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Backpacker Magazine – April 2008

Carbon-Neutral Costa Rica: How I Lost 5,400 lbs While Packing for the Trip of a Lifetime

In search of a guilt-free adventure in the tropics, Jason Daley discovers the line between saving the world–and seeing it.

by: Jason Daley, Illustrations by Marcos Chin

Illustration by Marcos Chin
Illustration by Marcos Chin

Just one problem: Some environmentalists don't think I should have come to Costa Rica at all, arguing that flying halfway around the hemisphere to sight-see in the cloud forest is an unforgivable, carbon-spewing eco-sin. In other words, passenger jets have become this decade's SUVs. I can sympathize with my would-be monkey-deniers: Air traffic produces up to four percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, and the number of flights is expected to triple in the next 40 years as increasingly affluent Indians and Chinese accumulate their own frequent-flier miles. George Monbiot, an earnest Brit and author of Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, stated bluntly in a recent Guardian column, "Flying kills. We all know it and we all do it." And here I thought I was just enjoying a bag of salty nuts and half a can of Sprite.

I'm probably a lot like you. I keep an eye on environmental issues–as long as they don't involve Leonardo DiCaprio. I tithe my share to groups like the Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, and Audubon. I volunteer with local enviro and trail groups. I carry a backpack and a Sigg bottle, but I don't wear a rasta hat or tofu shoes, or have tangled armpits that smell like hummus. I own a couple of suits and enjoy the occasional steak. I live in a conventional house, not a yurt made from empty yogurt containers. Yes–here's a radical idea–I'm an environmentalist who, nonetheless, still wants to engage with the rest of society and the rest of the world. I want to take advantage of the technologies that have moved us from covered wagons to Dreamliners. And, despite what I know about the evils of flying, once in a while I want to add another epic, far-flung trail to my backcountry resume without feeling like I've speared a manatee to get there.

Is that really so crazy? Three months before I jetted off to my rainforest rendezvous, the editors of this magazine presented me with a double-edged challenge: Travel to an exotic trekking destination for a bragging-rights adventure, but offset the trip's CO2 emissions with carbon-cutting changes in my daily life. No purchasing offsets. I would have to achieve a real reduction in total emissions. As a dyed-in-the-merino-wool greenie, I figured I was up to the challenge. I already knew it was possible to adopt eco-friendly practices without smelling like an Ewok. Get to Costa Rica guilt free? How hard could it be?

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