Science·What on Earth?

You can help save the world, even on vacation

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at the idea of "conservation vacations," as well as the unseen benefits of climate action.

Also: The unseen benefits of climate action

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(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, people! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • You can help save the world, even on vacation
  • What, exactly, is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? 
  • The benefits of climate action

Conservation vacations: Holidaying with environmental intent


When you think of taking a vacation, you might dream of lounging around the pool, a drink in your hand, or maybe taking a road trip to a different city or country. But there is a different kind of vacation that claims to be sustainable, cheap and better for the environment. 


Ecotourism is tourism directed toward supporting the conservation of natural environments, as well as observing native wildlife anywhere from the oceans off Belize to the icy tundra of Antarctica. Multiple websites provide these holidays online, and vacations can range from helping the ecosystem in your local river to going to another country to help local scientists.

Proponents say it can be a solution to help protect ecosystems around the world while providing a source of income for locals who find work with these companies. But some biologists question the industry and whether it is as sustainable as those involved say it is. 

Pierre Walter, a professor of educational studies at the University of British Columbia and an ecotourism expert, sees pros and cons to conservation vacations.

"Ecotourists who experience nature usually gain a greater appreciation and understanding of the value of natural areas. Their ecotourism dollars also help to preserve habitat for wild animals, prevent deforestation or the pollution of marine waters or in other ways encourage environmental conservation," Walter said. 

But that's only one side of the story. According to Walter, sometimes simply being in a natural environment can have a negative impact, especially with bigger ecotourism companies. Small-scale, community-based ecotourism is the way to go, he said. "Learning from locals is the most beneficial for community hosts and the natural environment."

Many scientists and researchers seem to agree.

Hema Somanathan, an associate professor of biology at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Trivandrum in India, says there are plenty of risks to conservation vacations. Some include trampled ecosystems, overdeveloped and encroached natural land and too much human intervention in places that should be left alone. "If not educated properly by locals, people can go haywhire," she said in an interview with India Video. 

But there are plenty of pros, too, she said. They include helping with the development of research, gaining a new respect for nature, economical benefits towards conservation efforts and a better understanding of natural resource management.

Tips and tricks for ecotourism 

World Trips, a popular travel blog, suggests following the four Cs when researching an organization.

  • Conservation: Does the organization consider the environmental impacts of human intervention? Do they put the focus on defending the biodiversity and integrity of local ecosystems?

  • Community: Does the organization support the rights and economy of locals and their land? 

  • Culture: Does the organization hold the education of cultures to its tourists to a high standard? Will your trip promote respect and understanding of local culture?

  • Commerce: Does the organization provide jobs to locals? Do they help the economy in the country you're visiting?

— Taylor Logan

Reader feedback

One of our readers, Helen Fearman, wrote in to express one of the key challenges of the transition to a low-carbon economy.

"I just want to put my two cents' worth in about a topic I feel is extremely important. Why do we all feel that economic growth is important for our well-being? Our planet is finite and cannot sustain perpetual growth in the economy. Although many economists have already written on this topic, it seems that our politicians are still trying to brainwash us about the necessity of continual growth. It is time the public starts thinking differently and starts pressuring our politicians to plan for a 'steady-state economy.'"

Comments or suggestions? Write us at

Old issues of What on Earth? are here.

The Big Picture: Ocean trash

You've probably heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a roiling collection of plastic and other manmade debris that has been estimated to be the size of Texas. Well, it's only the biggest of five gyres — or circulating currents — that have accumulated trash in our oceans. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S., "garbage patches aren't a solid patch," but a broader area with a high concentration of microplastics (smaller than five millimetres in size) "that are suspended throughout the water column." The map below illustrates their locations and relative size.

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • Car ownership, particularly in North America, has seemed like a birthright for much of the last century. But with changes in urban planning and a move to a low-carbon economy, many automakers are bracing for a time when people no longer buy cars, but pay for mobility as a service (MAAS). What would that look like? A network that mixes ride-hailing with public transit.

  • Much has been made of the fact that renewable energy sources (wind, solar) are in many cases cheaper to harness than coal — a fact that has led to the shuttering of many coal plants in the U.S. Well, it appears that green energy, combined with battery storage, could soon undercut the price of natural gas.

  • California will require all new homes to install rooftop solar panels starting next year. Now a poll suggests 70 per cent of Americans would support a similar policy being mandated across the U.S.

From cleaner air to lower costs, people are discovering the benefits of climate action

(Juan Medina/Reuters)

Last week, Madrid reinstated a low-emissions zone in its city centre after protests from residents who got a taste of the benefits — lower air pollution and increased retail sales — and didn't want to go back to smog and heavy traffic.

It was another sign that fighting climate change can have lots of positive side-effects, from green jobs to cleaner air to more livable cities. (It's highlighted in an iconic cartoon by Joel Pett.) 

It turns out those side-effects, known as co-benefits, can make reducing emissions a really great deal for the economy. By investing in fighting climate change, countries can potentially get benefits worth more to the economy and society than what they spend on reducing emissions.

One example is reduced deaths from pollution. When fossil fuels are burned, pollutants such as particulates and ozone are produced along with carbon dioxide. Halving greenhouse gas emissions between 2005 and 2050 would reduce premature deaths caused by air pollution by 20 to 40 per cent, the United Nations estimates.

While the payoff for reducing emissions is long-term and spread over the entire world, you can start enjoying some of the benefits now, right in your own community. And often, action to reduce emissions can help communities adapt to the impacts of climate change and vice versa.

Here's a look at some examples of climate action and their co-benefits:

  • Renewable energy and energy efficiency. Tapping greener power sources, and just using less energy overall, leads to reduced pollution as well as cost savings. 

  • Green fleets and transit. Cities such as Vancouver and Guelph, Ont., are switching their municipal vehicles to renewable fuels, hybrid-electric and electric vehicles, while other municipalities are looking at zero-emissions buses. Co-benefits include improved air quality and less noise.

  • Planting trees. A recent study found planting a trillion trees might be the single-most effective way to fight climate change. According to the World Bank, the co-benefits of reforestation can include job creation, soil conservation, reduction of erosion and conserving biodiversity. Urban tree planting can also improve air quality and reduce local air temperatures.

  • Emissions regulations. Caps on emissions, carbon taxes and other climate-related regulations can encourage technological innovation, leading to increased efficiency and cost savings, as well as jobs and spinoff effects as the technology is adopted by other sectors. 

You can read more about the co-benefits of fighting climate change here.

Emily Chung

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty


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