Travel has long enjoyed a positive public profile associated with relaxation, personal growth, intercultural understanding and increased economic activity. But can these benefits balance travel's macro carbon footprint?
Transportation, in particular, is frequently identified as an emissions villain, with aviation and shipping each contributing 3% to 5% of the world's total carbon dioxide emissions.
Even at the low end, it's conspicuous. Consumers, especially in Europe, have become uneasy taking long-haul trips, even to a LEED-certified ecolodge dedicated to sustainability best practices. They want to reduce their personal carbon footprint by vacationing closer to home, having concluded that's in the best interest of the planet.
Others have been moved to activism, demanding that peers justify their air travel. "Flight shaming," as it is called, is gaining momentum in Europe and has begun trickling into the consciousness of American consumers.
It seems logical that the avoidance of any discretionary behavior that releases carbon is preferable to mitigating it after the fact.
I wondered whether this caused Costas Christ cognitive dissonance.
Christ, CEO of Beyond Green Travel and chairman of the Travel Corporation's TreadRight Foundation, has for decades been the travel industry's go-to sustainability consultant, advocating best conservation and environmental procedures.
Helping people focus on the possibilities of enlightened self-interest is, perhaps, his subspecialty.
Among his current clientele is a global hotel brand developing a green resort. From one point of view, he works on projects designed to draw people onto airplanes and, collectively, to emit tons of CO2 in the process.
Thus, cognitive dissonance.
I asked him if he felt conflicted about helping tourism concerns that likely add to travel's carbon output.
"Do I believe we're facing a global climate crisis? Yes, I do," he began. "Do I think we need to take immediate action? Absolutely. Do I thinking that stopping travel or travel shaming are mechanisms to achieve lower emissions? No, I don't."
There is an even larger environmental impact to consider, he said, one that more than counters any concerns about long-haul leisure travel.
"Deforestation contributes 14% to 18% of carbon emissions' impact, much more than air transport," he said. "Last year, a million people went to Tanzania, the majority to see Serengeti National Park, and each paid a minimum of $60 in entrance fees. If people stopped traveling there tomorrow, my prediction is that within 10 years, it would be clear-cut and transformed into cattle ranches."
International tourism is one of the most important tools conservationists have to protect the environment, indigenous cultures and biodiversity, he maintains.
"Look at Brazil's Pantanal, the largest wetland on Earth. Almost half of it is already covered in cattle ranches. It would become a holding pen for the global beef industry if not for a mosaic of small ecolodges and reserves on the front lines.
"Or think of the Caribbean's coral reefs. The region is one of the world's most important tourism destinations, sometimes the only economic engine a country has. Leaders there are pushing an agenda to increase the number of underwater reserves to protect reefs for environmental reasons -- and to attract visitors.
"Or the Coral Triangle [whose endpoints are in the Philippines, Indonesia and the Solomon Islands]; it is tourism that's protecting the reefs there from being dynamited by local fishermen. Also in that region, clear-cutting for the oil palm industry was slowed, thanks to meetings between government and tourism representatives who convinced leadership that there was a better future in conservation tourism."
Christ was part of a four-person delegation that met with Gabon's then-president, Omar Bongo, in 2002.
"Gabon is the heart of the African basin of tropical, old-growth rainforest," he said. "It has vast populations of lowland gorillas, elephants, all sorts of forest-dwelling species. At the time, the entire country was covered by mining and timber concessions. We convinced him that the current model might last for about 50 years, but if large chunks of the country were under protection and the government developed an ecotourism model, Gabonese could benefit economically for hundreds of years."
As a result of the meeting, 13 million acres were removed from concessions, and 11 national parks were created.
Was he suggesting the travel industry gets a pass on its growing carbon yield because of its conservation efforts?
"Not at all," he said. "First, let's put pressure on the aviation industry to drive innovation in renewable energy while also defending travel as a tool for conservation. We need to speak in the loudest voice possible to address government and aviation leaders to invest in research that allows everyone to fly in 'green class.'
"Second, consumers should try to travel with companies committed to sustainable tourism.
"And third, support the economic well-being of local people, because when the people who live closest to what you're trying to protect improve their lives, they become your partners and allies."