¡Lo hice! (I did it!)

So the first part of The Plan went off without a hitch. Driving southeast from the capital of Costa Rica, San Jose, into the Talamanca mountain range, we easily found the Los Santos wind farm along the highway and stopped to take some photos and video. I was pretty excited to see the project after a couple months of planning; these were THE wind turbines generating the carbon-free electricity that offset the carbon emissions from our vacation travel.

The weather up in the mountains was cloudy and cool, but pleasant. Although the wind wasn’t strong, it was blowing hard enough to keep the giant turbines whirring around at a good pace. Their size was certainly impressive; we have wind farms in Michigan too, but I have never been so close to an operating turbine. Despite being just built in 2011-12, the towers were already colonized with some algae or lichen that gave them the appearance of being settled into the landscape.

I wanted to nerd out further and interview random locals just down the road from the turbines, but I didn’t want to overextend the grace given to me by my traveling companions (my wife and our friend). This was a vacation, after all! So, unfortunately, I can’t give you great insight into how the locals feel about the wind farm. My hope is that they feel proud of their clean source of energy and its local ownership, rather than suffer from the “not-in-my-backyard” opposition that many wind projects in the U.S. encounter.

But it’s important to take a step back and unpack the claim that my carbon credit purchase actually makes a difference in the fight against climate change. This is the second, and more difficult part of The Plan. How is it that I can say the CO2 that came out of some jet engines in March was compensated by the presence of a wind farm that was built years earlier? Did my carbon credit purchase really support this wind farm? Did the money I paid adequately compensate the planet for the damage my travel caused?

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Time to Go!

First, apologies for the long break between postings; field research in Panama (my “day job” as a PhD student) took priority over writing new posts for the blog. The field season is now over and I have just landed in San José, the capital of Costa Rica. To get here, I had to burn a lot of jet fuel and create a lot of carbon emissions. However, I have already offset those emissions with the purchase of carbon credits from a wind farm in Costa Rica. With luck (always need when driving in Latin America!), I will be visiting my carbon offset-supported wind farm in the mountains south of San José in just a few hours. Look for regular posts in the coming weeks with travel pictures, reflections on the carbon offset purchasing experience, and on ways that global travelers can combat climate change.

The Plan

So how did I get interested in carbon offsets in the first place? Like I said in the Welcome post, I toyed with the idea before but got overwhelmed by the options and discouraged when I didn’t feel like I understood the process well enough to make a good decision. That all changed when I took a graduate course this fall about carbon markets, climate finance, and forestry. Finally, I had a handle on all the jargon and the alphabet soup (COP? UNFCCC? CO2e?) that always seems to go with big international policy issues.

Near the end of my class, I was reading an article about delegates to the 21st Conference of Parties (aka the big climate meeting in Paris). Apparently, there was a kiosk where attendees could stop by, calculate the emissions caused by their travel to Paris, and purchase offsets on the spot. Huh. I decided check out the United Nations-endorsed website used by the folks at the kiosk, climateneutralnow.org.

When you go to the Buy Offsets portal of the ClimateNeutralNow, you encounter a variety of emissions-reducing projects you can support. There is a variety of project types, mainly representing renewable energy installations such as wind farms, hydro power, and landfill gas. Projects are located in a variety of developing countries and as I scrolled through the options, I bumped into a wind farm in Costa Rica. I thought, “Hey, I’m going to Costa Rica on vacation in March, maybe I’ll check this project out.”

I clicked on the Los Santos Wind Power Project and started reading up. Some stuff about high stakeholder involvement and a local co-op…encouraging so far. I saw “For more information click here.” OK, I’m still interested. Clicking the link brought me to an external website and I quickly realized that I was somewhere on the official website for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC—some of that alphabet soup I was talking about). The UNFCCC is the global treaty that basically EVERY country in the world, including my own United States, has signed. So, this is as legit as it gets.

What I found on the Los Santos project page was a remarkable amount of information. One available document even had coordinates for the individual wind turbines. “Wait a minute,” I thought, “I can Google Earth these things.” With Google Earth, I was able to pinpoint the exact location of the turbines. I could even see them on the satellite photos! Isn’t technology amazing? When I zoomed out a bit on the map, I almost laughed. This wind farm is just off a highway I was already planning to travel on during my trip.

Google Earth Thought Process
Google Earth and My Thought Process

How about that. I could buy carbon offsets for my vacation and then actually go see “my” wind farm. This was too good not to share. So I started a blog. What nerdy fun. So, that’s The Plan. I’m going to document the whole experience and, along the way, try to explain how these offset markets work, how to be an informed offset consumer, and how I feel about trying to be a “climate neutral traveler.”

Welcome to My Climate Neutral Vacation!

Hi! My name is Steve. I travel a ton for work (I’m a scientist) and also play, when I’m with my favorite travel companion, my wife, Sarah. In the last decade, I estimate I have flown over 150,000 miles; that’s equivalent to six times around the world! But, whoa, that’s a lot of jet fuel and I’m concerned about climate change. I know that my travel is dependent on fossil fuel consumption, which is the primary cause of climate change. What’s a travel enthusiast to do?

This March, my wife and I are traveling with a friend to Costa Rica, a destination known for ecotourism. Costa Rica is also a world leader in the fight against climate change. Is there a way I can support those efforts and lessen the impact of the greenhouse gas emissions from my travel? The carbon offset market might provide an answer, but when I previously looked into it, I found myself confused by the many different companies, products, and industry jargon.

Since my early investigations into carbon offsetting, I have learned a lot about how these markets work. The Plan: I intend to use this blog to explore the idea of “climate neutral travel” and document my experiences purchasing and using carbon offsets for my trip to Costa Rica. I’m even going to visit the exact wind power project my dollars will support and tell you how I feel about it. You can read more about “The Plan” here, including the remarkable story of how I realized I could make this visit happen. Ultimately, I hope this blog encourages us all to continue exploring our big, beautiful world—just a little more gently.