Why Rick Steves' Europe Is Innovatively Climate Smart
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 profit by taking 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 choose to make our tours climate smart. And we're doing this in an innovative, forward-looking way that also improves the lives and futures of families in our world's poorest countries. 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 tourist travelling from the United States to Europe and back. We take about 30,000 travelers on our tours each year…but we'll round it up and "owe" $1 million annually to be a climate-smart tour company.
The conventional way for a business to address carbon neutrality is by purchasing "carbon offset credits." These credits are managed by brokers and help fund clean energy projects (such as solar and wind power) around the world. We prefer to invest our $1 million directly funding climate-smart agriculture, conservation, and agroforestry projects in underdeveloped countries.
Projects in Ethiopia and Guatemala
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 work around. Digging a well empowers people to avoid having to make a long walk for water each morning. 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, they can result in big changes.
Another focus of our investment is to empower women to strengthen their communities. Experts agree that women — who make critical decisions that impact small-scale farming, and who are primarily responsible for raising the next generation and shaping their values — are the key to making progress on climate concerns in the developing world. That's why one of our first initiatives in 2019 is to support Project Concern International's "Women Empowered" initiative, which provides women with the education, training, peer support, and financial tools they need to be leaders in climate-smart agroforestry practices that conserve land, increase forest areas, reduce CO2 emissions, and increase family incomes.
Investing in Advocacy
In addition to directly funding climate-smart projects in the developing world, the second 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 have a mission to explain to our lawmakers the environmental consequences of their policies.
$1 Million Climate Smart Portfolio
At the beginning of 2019, we set aside $1 million to fund a portfolio of nonprofit organizations whose work fits our mission. This is an ongoing commitment for us, and we will continue to assess — and possibly update — our portfolio of partner organizations.
Our portfolio is off to a good start. Project Concern International, mentioned earlier, focuses on empowering women and their communities in the developing world. Bread for the World educates lawmakers and the public on the link between hunger and climate change, and advocates effectively in Congress for climate-smart policies. And ELCA World Hunger is working to help transform poverty and waste into sustainable prosperity and a greener, cleaner (and hopefully cooler) planet.
There's room in our portfolio for additional organizations doing good work. We are currently taking grant requests and suggestions from the public. If you have a favorite nonprofit that's devoted to climate-smart agriculture, conservation, or agroforestry in the Global South — or doing advocacy work to combat climate change — please email us.
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 consume and produce with the same environmental ethic. This way, long after we, our guides, and our European friends who house, feed, and drive our tour members are gone, our children will be able to enjoy the same happy travels we have.