Earlier this month, climate activist Greta Thunberg became TIME’s 2019 Person of the Year, and we applaud her well-deserved award. At 16 years of age, Thunberg has communicated the urgency of our climate crisis more effectively than nearly anyone else on the planet.
Months earlier, Thunberg had sailed across the Atlantic to deliver a speech to the UN, rather than release heat-trapping carbon into the atmosphere by flying there. She has drawn attention to the environmental impact of air travel and inspired many to reconsider flying altogether. In her home country flysgskam, or flight shame, has changed not just attitudes but the practices of travel-loving Swedes.
But while flying has an undeniable carbon footprint, travel can in fact be beneficial to the environment. Paradoxically, the right kind of travel — thoughtfully planned and executed and, at times, requiring long distance flights — can help combat the warming of our planet.
The biggest carbon emitters
Flights produce a lot of emissions. This is undeniably true. According to Statista, an estimated 4.6 billion seats will be filled on commercial planes in 2019, emitting over 918 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. However, the emissions from air travel account for only 2.4 percent of total fossil fuel emissions globally, and they fall far behind both automobiles and agriculture.
According to a UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, global livestock production is responsible for over 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. That is equivalent to emissions from all of the transportation on the planet — cars, trains, ships, and planes — altogether.
At the same time, we know that forests are vital to absorbing carbon, with tropical forests being the biggest carbon absorbers of all. Yet these tropical forests are under threat and in some parts of the world that threat comes directly from cattle ranching. The loss of carbon-absorbing vegetation to greenhouse-gas-producing livestock is a double blow to the planet. Add in habitat destruction, species loss, and the threat to indigenous communities, and the impact is that much more destructive.
Other threats to the world’s natural lands come from mining and extractive industries. In each of these cases, you, the traveler, can play a positive role. Matador Network spoke to multiple people working in the areas of sustainability and sustainable travel, and all told us that travelers can have a positive role to play in preventing this habitat destruction.
Tourism as an economic asset
Dan Sawyer is a senior advisor to the Institute for Society, Population, and Nature, a Brazilian NGO focused on preserving the livelihood of local communities threatened by development; in many cases, by the loss of their land to ranching. It’s estimated that 91 percent of destroyed Amazonian land has gone to livestock, with a similar pattern taking place in Brazil’s Cerrado area south of the Amazon.
“What we are trying to do at our institute is promote sustainable livelihood for these communities so they can stay on the land,” Sawyer says. Not only can tourism money offer an alternative to communities that would otherwise feel economically pressured to sell their land to cattle ranchers, but visits to these beautiful, wild areas also increases their visibility.
“It’s one thing if you go to Rio to see the beaches,” says Sawyer. “But visiting places in the interior may be a way of increasing consciousness about places that aren’t well known.”
Peter Knights, CEO of WildAid, which works to end the illegal trade in wildlife, says that tourism is an essential part of the effort to preserve many of the world’s wild areas. “Tourism gives nature a value,” he says.
Of course, Knights explains, we understand that nature has an intrinsic worth and is important to wider ecosystems, but sometimes poorer countries don’t have the “luxury” of protecting natural resources for their own sake. The money earned from tourism allows poor countries to justify spending their limited resources to preserve natural lands.
“Tourism is an asset, and it’s an asset that’s increasing,” in these countries, says Knights. “Extraction degrades that asset.”
Knights holds up Rwanda as the best model of conservation in Africa. There, citizen-led conservation efforts have helped Rwanda nearly double its tourism rate in the past decade, with adventure travelers opening their wallets and giving the government and local residents added ammunition to take on the fight against poachers and developers.
Tourist visits doubled in 10 years to 1.5 million in 2017, with increased global interest in visiting — and protecting — the country’s lush rainforests, the growing art scene in its capital, Kigali, and its gorilla conservation efforts.
In Akagera National Park, nearly destroyed during the country’s civil war between 1990 and 1994, conservation efforts that reduce wildlife poaching and increase habitat — under the development of a group called African Parks and the Rwanda Development Board — are financed partly by visitor dollars. The park saw 44,000 visitors in 2018, up from 15,000 in 2010, according to a report in National Geographic.
The dollars these tourists bring go even further than the boundaries of the park. Part of the $2.2 million in tourist revenue the park generated last year has gone to education and health care services in the surrounding communities.
Local awareness and national pride
Travel plays such a vital role in conservation that WildAid actively encourages it. Knights says that while sending a check to a conservation group is valuable, traveling to the threatened area shows governments that it is of value. In Zimbabwe, WildAid has also launched a campaign to encourage locals to visit their own national parks.
This is a way to promote a greater appreciation of their natural treasures and the desire to protect them. While local visitors pay a reduced rate to visit parks, their visits may support lodging options that are not only at the luxury level, can occur in seasons that see fewer international travelers, and — just like international visits — fuel local jobs.
“It’s a matter of national pride to have a national park that is admired by the rest of the world” says Knights. “Parks are the flagships to get people in.” After visiting the Galapagos, for example, travelers may tour Ecuador’s mainland and some of its other natural treasures.
Promoting natural lands at home
You don’t need to travel to South America or Africa to make a positive impact on the environment. In the United States, outdoor-related tourism can also provide a viable economic alternative to extractive industries like logging, mining, and oil and gas exploration.
While you may have to hop on a plane to go skiing in Utah, your presence becomes a voice for conservation. When people come to town, they spend money to experience the outdoors through activities such as guided bike rides and hikes, boat rentals, and camping permits. This money encourages conservation efforts and the protection of public lands.
According to Cilia Kohn, director of marketing and communications with the nonprofit Grand Junction Economic Partnership, this evolution is happening full-bore in the former oil and gas hub of Grand Junction, Colorado.
“Interestingly, after the energy bust of the 1980s, many fabricators and other suppliers in the Grand Valley were able to adapt their business models to support outdoor recreation manufacturers with the same skill set, techniques, and materials that had previously supported the energy industry,” Kohn told Matador via email.
Making good travel choices
By visiting biodiverse places under attack from governments and industry, we show those same people who want to mine, log, or develop biodiverse habitats that the land is economically viable through protection, not alteration.
But we must also acknowledge the risks of excess tourism and travel in an environmentally positive way. Successful tourism depends on the visitor’s desire to be a good steward of the places they visit.
“If you’re interested in being a responsible traveler, next time you’re planning, you should do some serious research on the places you’ll visit and the companies you’ll hire,” says Saúl Blanco Sosa, Sustainable Tourism Services Manager at NEPCon, which focuses on sustainable land use and solutions that help people and tackle climate change. You should look into whether operators are locally-owned businesses and whether the money earned stays in-country.
Moreover, the tenets of zero-waste travel — leaving no trace and taking nothing but photos — are of the utmost importance in protected spaces. Respect wildlife boundaries and local people, particularly indigenous groups. Organizations like Deeper Africa and Sumak Travel offer philanthropic-based tours that involve local communities and the people who live there, making it easier for you as a visitor to be socially conscious.
The bigger picture
There’s still the matter of your carbon emissions when you do fly. If you’re an infrequent traveler, keep in mind your flying habits are nothing compared to those who fly multiple times per week for work, or worse, those who fly private. But there are still a few things you can do to offset your emissions.
The biggest step individual flyers can take is to donate to a carbon offset program. Most major airlines offer them and allow you to contribute when purchasing your ticket. If not, several options such as Carbon Fund exist for general offset donations.
The cost is generally between $3 and $15, depending on how far you’re flying and which carbon calculator you use. The “offset” happens when these dollars are used to pull carbon out of the atmosphere or reduce its use, be that by planting trees or investment in a renewable energy project.
Additionally, a United Nations initiative called the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation actually requires airlines operating internationally to offset added carbon production, though this doesn’t kick in until 2021.
So yes, we must acknowledge the emissions that travel creates and the impact visitors have on the places they visit. And yes, travelers should consider taking trains, busses, and boats if they have the time and resources to do so. But all travelers really need, more than being shamed for wanting to experience this vast and beautiful planet we live on, is a dose of mindfulness.
For every inch of change and growth that travel brings to the places that need it, the growth happens to the visitor as well. As Ken Chi Hou Lee, a spokesperson with the Macao Government Tourism Office, puts it, “When you travel, you see how small you are. You see that what happens outside of your country also matters.”