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This time of year is when many of us start planning holidays, so it felt pretty timely for us to talk about green tourism, given that’s the sector Swallowtail Hill sits in. 

There is increasing interest in green tourism – holidays with a lower carbon footprint, or, ideally, a zero carbon footprint. Travel companies large and small are leaping joyfully onto the bandwagon with a variety of claims about how what they offer assuages the guilt of the environmentally conscious traveller. ‘We are planting 40 acres of trees to offset the carbon emissions of the holidays we sell.’ ‘We are rewilding X thousand hectares of Somewhere to absorb Y thousand tonnes of CO2 a year to compensate for your holiday.’ And so on. 

There is a staggering amount of horseshit talked about, and claims made about the carbon sequestration capabilities of trees and landscapes.

Why is it horseshit? Because even the country’s top scientists say that there is no easy way to measure the carbon sequestration rates of any given landscape with any degree of accuracy because of the enormous number of variables. 

We have read that 1,000 square metres of grassland absorbs 1 tonne of carbon a year. We have read that rewilded land will absorb 3.4 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year. We have read that an acre of woodland will capture 2.6 tonnes a year. We have read that a single mature oak tree will absorb one tonnes of carbon a year. We have read that over a 100 year lifetime one tree can absorb 1 tonne of CO2. We have read that the amount of CO2 taken up by forests globally is 0.5 kg per square metre per year or 500 tonnes per square kilometre (on this basis the UK would need 1.86m square kilometres of forest to cancel out its emissions and that is eight times the size of the UK!). 

On the basis of these claims, our landscape here at Swallowtail Hill – a mere 20.3 hectares, or in old money, 50 acres, will be absorbing somewhere between 76 and 154 tonnes a year. That is far too wide a divergence for it to be scientifically valid, or for us to make a clear claim about how carbon neutral your holiday here will be. 

Here are the variables, that no-one in the ‘wild claims about green travel’ business is taking into account. 

1.   The carbon absorption rates of grassland depend on a colossally wide range of variables – how long has it lain undisturbed (i.e.not ploughed and sown)? If it was only since last year then you have to look back at its previous management history to work out just how much carbon it has released over the last few years because of soil disturbance. And what about the agro-chemicals that might have been sprayed on it? What is the soil type? Clay, sandy soil and peat have wildly differing carbon sequestration characteristics. What is growing on the grassland? Just grass? What sort? Flowers too? Is it grazed? If so what about methane emissions? What is the sub-soil composition – is there a strong mycorrhizal (fungi) network there or not? 

2.    The carbon absorption rates of woodland vary enormously too depending on an even more wide range of variables. Type of tree – conifers store less than deciduous trees and leafy trees produce more oxygen. Different species absorb differing amount of carbon – for instance the American sweetgum has an enormously high absorption capacity but we don’t grow them here. Likewise mangroves are superb at CO2 absorption, but again there is a sad lack of mangrove swamps in the UK! The age of trees matters too – young trees absorb less, older trees more, ancient trees emit. Leaf litter and dead branches on the woodland floor emit carbon as they rot, countering some of the absorption rates of the growing trees. Dead and fallen trees will emit even more as they rot. 

The bottom line here is that none of the claims made by any of the companies purporting to be in the business of guilt free travel back their claims with science. Why? Because it’s extremely hard to do, the variables are enormous, and It’s very expensive to be accurate.  So they rely on generalisations and what they read on google – which is what you can expect from PR.  

So – we aren’t going to make wild claims about how green your holiday is, or that we guarantee that it’s carbon neutral, because we aren’t going to join the half arsed, zero evidence based, PR spin nonsense that is circulating around this subject. 

Instead we are going to tell you what we think we know, how we are trying to measure things accurately, and what we do to mitigate the environmental impact of your stay here, and then let you make up your own mind.

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