Welcome to net zero tourism: why your next trip should be carbon negative
A sloth, Panama

Climate change is no longer a future problem. It is a now problem.

United Nations Environment Programme executive director Inger Andersen

Scientists are clear on the facts of climate change. Now leaders need to be just as clear in their actions.

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres

Travel that can save the planet

Picking somewhere to go on holiday is difficult at the best of times but with Cop26 just around the corner why not choose a country that is carbon negative.

The first was Bhutan in south-central Asia. Now Suriname and Panama, in Latin America, promote themselves as carbon negative because much of their land is covered in forest, which means they absorb more carbon than they emit.

These three nations are well ahead in the race to net zero. Most countries have pledged to halve their carbon emissions by 2030 but the big goal is to reach zero by 2050.

Starting on Sunday (31st October until 12th November), the international climate change conference Cop26 takes place in Glasgow.

For 13 days leaders from around the world will talk and commit to plans to stop further global warming which is causing extreme weather and sea levels to rise.  

What we know is that greenhouse gases are higher than ever. What we don’t know is if we can lower them in time.

Panama – how to get to zero

Meet the man working to keep Panama at net zero. During an online talk Diwigdi Valiente head of sustainability at the Panamanian ministry of tourism shared how they are making sustainability the easy and natural choice.

Education 

“We have been working very closely with different institutions within the Government of Panama. We have been working with the minster of environment, with the minister of culture, to educate the community, educate the citizens, educate the tourists, in order to reduce our carbon emissions but also to protect our carbon sinks.”

Ecosystems 

“It is very important that people recognise the importance of the ecosystems; the importance of keeping forests, mangroves, coral reefs, seagrass all in good shape because those are the ecosystems that allow us to actually sequester the carbon from the atmosphere.  

“We are probably sequestering even more carbon than Panama needs so we are doing a favour to other countries as well.”

Communities 

“The key here is to work together with the communities so they recognise the value that different ecosystems have, not only from a carbon perspective, but also the non-carbon related benefits that the ecosystems give to the community and to the country.”

Tourism 

“There are big extensions of mangroves where trails can be built in order to develop tourism and then the communities have an economic incentive to keep the mangroves alive and not to cut them.

“Also, when tourists visit they will understand the value of the mangroves and can support projects to conserve them – but also find a way to make money out of them.

“When we talk about conservation and sustainability, people think that it is related to protecting nature and people and that’s true but we cannot forget that sustainability is having a balance between social, environmental and economic dimensions. If we do not have that economic aspect it’s very difficult to keep the projects that actually protect the ecosystem that allow us to be carbon negative.

“The most important thing is education. Educating the visitors, educating the communities, educating the tour operators, the hotels, the tour guides. They play a very important role.

“If we understand the extent of the problem and how our actions such as buying plastic bottled water, or not compensating our carbon footprint when we travel – understanding the damage we cause the ecosystems is the most important thing. When people are aware of the problem, people can start being part of the solution and trying to find solutions.”

The first step is to walk: coast to coast

“We are trying to find new experiences that are carbon neutral. We have an experience where you can cross from the Pacific to the Atlantic just using your own energy. You start in the Pacific in a sailing boat – seven hours – until you get to the entrance of a river, then you take a bike and you bike for two days to the top of the mountains. Then you trek through the jungle in an amazing forest that has not been touched by humans and then you descend to the Caribbean through the most beautiful and clear rivers that you will see in your life.

“It’s an experience of at least six days which shows you we don’t need fossil fuels to discover a place.

“There are so many activities you can do that can connect you to nature and will make you understand why nature is important that are based on your own energy.”

Indigenous groups

“There is a big opportunity to learn from the indigenous community. I am from an indigenous culture myself which has allowed us as a government to start integrating, not only indigenous people, but also African diaspora, these amazing cultures that came from Africa but were slaves 500 years ago and nowadays have a very big opportunity to be integrated into these development plans. And also we are working with the Mestizos communities that have Spanish descendants and also have a culture that is connected to nature because they live from there, their agriculture depends on nature.

“Understanding how these different cultures interact with nature and have developed knowledge over centuries and millennia can provide big solutions to this global crisis.

“Maybe talking to them we will be able to find solutions that we didn’t know were able to be found.”

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