Is it even possible to rightfully claim to help the environment with the Pangaea Project agroforestry project in Brazil, if I travel from Europe across half of the world for this? To be honest, I don’t know, but I want to give it a try.
I have been asked by friends and family what my motivation is to join the tree planting project on Fazenda Almada and am also wandering myself. I consider myself an environmentally-aware person that tries to take into account the impact on our planet of decisions and consumer choices. Yet, I am about to board several airplanes to reach Bahia for the Pangaea project that starts in one week. Am I not a big hypocrite saying to improve the natural environment while adding kilogramm by kilogramm to the climate-toxic greenhouse gases (GHG)?
One thing is for sure, I love travelling and I do not want to give it up. While I try not to fly short to medium distances in Europe, even if it is cheaper, I appreciate the fact to visit foreign places and people. I think it is beautiful that we can visit countries and cultures within a few hours that a hundred years back were either out of reach or a few weeks away. Without a doubt, flying is a necessary evil in our days.
How does the passion for travelling match with my other passion for the natural environment?
To be honest, I cannot fully answer, though I don’t find them necessarily contradictory. It is hard to be a puritarian. As so often, the impact of flying depends on the amount and frequency I think. On the one hand I always care about the natural environment, recycle, reduce and reuse and on the other hand I do try to fly and emit CO2 as little as possible.
Is it still too much? – yes, probably.
Would it be more if I did not consciously decide at times to cycle instead of driving or buy regional products instead of imports from other continents? – yes, definitely.
So in a way, this tree planting project involves both my passion to travel and passion to have a positive impact on the environment.
We all remember from our introductory biology class that plants, and especially trees, consume CO2 during the day in order to perform photosynthesis. Plants also emit CO2, but they store carbon in their biomass, which makes them a net CO2-sink. This means that every tree acts as a carbon (CO2) storage. Now the question is just how much, and does it work to justify me flying to Brazil?
A roundtrip flight from Vienna, Austria to Salvador de Bahia emits around 4,49 tons of CO2 per passenger. That is four thousand four hundred and ninety kilograms of CO2. That is a lot. Environmental NGOs suggest an average consumer should emit in total not more than three tons of CO2 a year (!) if we are to seriously stop climate change.
Depending on factors such as type, growth and age, trees’ capacity to sequester CO2 varies a lot. One study found that trees in the tropics can store between 20 and 60kg of CO2 a year. The older the trees grow the more carbon they store. And importantly, one has to differentiate between boreal trees in the Northern Hemisphere and forests in the tropics. Because of the changing seasons, trees in Europe and North America sequester CO2 for only about four months a year, whereas tropical forests “work” all year .
So, in one way I found an argument why it makes more sense to plant trees in a tropical rainforest than in my backyard in Austria.
And what about the math?
Let’s assume I can plant on average fifteen trees per day and that we actively plant for ten days. Then I have 150 trees with a capacity to store about 30kg of CO2 per year.
That makes on the plus side 4500 kg CO2 per year against
The CO2 Emitted: 4 490 kg
The net 10kg CO2 are nothing to be proud of. Nevertheless, the trees I plant store 4,5 tons of CO2 per year, thus possibly justifying the flights I take.
First, the project has a direct impact on CO2 and other GHG, as just mentioned. More importantly, our stay has an impact on others both through the work and outreach in the community and through multipliers on social media. There are several Brazilians working together with us, from whom we can learn and share experiences. Moreover, we plan to post blogs and images and educative material about sustainable agriculture. Hopefully, this will have an influence on one or the other person.
Another long-term impact is for myself – the skills I learn while working on the farm and inspiration for future environmental work. This is not a quantifiable impact, yet nevertheless very, if not the most, relevant.
Overall, I think it is to a certain extent justifiable to fly to another continent to participate in an environmental project. It combines travelling with a purpose. If you plant enough trees and do travel in a conscious and sustainable manner, your CO2 balance can level out or even become positive. Lastly, through projects and environmental work you may have a positive impact on others, and yourself.
Of course, it is a personal decision for everyone if they think it is okay to emit 4,9tons of CO2 to participate in an environmental project, and there is no right or wrong. The only argument I don’t let count is “The planes fly anyways” since I think that once people board less planes, they also stop flying.
Photo: Flickr/ Martin Abegglen