Our Climate Smart Commitment: Rick's Vision

A round-trip flight to Europe emits roughly as much climate-changing carbon, per passenger, as six months of driving. At Rick Steves' Europe, we take about 30,000 people to Europe each year on our tours. Standard accounting practices allow businesses to ignore costs to our environment — but we believe it's more honest and ethical to pay our share of that cost. So, at the expense of our profit, we're imposing a carbon tax on ourselves. And we're doing this in an innovative, forward-looking way that also improves the lives of families in the developing world. Here's how and why.

Scientists and development experts figure it takes about $30 of careful investment in environmental initiatives in the developing world to mitigate the carbon emissions created by one round-trip flight between the US and Europe. At 30,000 travelers a year, that adds up to about $900,000 for us…but we'll round it up and "owe" $1 million annually to cover our climate costs.

Most businesses address this issue by purchasing carbon offsets. We prefer to invest our $1 million directly in climate-smart agriculture, conservation, and agroforestry projects in developing countries, as well as legislative advocacy here in the US.

Projects in the Developing World
In my recent travels to Ethiopia and Guatemala, concrete examples of these projects inspired me. Replacing an open stove with a more efficient "smart stove" uses much less firewood (saving time and reducing carbon emissions) and is healthier and safer to use. Digging a well saves hours of daily walking to fetch water. And a small farm can install a biogas plant, harnessing the methane produced by dung to provide electricity while also reducing greenhouse gases. These are small steps individually — but collectively, if smartly funded, it means that farmers in the developing world will contribute less carbon to our atmosphere.

Investing in Advocacy
The other prong of our approach is to invest in advocacy in the US. One vote in Congress can have a massive impact on rainforests and farmlands half a world away. We partner with advocacy organizations that explain to our lawmakers the environmental consequences of their policies. It's our hope that our government will join the family of nations in a coordinated approach to climate change.

$1 Million Climate Smart Portfolio
Our Climate Smart Commitment is ongoing, and we will review and reassess our partner portfolio each year. For 2019, we have chosen 11 organizations to receive between $50,000 and $200,000 each. Review the portfolio and a brief explanation of why we chose to support each one and what they expect to accomplish with our funding.

We are only supporting nonprofits that are devoted to climate-smart agriculture, conservation, or agroforestry in the Global South — or doing advocacy work to combat climate change. If you have a favorite that fits our mission, they are welcome to apply.

We don't see this program as particularly heroic…it's simply ethical. We believe every business should bear the cost to the environment of their activities. (And until our government requires that, we'll do it voluntarily.) We hope this program will inspire everyone who buys or sells tours to travel with the same environmental ethic. This way, long after we're gone, our children will be able to enjoy the same happy travels we have.

Q&A with Rick Steves

Was there one memorable trip or occurrence that sparked your consciousness about climate change?

It's hard to travel and not be aware that climate change is real. Europeans are living with climate change. I've watched as the Dutch (so famously frugal) have reinforced their dikes and built massive storm surge barriers. I've seen how the Swiss are now plumbing ski resorts with snowmaking machines. And my German friends and I have run for cover, holding big beers and plates of sausage and kraut, when the monsoons hit on muggy late-August afternoons. But when you walk with farmers in the developing world and witness how their lives have been impacted by erratic climate patterns, it becomes clear that this is about more than soggy pretzels.

Do you speak to your guests about climate change and environmental issues on your tours? Do you believe it dampens the travel experience?

People travel for different reasons. And tour companies cater to different expectations. You can travel for escape and relaxation, or you travel to learn more about the world and our place in it. Travel can be waist-broadening or awareness-broadening…la-la land or reality. At Rick Steves' Europe, our mission is educational — to make travel transformational. We want to inspire Americans to venture beyond Orlando and gain an empathy for the other 96% of humanity — and that means not sheltering ourselves from uncomfortable truths. We strive to get our travelers out of their comfort zones and send them home with the best souvenir: a broader perspective.

Why did you choose to give the money to non-profits instead of buying carbon offsets? Will you report on the progress of your beneficiaries?

As a wealthy business owner in a wealthy country, I wanted to both address climate change and help the developing world. Rather than buy carbon offsets (which is a fine thing to do), with this program I get to enjoy a kind of philanthropic twofer by helping farmers in the developing world have better lives while employing climate-smart agriculture and forestry techniques.

We look forward to reviewing and reassessing the list of organizations we are supporting each year.

Any advice for travelers to lessen their climate impact?

Rather than instruct people on how to travel in a way that hurts the planet less (there are already plenty of good ideas out there about this), we're more excited about promoting  "mitigation" — supporting organizations that balance out the bad we create with good, so our travels can be carbon neutral. (That's the whole idea behind Rick Steves' Europe's Climate Smart Commitment.) And when we walk that talk, we hope to inspire others — both tour companies and individual travelers — to do the same.

Happy (and sustainable) travels!

— Rick Steves