired impact, informed by the best science available. That’s why each initiative often arrives at its own conclusion. If you survey all of the options, you’ll find a wide degree of variation.

Our Climate Smart grantees work primarily in the developing world, where the money we invest goes the farthest (and can have the biggest impact on recipients’ lives).

How do you know that your investment of $30 per traveler is creatively mitigating the carbon emitted by their flights between the US and Europe? In other words, how do I know this isn’t just greenwashing?

As a company, we take pride in being leaders in this arena — by raising awareness of the issue, acting on the carbon created by traveling, and providing a return to our community.

It’s fair to question whether $30, invested how we’re investing it, actually has the effect we’re intending. But ultimately, we are confident that our $1 million annual investment — whether it’s actually more than required, or less — is making a significant impact. Most of our projects are based on reducing climate change causing activities such as deforestation and ongoing chemical use, while improving people’s livelihoods and strengthening communities through education of women and girls. (For more information on why we chose this approach, see the next question)

Our Climate Smart grantees work primarily in the developing world, where our money goes the farthest (and can have the biggest impact on recipients’ lives). We handpick our projects and personally monitor the progress made, giving us confidence that our donations are being implemented smartly, efficiently, and impactfully.

Why are you pursuing climate smart investment, rather than other carbon-reduction approaches?

There are many ways a traveler can reduce their carbon footprint. For some, it means buying carbon offsets (which usually involve preserving or planting forests). For others, it may involve using electric vehicles; investing in solar, wind, and other clean energy sources; changing their diet to consume products with a smaller carbon footprint; or simply not traveling at all.

Ultimately, how to address climate change is an individual choice. When we researched the many options, we kept coming back to creatively mitigating the carbon produced by a roundtrip flight to Europe with an investment in climate smart initiatives, predominantly in the developing world. We believe that this is where the need is greatest, where our money goes the farthest, and where the projects we fund make the greatest impact not only on our warming climate, but on the quality of life of the recipients.

Here’s an example: When you provide a smart stove and water filter for a struggling family that had previously sterilized water and cooked only with an open fire, you reduce the amount of firewood they use (and the amount of time it takes to gather the water and firewood); you reduce the amount of carbon their fire emits into our atmosphere; you improve the health of the people who live in that household because they no longer have to breathe smoke in a chimneyless home; you give children the time to go to school, learn about the environment, and end the cycle of environmental damage; and you can reforest the degraded areas and restore biodiversity.

Perhaps we’re attempting to have our cake, and eat it too. But, idealistically, we seek to support initiatives that tick both boxes: addressing climate change while also improving lives.

For a good overview of one hundred different ways we can have an impact, we recommend the book Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming by Paul Hawkin. (In fact, this book inspired us to choose some of the programs we support.)

Why are your initiatives mainly based in the developing world, rather than in Europe, where you do business?

Most of the answers to this question can be found in the above item. Further, we believe that most European nations are already “ahead of the curve” in terms of climate smart policies. Few parts of our globe do more for carbon mitigation, or fund it more generously. Meanwhile, there are many areas of pressing need in the developing world that would otherwise go underfunded — so that’s where we believe our money can have the biggest impact.

Climate change is a global problem, with global solutions. If we can help move the needle on some of the carbon emissions, deforestation crises, and other challenges in the developing world, ultimately the positive impact will ripple around the globe — not only to Europe but back home to North America, as well.

Why aren’t you doing more?

As an organization of our size, we must be very careful to focus our actions on very specific areas in order to have the greatest impact. That’s why we believe that helping communities in the developing world, lobbying the US congress to act, and being completely transparent with our travelers will have the biggest impact. After all, climate change is a global problem with global solutions, but every solution relies on people understanding the issues and taking accountability for their actions (which can also include exerting political pressure on politicians to take a leadership role).

How can I donate to your Climate Smart Fund?

Inidividuals can make tax-deductible donations to our Climate Smart Fund through the National Philanthropic Trust. If you travel on one of our small-group tours, we invest $30 into our Climate Smart portfolio for each tour member we take to Europe annually.

Can I make a recurring donation?

Unfortunately, the National Philanthropic Trust is unable to take recurring donations at this time.

Can I mail a check to the National Philanthropic Trust?

For small donations, it is more efficient to donate via a credit card using their online form.

For larger donations, please contact us at 425-771-8303 and we will send you the required paperwork which the NPT needs to ensure your donation ends up in the right spot. However, in those cases, the NPT would prefer an electronic funds transfer rather than a check.

Will a donation to your fund be considered an RMD (required minimum distribution from a retirement acount)?

Since our fund at the NPT is a donor advised fund, QCD rules do not apply. That means your contribution will not receive the same treatment as a typical operating charity (as donor advised funds are specifically excluded from the QCD rules). Please consult with your tax advisor before considering such a gift.


Fighting Climate Change in the Developing World

Climate change is hitting the developing world hardest — and experts believe that is also where the greatest gains can be made. About a quarter of all human-generated greenhouse gas emissions are related to deforestation, soil management, and emissions from livestock (i.e., cow farts). At the same time, changes in weather patterns have impacted farmers and food supplies. More poverty means more hunger, more migration, and more conflict. This creates a vicious cycle of practices that exacerbate the problem. (The UN reports that, for the first time in a decade — because of the impact of climate change and greater conflict in and between poor countries — hunger is on the rise.)

To address this problem, the UN's Sustainable Development Goals call for "climate-smart agriculture" (CSA) initiatives. A relatively new approach to climate change, CSA has three pillars: increasing food production, adapting to the changing climate, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Experts call it "food security, adaptation, and mitigation." All three of these components are necessary.

Many environmental initiatives are meant to help struggling societies adapt to the effects of climate change. But we must also work to prevent the damage from happening in the first place (that's "mitigation"). Our outdated economic model makes exploiting the resources of the land more valuable than preserving the land itself. The result: The equivalent of 27 soccer fields of greenery is cut down every minute. The loss of these forests is the second largest source of carbon emissions, after the burning of fossil fuels. (And remember: Deforestation does not just mean the trees are gone — it also means that the habitat of countless species has been eliminated, the surrounding communities and cultures have been altered, and the land has either been left barren, opening the door to more environmental disasters, or is housing industries that generate even more carbon emissions, such as factories and cattle ranches.)

That is why we support programs aimed at changing regulations to promote environmentally sustainable activities, as well as those that work to protect biodiverse lands — making them more valuable than the resources that could be stripped from them.

In many communities, the greatest impact on these fronts can come from empowering women, who make critical decisions about everything from how a farm operates, to which fuels are used for heating and cooking, to how values are passed along to the next generation. We support programs that empower women (through education and financial support) to effect real change in their communities — improving both the environment and the quality of life of their families and neighbors.

Fighting hunger, caring for soil, protecting forests. It's a lot to take on. Rather than imposing our values and beliefs on other people, we'll work with organizations throughout the developing world that empower local citizens to take leadership roles, protect their cultures, and strengthen their communities.

Fighting Climate Change Through Advocacy

When sorting through options for making a real difference in the world, there are three main approaches: charity, development, and advocacy.

Let's say a community of fishermen is struggling to get by at a place called Desperation Delta. Giving fish to hungry people there is charity. Giving them nets and skills to fish, along with matching funds to build a safer harbor, is development. But what happens when nearby companies pollute the water, or climate change drives the fish to different waters?

Advocacy means lobbying governments to create legislation that protects fish during spawning season, cleans up industrial pollution, and prohibits corporations from detonating explosives that kill fish en masse. Advocacy empowers the people of Desperation Delta — who might otherwise have no voice in their government — and ensures that their needs are taken into consideration, on equal footing with corporate and special-interest lobbies.

Our annual investment in climate-smart initiatives includes generous funding for advocacy groups who ensure the environment gets a seat at the legislative table. In some cases, these groups fight poverty in the developing world — pursuing legislation that will directly improve the lives of poor people and allow them to invest in more fuel-efficient stoves, climate-smart farms, and other enhancements to both quality of life and climate protection. In other cases, these groups lobby to ensure that private interests in wealthy nations are paying their fair share to mitigate the toll their activities take on the environment. (While we do this voluntarily, many corporations do not.)

Charity and development certainly have their place. For example, when responding to a crisis, charity dollars can provide immediate help. But in most situations, advocacy is our personal choice for getting the most bang out of our philanthropic dollar.