Travellin' Green

By Dana Ramler

The Results of Deforestation

Deforestation and Land Decay become a more common sight.

For those of us paying attention, we hear more and more about climate change, carbon footprints, and carbon neutrality every day. What do these things mean to travelers like you and I?

Well, the more you investigate, the more you learn about the effects of carbon dioxide emissions on the earth's natural treasures. Coral reef bleaching and die-off, glaciers melting and disappearing, more severe droughts and wildfires, and increased water scarcity are all exacerbated by climate change (IPPC Climate Change Third Assessment Report, 2001, www.ipcc.ch). Oceanfront hotels contribute to beach erosion in Hawaii, rising numbers of visitors threaten the fragile ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands, and carbon dioxide emissions from planes are a growing contributor to global warming. This is all devastating news for someone who loves to travel. By visiting the most beautiful places on Earth, we are actually destroying them.

Climate Change affects all parts of our earth - starting with the already extreme environments.

The Problem in Plane Sight

Not only do planes burn huge amounts of fossil fuel, but the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports that aviation contributes to 2-4% of the world's CO2 emissions per year. Emissions at high attitudes also have a deeper impact, thus as much as 10% of the greenhouse effect may be due to air traffic.

To give you an idea of exactly how damaging our flights are, a return trip from New York to London generates a whopping 5,366 pounds of CO2 per person under the UK's emerging green plan, that's about half as much as each Londoner would be permitted in a whole year (Monbiot 2005). And for all you West Coast Canadians heading to Thailand, a round trip generates over 11,400 pounds per person, and the personal fuel use for the flight is 584 gallons!

There is some hope in the introduction of carbon-neutral biofuels to the aviation industry, and recently Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic Airlines launched an inaugural flight with a mix of regular fuel and biofuel. This is a move in the right direction, but even this is controversial; recent research has shown that over the long-term biofuels create more emissions than fossil fuels when the entire lifecycle costs are taken into account, particularly the conversion of mature carbon-absorbing ecosystem into biofuel cropland.

Wind Farm

Alternative solutions to fossil fuels.

Carbon Offsets

Now, if you feel as guilty as I did after reading all of that info, rest assured there is a way to buy off your guilt... literally. Carbon offsets are a highly complex and often controversial topic, but there are a few positive aspects to them. Terrapass, along with several other companies, offer offsets to keep your flight carbon-neutral. They can provide carbon neutrality on a return flight from Vancouver to Bangkok for about $75 (USD). The New York to London flight can be offset for $40.

But I wonder, how do carbon offsets work? You just give some company money and suddenly your carbon footprint disappears? Well, not quite. The money paid to companies funds research and renewable energy projects such as wind farms, or goes toward planting trees.

Of course there are obvious downsides to carbon offsetting for flights. Many scientists argue that planting trees is not the answer, because trees need to planted at the correct latitudes to effectively absorb; it also takes many years for young trees to do this, even the correct latitudes, and many of the trees are cut down afterward anyways. Also, carbon offsetting has also been seen as a marketing gimmick by many environmentalists in an aviation company's attempt to boost sales. It is also argued that people begin using carbon offsets as a license to produce as many CO2 emissions and use as much oil as they want, without considering the entire scope of their actions. Not a very effective strategy if we really want to everyone to be taking actions to help move the world into a better state, instead of just finding ways to prevent things from getting worse. Carbon offsetting is definitely no substitute for reduction.

That said, at least it is an opportunity for us to attempt to take responsibility for the impact of our travel. Some offsets go towards preventing deforestation and restoration of degraded landscapes. Thus, airline industries are addressing their impact on climate change while simultaneously protecting key travel destinations by planting trees.

Bikes!

Bikes are the new cars.

Altitude Alternatives

If the idea of buying your way out of guilt still doesn't sit quite right with you, but you still need to cross an ocean, there are other options out there, though admittedly much slower than flying. Freighter cruises are an opportunity to cross a body of water on a vessel that was around the world anyways, and many companies realize the benefit of including passenger accommodations on such passages.

If you're not too pressed for time, Maris Freighter Cruises offers trips from Montreal, Canada to the UK in 8 days, or to Antwerp, Belgium in 10 or 11. Los Angeles to New Zealand takes 15 days, and just 4 more days puts you in Sydney Australia. Accommodations and food are modest but pleasant, and prices vary but start at about $100 per day. If you are a traveler expecting a luxury cruise, then this is certainly not the best option for you but if you enjoy traveling slowly and experiencing the passage of time as part of travel, or if you enjoy an adventure and an opportunity to do something new, then this could be a very good alternative to flying. As someone speaking from experience, crossing an ocean on a ship or boat is an opportunity not to be missed.

In addition to freighters and airplanes, there are other ways to travel in a more environmentally friendly way. Trains, especially in Europe, are an extremely efficient and cost-effective way to travel greener. Non-motorized modes of transportation are also available: cycling, hiking, horseback riding, canoeing and sailing are fast-growing tourist segments.

I love monkeys. :)

We are not the only things concerned with climate change.

Being Greener

There are also other things you can do while you are traveling that can help reduce your CO2 emissions. Try to take trips for longer periods and exploring a place in depth rather than trying to visit as many places as possible in a short trip. Using the local public transit systems, turning down the heat or air conditioning in hotel rooms before you leave, and turning off lights are great ways to travel greener. Using "No Room Service Needed" signs at hotels saves on washing sheets and towels needlessly, which of course results in huge water and energy savings. And then of course whenever possible, choose environmentally responsible tour groups, restaurants and hotels.

Eco-Tourism

For those of you not only wanting to travel carbon-neutral, but also aiming to improve the environment of the places you visit, there are countless Ecotourism opportunities which focus on volunteering, personal growth, and learning new ways to live on the planet. Travelers can contribute to conserving and restoring fragile habitats and ecosystems, and helping endangered animals in countries where flora, fauna and cultural heritage are the primary attractions.

In Palau there are Ecotourism opportunities for diving and the protection of coral reefs. Costa Rica boasts several Ecotourism companies working for cloud forests, wildlife and beaches. The Norwegian Fjords are a great place for those travelers interested in snow-capped mountains, tumbling waterfalls and crystal-clear bodies of water that need to be preserved. There are opportunities in Kenya for work concerning wildlife and eco-systems.

Sights like this need our protection and help by being more globally responsible.

There are many great companies to work with in the Ecotourism Industry, but just be sure to do your research. Many companies green-wash their operations, in an attempt to seem more environmentally friendly, when in actual fact they behave irresponsibly toward the environment and can cause more harm than good. Some companies have gone as far as advertising themselves for Ecotourism by placing a big fancy hotel in the middle of an otherwise beautiful, pristine forest.

Your Moment of Zen

So, as you can see, there are ways of being a more environmentally responsible traveler. Taking a green approach to travel is an easy and essential way to protect the places you love to visit, not just for yourself but also for the travelers who come after you and those who will continue to live there long after you've flown home. Additionally, it often makes for a more rewarding, authentic travel experience, by developing deeper connections with the people and places you visit.

While offsets and alternative modes of transportation are options, it is important to note that there is certainly no one particular silver bullet that can relieve us of all of the damage we do to the planet while exploring it. However, there are steps to take towards being a more responsible traveler, and as with anything, just be sure to do your research.

Links and Further Resources

Offset Companies:

Freighter Cruises:

Eco-Tourism Companies and Volunteer Vacations:

Other References:

By Dana Ramler

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