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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.
Backpacker_Magazine_How_I_Lost_5400_lbs_illoIllustration by Marcos Chin

Beyond those few setbacks and some personal notes to change more bulbs to CFLs as they burned out, the house was dialed. Transportation, however, was the hurdle I’d avoided as long as possible, in particular the monster in my garage. Five years earlier, Truckasaurus, an Amazon-green Ford Ranger 4WD pickup, carried me every weekend down rugged forest roads to trails and trout streams throughout New Mexico. But since the move to Wisconsin, it had become little more than a gas-guzzling 16.6-mpg city car, an occasional canoe carrier, and a Snocat when Crystal needed to get to work during blizzards. All those day-to-day grocery runs and trips to my small downtown office in Madison added up to a big carboniferous cloud floating above my head. Truckasaurus spewed about 16,600 pounds of carbon per year, more than an average Swedish family produces in the same time. I might as well have been flying a Lear jet down I-94.

The only way to get over the carbon hump and make it to Costa Rica scot-free was to ditch the truck, at least for a little while. So I arranged a two-month trade with my friend Michael in Milwaukee, who was rehabbing a downtown building and needed a pickup. I proposed the deal as an emissions trade: If carbon credits could work between countries and companies, why not individuals? There are already projects proposed–like Personal Carbon Allowances and Tradable Energy Quotas–that promise to do just that, allowing private citizens to buy and sell carbon quotas. Needless to say, the idea is controversial and nothing is official. But what’s a little carbon-trading between friends? I would give him the polluting shortbed and I’d get his black 45-mpg Prius, which over 60 days would save me 1,834 pounds of carbon–putting me within tree-hugging distance of my goal. “So you just want to trade cars. Right?” he asked.

“No, I want to trade emissions, like they do at the Chicago Climate Exchange. I want your CO2. That is, I want you to have mine.”

After the swap, I felt pretty smug piloting Michael’s fuel-sipper on the four-hour drive to visit my parents for Thanksgiving. On the backseat was a copy of the Low Carbon Diet and five CFLs. If I couldn’t limbo under my personal carbon goal, then Gershon suggests that the next best thing is to get out and evangelize–which I understood to be another type of carbon credit. Like my wife, my parents were devoted recyclers and lapsed car campers, but had conveniently ignored An Inconvenient Truth. They’d be open to a few harmless changes as long as nothing screwed up their cable.

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