Passengers can help reverse climate damage of their flights by voluntarily paying a fee that funds reforestation and other green initiatives.

Share story

San Francisco International Airport passengers can now help reverse the damage their flight inflicts on the environment by paying a fee that will help fund reforestation projects.

The voluntary program for travelers unveiled Thursday is, according to involved parties, the first of its kind among U.S. airports. The airport spent $190,000 to install three “Climate Passport” kiosks past security checkpoints, one in domestic Terminal 3 and two more in the International Terminal.

Paying at the kiosks, or online at the airport’s Web site, is relatively simple. Travelers enter their flight’s origin and destination, their number of passengers and whether they plan to fly round-trip. The machine then calculates a fee that can be paid via credit card to counteract the carbon emissions spewed into the atmosphere during their trip.

The kiosk shows how many pounds of carbon dioxide each passenger is responsible for, then charges $13.50 per ton of emissions. For example, a passenger flying round-trip from San Francisco to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York would be responsible for offsetting 3,824 pounds of carbon dioxide at a cost of $23.42. A one-way trip to Los Angeles International Airport, meanwhile, would cost only $1.75 per person.

Most Read Life Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

For every $13.50 collected, $12 goes toward reforestation efforts to suck up carbon dioxide at the 23,780-acre Garcia River Forest in Mendocino County, Calif., and $1.50 helps fund San Francisco green initiatives.

Since the program is unprecedented, officials from the airport and 3Degrees, the San Francisco-based company operating the system, say they have no idea how popular it will be.

As airlines continue to raise ticket prices and charge fees for checked bags and even amenities such as pillows, the success of the program may be limited.

Steve McDougal, a 3Degrees vice president, admits the program should mostly appeal to those who “feel empowered to doing something bigger,” not passengers who feel guilty about their flight’s impact on climate change.

“You ask somebody to stop and pay some additional money, I realize that’s challenging,” said McDougal, adding the purchases are not tax-deductible. “The knee-jerk reaction on this is from skeptics.”

Deputy Airport Director Kandance Bender said the airport anticipates the kiosks will take a while to catch on. The airport will monitor purchases made at the machines and online monthly, she said.

McDougal said there is a third-party monitoring process in place to ensure the money goes toward CO2-reducing projects, adding that the airport and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom have staked their integrity behind the program.

3Degrees uses a standard brought forth by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for calculating the average amount of carbon emissions per mile on commercial flights, McDougal said.

Most of the money then goes toward ongoing projects to restore the heavily-cut Garcia River Forest, which is along the Northern California coast and consists mostly of redwood trees. The carbon offsets should have a real impact, as each acre of the Garcia River Forest absorbs three tons of carbon dioxide per year, said Chris Kelly, California program director of the Conservation Fund, the nonprofit that owns and manages the forest.

The remaining money is given to a San Francisco green program that thus far has helped fund a biodiesel business and tree plantings in the city, said Johanna Gregory Partin, Newsom’s director of climate protection initiatives.

“Even though the economy’s tough right now, we’re still seeing people who want to do the right thing,” Partin said.

The carbon kiosks follow the January launch of the nation’s first green rental car program, in which San Francisco travelers receive $15 discounts for renting hybrid vehicles.