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The Aspen/Pitkin County Airport is part of the Good Traveler Program.
The Aspen/Pitkin County Airport is part of the Good Traveler Program.

Travelers flying to and from the Aspen airport can now feel slightly less guilty about the environmental impact of their flight, thanks to a new carbon-offset program.

This year, the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport joined a group of airports across the country that are encouraging travelers to spend money to support certified carbon-offset projects.

The program, called The Good Traveler, started at the San Diego International Airport in 2015. Today, the initiative is managed by the Rocky Mountain Institute and has expanded to nearly 20 airports around the United States, both large and small.

Here’s how it works: If you’re planning to fly somewhere, you can visit The Good Traveler website and enter your flight information — distance, type of flight, number of travelers, etc. A calculator spits out the pounds of carbon dioxide your flight will release, as well as the number of carbon offsets you can buy to help counteract that emission.

A roundtrip economy flight from Aspen to Atlanta, for example, produces 1,376 pounds of carbon dioxide, which could be counteracted with an $8 carbon offset purchase.

The money from these purchases goes toward existing regional offset projects selected by each airport. Aspen/Pitkin County Airport, for instance, is supporting the May Ranch Grasslands Project, an initiative to protect 15,000 acres of native, carbon-sequestering grassland in Prowers County from being turned into farmland.

Other airports are supporting projects involving organic waste composting, wind farming, transportation efficiency and forest management.

Pitkin County officials say the carbon-offset program is only just the beginning.

The initiative resulted from a much broader conversation about how to shrink the airport’s environmental footprint, according to Jon Peacock, Pitkin County manager. Since December 2018, 120 Pitkin County citizens have been working to craft a new vision for the airport. At the end of an intensive, 15-month process, the citizen-led advisory groups presented 71 recommendations for the future of the airport to the Pitkin County commissioners, who are still reviewing the ideas.

One of their overarching goals? To reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

In order to reach that objective, Pitkin County will need to invest a significant amount of money and time in airport infrastructure improvements.

In the meantime, the carbon-offset program was one way to make an immediate impact.

“This is not an end; it’s a beginning,” said Peacock. “We’re committed to really looking at how do we address our local impacts, locally, as much as possible. The advantage of having a carbon-offset program like this is it’s something that can be implemented immediately while we’re building toward these more complex and costly options to address our impacts on-site.”

Even so, the program has critics. Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for Aspen Skiing Company, said anything less than policy change is “window dressing.”

“At a time when we need massive, international, systemic change, we are not so sure this is the right message,” he said.

For its part, The Good Traveler has much bigger goals in mind, too. Experts at the Rocky Mountain Institute, which is headquartered in Basalt and has offices around the world, are trying to decarbonize the aviation industry more broadly by studying and investing in sustainable jet fuels made from municipal solid waste, said Dave Mullaney, a principal for Rocky Mountain Institute who specializes in industry and heavy transport.

“Offsets are where we are now, and it’s a good interim solution,” he said. “They’re definitely not the end-all, be-all.”

In response to critics of carbon-offset projects, Mullaney pointed out that they do actually funnel real money into decarbonization efforts that would otherwise not happen.

“Yeah, it’s true you’re still putting the same amount of carbon in the atmosphere from burning jet fuel in the airplane, but if done correctly with proper verification and oversight, offsets can be a viable tool for helping pull carbon out of the atmosphere in other places,” he said.

And, at the end of the day, people will continue to fly — and that’s OK, Mullaney said. Flying fuels the economy, it helps connect cultures, it helps people see their family members — the list of benefits goes on and on. It’s unrealistic to ask people to stop flying entirely, but travelers could be more aware of the impacts of their flights and do what they can to help lessen the burden on the environment.

“Flying from here to San Francisco or Los Angeles, that’s probably the most carbon-intensive two hours of your entire year,” Mullaney said. “It’s a good thing to have on your mind that there are things you can do, even if you can’t solve the problem by yourself or you don’t have the perfect answer.”

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