A carbon offset program founded by San Diego International Airport in 2015 is spreading to airports nationwide.

Austin-Bergstrom, Seattle-Tacoma, Dallas/Fort Worth and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (operator of Newark, JFK and LaGuardia airports) all joined the Good Traveler program over the winter.

While those airports are in the early stages of implementing the program, San Diego claims to have already offset 11.5 million flight miles with the Good Traveler program from September 2015 through the end of 2016.

Under the program, flyers purchase credits to offset the carbon emissions generated by their trip. A $1 credit offsets 500 miles of air travel. The offsets can be purchased either online or at Ryan Bros. Coffee outlets within the airport.

Money from the offsets goes toward conservation programs in the U.S. and Africa. The U.S. programs include an Oklahoma wind farm, a forestry protection project in Northern California and restoration of the Colorado River Delta. In Africa, funds go toward forest and habitat conservation projects in the Congo and Zambia. Online purchasers can choose to direct their funds to either the African or U.S. projects.

Brendan Reed, San Diego Airport's director of environmental affairs, said that the formula of $1 per 500 miles is based on the standard of international carbon offset markets, which values $1 at 172 pounds of carbon dioxide. The airport is estimating that 500 miles of air travel is equal to 172 pounds of emissions using assumptions for the size and fuel burn of an aircraft as well as how many seats are filled.

Reed said that San Diego chose to begin the Good Traveler program as part of its effort to be an industry leader in airport sustainability. For example, a $1 billion project completed in 2013 that included an expansion of Terminal 2 helped the airport become the first to earn Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design platinum certification by the U.S. Green Building Council.

San Diego Airport has thus far invested approximately $200,000 to design, launch and administer the Good Traveler.

Signing up other airports is a natural expansion of the initiative, Reed said.

"One of the big, bold goals and visions for this program," he said, "is that passengers can get on a plane here, see the Good Traveler brand, have a chance to buy offsets, then get off the plane somewhere like SeaTac, where they can also buy these carbon offsets."

The airport has so far continued to serve as the administrator of the program, even as it begins to expand to other major airports. But San Diego International plans to put out a bid solicitation this winter for a third-party manager.

Meanwhile, airport authorities in Dallas, New York, Seattle and Austin said they are still figuring out how to localize and market the offset program. Most of the airports have begun with the simple step of putting links on their website.

"I think it supports the core value of Austin," said Kane Carpenter, environmental manager at Austin-Bergstrom. "Austin has always been known to be an environmentally friendly community."

Carbon offset programs for flying are nothing new. They've been around since early the early 2000s, and according to IATA, are offered by more than 30 airlines. IATA has even created guidelines to standardize such programs.

Airports haven't as commonly gotten into the act. In 2009, San Francisco Airport introduced credit card kiosks that sold carbon offsets, but the airport removed them several years ago. Reed said he doesn't know of any airport program similar to the Good Traveler.

But good intentions aside, air travel carbon offset programs are controversial among environmentalists.

Environmental policy planner Anja Kollmuss, a former staff scientist at the Stockholm Environment Center who has studied such programs, said that buying carbon offsets can give people a false sense that flying a lot is OK for the environment, when in fact the best approach to slow climate change is to minimize one's air travel as much as possible.

"We have to cut carbon emissions everywhere," Kollmuss said. "And if you look at your [carbon] footprint there is nothing as impactful as flying. So the thought that you can be a green traveler by purchasing offsets, I believe, is pushing it."

Kollmuss said that not all offset programs are equal. For offsets to make a difference, the funds must go to projects that wouldn't have happened through other means. But travelers have no way of knowing which projects meet that standard.

Flyers, she said, would be better off donating to organizations and political parties that support effective climate policies.

Such skepticism aside, Reed said San Diego Airport is excited about expanding the Good Traveler with the help of the contractor it plans to hire.

"We wanted to create an opportunity for passengers to make an environmental impact," he said. "To me, it's a passenger amenity."

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