Eco-tourism is a growing for-profit industry that works to preserve threatened ecosystems and brings in visitors who pay to experience the wilderness. The industry has been successful in preventing the loss of hundreds of thousands of acres of biodiversity.
This ties into the global energy question indirectly, but in an important way. Some eco-tourism models, specifically ones that focus on forest preservation, are functioning as a “carbon sink,” effectively capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide emitted by other human industry. The trees’ work can be capitalized on through carbon credit trading. Each tree captures roughly 0.09 tons of carbon dioxide over its lifetime (1). When the facility works under a carbon credit policy, they can sell credits to fund additional land purchases (2).
The eco-tourism facilities, usually with zero impact themselves, are largely far-off destinations. Each visitor must fly many hours to reach them, and one round-trip intercontinental flight emits roughly 2 tons of carbon dioxide per person (3). Discounting any further smaller flights or overland travel to reach the eco-tourist destination, one visitor automatically offsets the lifetime work of around 22 trees. Additionally, the reforestation techniques only truly capture carbon as long as the trees remain alive, as burned or decomposing trees release the very gasses they captured.
Ecotourism has clear benefits in terms of slash-and-burn prevention and environmental education opportunities, but I believe the tourism facilities should take into account the carbon emission of their guests’ journeys when they tout their zero-impact and take advantage of carbon credits.
(2) Segel, Arthur et al. “Patagonia Sur: For-Profit Land Conservation in Chile.” HBS publishing, 2011.
(3) MacKay, David. Sustainability-without the hot air. 2009. http://www.withouthotair.com (really great energy book…and it’s free to download)