Travel and environmental issues

Travelling, especially air travel, is a luxury that is bad for the environment. Any form of transportation that uses fossil fuels contributes to climate change; planes especially, as they release their greenhouse gases directly into the higher regions of the atmosphere where they do the worst of their damage. Cars aren't good either. And even trains or ships aren't all that green (except sailing boats perhaps). Only cycling and walking should be acceptable on that front. Only that doesn't get you very far.

As far as tourism is concerned, flying is of course the biggest issue here. A transcontinental long-haul flight leaves a carbon footprint that's equivalent to a quarter of an average Western person's annual carbon emissions.

From that perspective, frequent flying should not be rewarded but punished. Before you ask, I do not partake in any frequent flyer bonus schemes, I do not collect miles and more. Nobody should. Strictly speaking, flying should be discouraged. But obviously that is in conflict with the purpose of this website. I am, after all, promoting travel. And many of the destinations covered on these pages do require flying in order to get there, while many others still require car travel.

So what are we to make of this situation? What can we do other than stop travelling? What options are there to at least alleviate the negative impact travelling has?

For one thing there are those carbon offset schemes that most airlines offer these days  in their booking procedures – i.e. you pay a little extra, based on the calculated proportion of carbon emissions per passenger on the flight in question. And yes, I always make use of that option. But I also always feel a little uneasy about it – like I'm putting blind faith into money, without really knowing or following up what happens with it. It's more like buying a slightly clearer conscience. Still, you feel it's not really the solution. It's hard to believe that a little extra money can really totally offset the carbon footprint left by all those flights. Maybe it can, I don't know, but even so, there's still lots more that can be taken into consideration. Paying carbon-offset surcharges are not laurels to rest on. So please read on.

Simply flying less is obviously the most direct way of curbing one's carbon footprint through travelling. Both in absolute terms, meaning travelling less. But also in relative terms: using other means of transport where it is an option. So if, say, train travel is an alternative and you have the time it takes, then use it.

Another aspect: if you do have to fly, then at least make it worth it. It's shocking to see that so much air travel is done just to take people to some beach resort far away that could just as well have been a lot closer to home without anyone really noticing the difference. Especially if the resorts are of that isolated sort, where people don't even get much, if anything, of the country they're in. Lying on a beach, eating Western food and generally just plonking yourself somewhere other than home – that sort of travel could at least be done much closer to home. Why go to Costa Rica, Cuba or Sri Lanka for that? No, if you travel that far, it should at least be worth it, i.e. you should actually engage with the destination.

Dark tourists are largely off the hook in that respect, because it is per se rather of the educational sort of travelling. You gain enlightenment, not simply escapism. But it's still leaving carbon footprints. So we dark tourists don't have much reason for being too smug about this. We all have to look further.

Looking closer to home, on your own doorstep, is also a way of offsetting any extra carbon emissions incurred through travelling. Do you drive a car, for instance? If so, what sort of car? If it's a petrol-guzzling SUV then shame on you – plainly and squarely! That is: unless you actually live in a place that requires 4x4 off-road capabilities (the remote highlands of Iceland, say). Cities and most country roads do not. If you ask me, 4x4s in cities should simply be banned (they're also unnecessarily dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists, but that's a different topic …). Nor does anyone actually need a "sports" car – unless you consider unnecessary emissions killing the planet a "sport" (Formula One fans seem to "think" that way). But I'm getting cynical. Sorry. Back to down-to-earth practicalities.

If you do have a car, maybe need to have one (living in a remote country spot), then it should be a less heavy, less gas-guzzling, ideally even a hybrid or alternative engine car. But even if it is a traditional combustion engine car, you can still reduce the amount of emissions blown into the air (and save on petrol money going out of your pocket!) – namely by the way you drive. It's simple to learn a few guidelines of driving behaviour that can at least cut down petrol consumption to a degree, maybe a tenth or so. Not much, but still worth it.

For instance: shift into higher gears as early as you can. I'm usually in fifth from 40 mph – the exact gear-shift points vary from car to car, but try finding out the lowest possible shift points. But in principle it IS possible. Just try it out.

Next, avoid sharp braking and acceleration – look further ahead, be aware, observant and alert, and drive smoothly and non-aggressively. And never too fast. Even where there are no speed restrictions imposed (like on German motorways) it doesn't mean you have to go as fast as your car allows you to. Speeding for fun is plainly immoral. Full stop. I've been guilty of it myself a couple of times in the past. But that's behind me. Do the same and learn. And apply.

Best of all, of course: don't drive a car at all. Ask yourself if you really need it. In cities with a halfway decent public transport system a car can be unnecessary, or even a millstone round one's neck (think of parking and congestion). Where I live these days (in Vienna, Austria) I don't have a car – and I hardly ever miss it. When I do need one to travel to places where public transport isn't an available (or viable) option, then I hire a (sensibly small) car for the purpose. Of course, if you live out in the country, it's a different story.

Now, even closer to home – in the home: you know all this already, I'm sure, those things you can do at home to reduce your own impact on the planet's woes, so just briefly: use less electricity, by shunning unnecessary electrical appliances, go for energy-efficient models where the use of the appliance is necessary (fridges, say). Use energy-saving light bulbs (but preferably LED ones, not those mercury-heavy toxic ones!), and generally don't overuse artificial light. Don't overheat your place when it's cold (put more clothes on), try and go for good insulation. Where possible, prefer locally produced goods over those imported from far away. Avoid plastic wherever possible (unnecessary plastic cups/lids, bags, nespresso capsules, and so forth). Use recycling and waste separation options offered where you live … etc., etc., etc. – there's lots that can be done. But as none of this is travel-specific, I don't really have to go into any details here.

However, there's one more thing that isn't really travel-related either which I nonetheless have to bring up in more detail, as I want to urge you to consider it (if it still applies to you at all – vegetarians can skip this paragraph …): don't eat meat! In particular: cut out beef! Beef production has a more detrimental effect on the atmosphere than all the world's traffic put together. And it's not just those cow farts and belches whose methane is a far worse greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning. Beef production also has a massive effect of depleting water resources, increased pollution, not to mention land degradation/biosphere destruction. It's by far the least sustainable type of food. Pork, lamb and chicken aren't that much better either. Now here's something you can really do for the planet (and, of course for those poor animals too – but my point is much less a "sentimental" animal protection one, it's just a "cold-hearted" environmental calculation, sorry).

Even if you can't bring yourself to cut out meat altogether, then at least reduce your consumption. I remember an experimental calculation published in the wake of the wretched flop that was the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009 – if people in the "First World" at least cut down to eating meat no more than twice a week, that alone would make for about 30% of the target set before Copenhagen for curbing global warming. Why not go the extra mile and make it no more than twice a month, once a month, or once or twice a year? I know it's possible. I used to be a meat lover myself, but have been 99.9% semi-vegetarian since 1990 (see under food & drink). And the only (very) occasional exception I do make is strictly under the proviso that it's not industrially produced meat. By the way, giving the latter up altogether is not only good for the planet, it's also good for you. So what are you waiting for? It's not like there are no alternatives (if you think that then you're a culinary nitwit). It's not difficult either. It's easier than, say, giving up smoking (a totally stupid addiction anyway) – and, to come back to the main point here: it's certainly easier than giving up travelling! So come on, give it a go!

… all readers who are already vegetarian can now be welcomed back to this text …

I'm aware of a painful counter-argument: none of these things that you as an individual can do in your own lives may make a sizeable difference globally (see also overpopulation). What you save in energy and emissions may well be blown into the atmosphere by others elsewhere. The beef you don't eat may well be eaten by others. And so forth. But think of it like this: it still doesn't hurt to curb your own impact. Even if it doesn't make that much of a difference, it's still worth it if only for your own clearer conscience – also: it may set a good example, and the more people that make such changes, the better …

I admit, I sometimes catch myself thinking: oh sod it, the world's going to pot anyway in a few decades (not just because of climate change, also due to the underlying core of the problem: overpopulation), so why shouldn't I enjoy it to the full while it lasts. But it does dampen enjoyment if it weighs heavy on your guilty conscience. In a way that's inescapably the case for (long-distance) travelling. But by observing the above, it can at least be alleviated.

That's basically the salient point I am trying to make. Short of simply no longer travelling at all, at least be observant with regard to how you travel – and how you live. It may still be the case that we can only enjoy it for a few more decades (until the oil has run out altogether and no viable transport alternatives have been established), but at least let's make it worth it; and meanwhile do what we can to reduce the negative side-effects.

Don't let me put you off travelling – just travel 'greener' and more consciously. And at the same time try to offset your travels in other areas (at home, in daily life) where you can in order to reduce your own negative "footprint".






©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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