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October 2007    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 22, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Calculate Your Carbon Fin-Print

Can you go diving and still be eco-friendly?

from the October, 2007 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

How eco-friendly is diving? Sure, we love the sea and its creatures, and we want to support healthy coral reefs, but we humans are big contributors to global warming and thats killing the reefs. Considering what goes into a dive trip, are we the best stewards of the environment?

We take advantage of cheap flights to dive in exotic locations, but air travel is the biggest contributor to carbon emissions. The gear we use is manufactured in Third World countries with poor environmental records, then shipped halfway around the world. Airplanes annually produce about 3.5 percent of the worlds human-generated carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas most responsible for climate change. Jet travel, combined with emissions from cars and factories, are major contributors to global warming and rising seas. And the dive boats we ride in burn gallons galore of fuel.

Thats leading some concerned citizens and divers -- to determine their carbon footprint, using Internet calculators to determine their share of travel- and home-based carbon-dioxide emissions, then paying to offset the damage they help create by sending money to organizations that reduce greenhouse gases. Still to be determined is whether carbon offsets will truly help the environment or merely salve the consciences of people who dont want to give up big cars, jet travel and air-conditioning at the touch of a button.

But some dive businesses, recognizing that healthy oceans are integral to profits, are taking steps to reduce their carbon emissions, or paying to offset their carbon footprints.

Explorer Ventures, which has five liveaboards, claims its the first carbon neutral fleet. CEO Clay McCardell said his staff analyzed how much carbon dioxide they emitted through boat diesel burned, utility bills, even employee commutes. Then they calculated what it would cost to offset those emissions, and paid that amount to NativeEnergy, a carbon-offset marketer that funds renewable energy projects. McCardell says hes gotten flack from some in the dive industry about carbon credit purchases. We couldnt find anything that directly affects the marine environment but we are looking for projects that have a more direct environment. The bottom line: It cant hurt and it can very possibly help. Among other liveaboard fleets, Aggressor plans to upgrade to more energy-efficient engines while Peter Hughes is testing biofuel.

Explorer Ventures claims it’s the first
“carbon neutral” fleet

Eco-dive tour operator Beautiful Oceans is thinking of charging divers an extra fee for the carbon offset of their flights and dives, and sending that money to Sustainable Travel International to fund emission-reducing projects. Ocean First Divers, a dive shop in Boulder, Colorado, added a carbon calculator to its Web site so customers can see the dollar figure on carbon credits from their dive travels. Ocean First asks them to buy credits for their emissions to fund renewable energy programs. Owner Graham Casden says hes still deciding whether credits from his sponsored dive trips should be paid by customers, Ocean First, or in a 50/50 split.

Dive Key West upgraded its boat engines to be more fuel efficient. Our fuel savings is $35 per engine, and the engines dont smoke, says owner Bob Holston. Were also trying to get biodiesel but the typical order must be in hundreds of gallons.

It also trickles down to dive clubs. The Holborn Dive Club in London asks members to travel together to dive sites, participate in at least one marine survey annually, and forge long-term relationships in overseas diving destinations by funding or participating in environmental initiatives for that country.

Holston is on the board of the Marine Sanctuary Program, which is working with dive organizations and the U.S. government to create a sustainable-practices program for educating dive shops and divers. The program will debut at DEMAs annual trade show in November. The U.S. is not as far along as Europe in sustainable practices, Holston says. But unless we take care of the environment, our industry will disappear.

Should You Fund Trees, Energy or Iron Dust?

Many organizations offer online carbon calculators you can calculate your emissions from flying, driving and daily routines, and cleanse your environmental sins by paying for your emissions with a mouse click. Sustainable Travel International, a carbon-offsetting middleman, is working with dive operators and shops to install carbon calculators on their Web sites and create diver-education programs Were seeing the industry starting to embrace action, but weve only talked to a fraction of the dive businesses so far, says STI president Brian Mullis. Theyre either building the cost of carbon offsets into their pricing or allowing divers to voluntarily participate. We encourage them to inform customers that its clearly in divers and the industrys best interests to take a pro-active stance to global change.

One STI client is Dive Frontiers in Grand Cayman, which created a carbon-offset calculator specifically for dive travel. Besides air and land travel, it also calculates energy consumption on a per-dive basis, says Steve Broadbelt, Dive Frontiers co-founder. It created the calculator by monitoring boat fuel and comparing it to how many dives were made and tanks were filled, then looking at its electricity and water consumption. For example, the calculator figures that a couple of divers on a round-trip flight from New York to Grand Cayman are responsible for the emission of 5.76 tons of carbon dioxide, while 14 dives during a one-week-trip generate an additional 0.26 tons. To compensate for all the carbon generated during their diving vacation, the conscientious couple could donate $91.80 to carbon-offset projects.

What surprised me was how inexpensive credits are, based on the cost of an average trip, says Broadbelt. Ten dives only cost $3. His dive calculator is available for all dive businesses to use by paying STI an annual $200 fee. Although Dive Frontiers doesnt charge offset fees to divers upfront, it may reevaluate. Were not getting any negative feedback, but it is more of a mindset issue to get divers to change their minds.

Buying offsets may assuage guilt, but does it work? The answer is maybe. According to Ricardo Bayon, director of green research firm Ecosystem Marketplace, There are no widely accepted standards for what qualifies as an offset. Almost anyone can sell you anything and claim it will make you carbon neutral.

Take tree plantations, which accounts for most voluntary offset money. Trees will reabsorb carbon only gradually, in decades. Even successful trees die, rot and yield their carbon. So the result is not negating the emission but timeshifting it. Rather than staying in the atmosphere through this century, that ton of offset carbon will just inhabit the next.

Then theres just-plain-crazy projects. American company Planktos Inc. wants to dump 45 tons of iron dust near the Galapagos Islands. It says iron will stimulate growth of phytoplankton, which would absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide. Planktos will then sell carbon credits from the iron dump to companies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Galapagos National Park and worldwide environmentalists say it would lead to toxic algae blooms and choke off the oceans oxygen supply. Greenpeace plans to send an interceptor ship to block Planktoss vessel.

A good alternative is green energy projects like wind turbines and solar panels. Funding these is better than forests because it stops pollution rather than contributing to it later, and youre contributing to a wider move away from fossil fuels, says Bayon.

Boats Dive into the Green

On liveaboards, fuel consumption varies based on engine type, boat speed, even weather conditions. Climate Care estimates a small dive boat taking 10 divers out for a days diving uses 18 gallons of fuel, equaling $1.85 per diver. A larger liveaboard uses seven gallons per hour steaming at seven knots, and two gallons per hour while idling at the site. That calculates to 24 gallons, or $3 per diver per day. New highspeed catamaran-style dive boats may double this amount. The energy used to fill an individual tank is marginal. Carbon Care estimates $3 for every 100 fills. Nitrox and trimixes fills are $7 for every 100 fills.

Earl Meador, operations manager for the Aggressor fleet, wants to install the most fuel-efficient engines recommended by the EPA. The big issue is fuel availability at various ports. Some eco-engines wont operate with high-sulfur fuels, but some countries, like those in Central America, have a high sulfur content in theirs.

The Peter Hughes operation says its Sky Dancer in the Galapagos received kudos from Smart Voyager, a sustainable tourism certifier in South America, for eco-friendly handling of liquid and solid waste, and gas emissions. Larry Speaker, Hughes vice president, says its Star Dancer in Papua New Guinea now runs on palm oil instead of diesel fuel. But reflecting the contradictions of eco-friendly practices, palm oil is now called an eco-nightmare fire by environmentalists because demand for it is causing the clearing of huge tracts of Southeast Asian rainforest and the overuse of chemical fertilizer.

Boat fleets want to be green but say large vessels have a harder time. Theres no affordable alternative to burning fuel, and divers expect air-conditioning, compressed air and the power to charge their electronics, so were limited based on what we can do, says McCardell.

So what does think globally, act locally mean for divers? Youre not going to give up diving or stop traveling to do so. Therefore, its a question of minimizing environmental impact and offsetting the damage. Check some carbon calculators before your next dive trip, evaluate credit marketers to find an honorable one, and consider contributing money to offset your fumes. Another bonus: Your contributions may be tax-deductible.

- - Vanessa Richardson

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