Travel is Unsustainable — and I’m Part of the Problem

December 4, 2018

I have a confession to make. I’m killing the planet.

I regularly hop on a plane to some far-flung destination — just for fun and because I feel like it. Barrels of kerosene are then burned on my behalf, blasting literal tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. I do this dozens of times a year.

It should be obvious why this is bad. Climate change is the biggest challenge of our times, but my travel lifestyle is not exactly helping.

It depends on which carbon calculator I use, but my trips this year will likely have been responsible for emitting anywhere between 5 and 10 metric tons of CO2e.

That might be a bit abstract, so let’s put that in perspective.

Back home, I have a fairly low-carbon intensive life. I don’t own a car, I don’t eat much meat, and I get around Lisbon mostly by shared electric motorbikes. Good stuff!

But here’s my estimate for the past year, according to a UN carbon footprint calculator, which also shows how much of my carbon footprint is due to flying:

Holy crap!

Clearly, my personal carbon footprint is out of control, and it’s mostly due to travelling. Even if I reduce my carbon footprint in other areas, one or two more flights will easily cancel this out.

This is not something travel bloggers or travellers seem to talk about often. But it’s an important issue, especially given that the reports about climate change are getting increasingly dire. The UN has recently warned that we have just 12 years left to avoid a climate catastrophe. Other reports suggest the world is not at all on track to slow climate change.

By the way, a staggering 8% of all global emissions come from tourism. The travel community should be talking about this a lot more.

But it’s a thorny issue. Probably in part because, realistically, it’s impossible to travel in a way that’s truly environmentally friendly. As others have pointed out, sustainable travel does not exist. Whichever way you look at it, you’ll be doing harm by using fossil fuel-powered vehicles to move around the planet. The technologies needed to be a truly responsible traveller do not yet exist or have not yet been implemented.

What we can at least do for now is to moderate our use of the most polluting types of transportation. Planes are about 20 times worse per kilometer than trains, for example. It doesn’t always make sense to travel overland, but cutting unnecessary flights is definitely a way to lower your carbon footprint.

I once had a heated discussion with a friend about climate change, who took things to a logical extreme and suggested I should just stop flying altogether. It’s the only ethical choice, he said. But it was particularly easy for him to say, as he never flies (out of fear of flying). While it’s a nice idea in theory, I also have to live my life. Travel gives me far too much joy to give up, so for now, I’m afraid I do still want to fly a number of times a year.

But I still want to do something.

I’ve thought about how I could make some other kind of positive impact, and I came up with a couple of ways.

1. Offsetting my flights

Firstly, I’m now offsetting the carbon emissions of all my flights. This means that every pound of carbon emitted will be compensated through various green development projects.

Offsetting remains a little controversial, as it doesn’t truly tackle the root problem. But I think it’s better than nothing, at least until more permanent solutions are available. If offsetting sounds a bit technical, just think of it as an environmental donation that will reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere equal to what you’re putting in by flying (for example, by building more windmills or solar panels).

You can sometimes choose to offset your flights by ticking a box when you book your flight (as some airlines give you this option). You can also do it through third-parties, which is a bit easier. I settled on the German company Atmosfair, after reading some good reviews.

Offsetting doesn’t have to cost you a fortune: for example, it’s about 25 EUR for a return trip from London to Bangkok. Roughly speaking, that’s only about 5% you pay extra to compensate for the negative effects of your flight on the environment.

2. Renewables investment

Like many other nerds, I’ve dabbled in hodling Bitcoin. It is, unfortunately, a horribly polluting currency. It’s been calculated that all cryptocurrencies combined use as much CO2 a year as one million transatlantic flights.

A year ago I sold my Bitcoin and put the proceeds into renewable energy funds. I’m now putting surplus revenues from Indie Traveller into clean tech as well. It’s probably a bad strategy to invest in only one industry, but I see this as more an activist thing than a way to get returns. Investing in cleantech also helps make me think of my travel blog (which is ultimately quite frivolous) as something a bit more meaningful.

If this idea appeals to you too, consider putting savings into either a traditional green mutual fund (e.g. through your bank) or buying ETFs. The latter can be a lot cheaper and easier. In the US, you can buy cleantech ETFs easily using the Robinhood app. In Europe, this will soon be possible through Revolut.

3. Supporting Cool Earth

Finally, I’ve been giving my support for some time now to Cool Earth, an organization that is working to halt rainforest destruction. They do this by developing sustainable livelihoods for local villagers, who then become forest protectors, with multiple villages eventually forming barriers against loggers and miners. Forests are an important carbon sink, so the more we can keep them standing, the better. (Not to mention their enormous ecological value, of course.)

 

To be clear, none of this makes my flying habit any less bad. My privileged ass is still flying around the world many times a year and shitting up the planet. These are just mitigation strategies. But I’m at least hoping to make some kind of net positive impact.

Perhaps someday we’ll have airplanes powered by sustainable synthetic fuels — and then all of this will be moot. Or maybe we’ll have to give up a lot of our long-distance travelling in the future. I have absolutely no idea which way it will go.

But if nothing else, I think we should be more mindful of the environmental costs of travelling. Offsetting is probably a good start. But we also need to have a broader conversation about sustainability, and (most importantly) vote for political leaders committed to addressing climate change.

How can travellers reduce the negative impacts of their travelling — or at least make positive impacts elsewhere? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

13 comments

  1. Gina Reply December 13, 2018 at 7:15 am

    Very brave, Marek. Definitely agree: the travel industry needs to talk more about externalities and consequences. It is not all happy hippy and definitely not sustainable.

  2. Amund Reply December 11, 2018 at 9:03 am

    I have been a passionate traveler for a long time, but I am also an environmentalist. About everything I do these days is driven by my urge for NOT destroying the planet, which makes me a bit of a “freak” I guess.

    Anyway, thanks a lot for highlighting this topic on a travel blog. Most travel bloggers are simply not acknowledging that they are a huge part of the climate change problem. It is quite easy to think that you are not a part of the problem though. Things like “its up to the airlines to have more expensive tickets if it destroys the planet!” or blaming the government for not taxing enough are just ridiculous. However, these are arguments that I tend to hear a lot.

    Again: thank you! And great post.

  3. Jill Reply December 11, 2018 at 2:33 am

    Like you, I am an avid traveler having been to 77 countries. I have family in other countries and flying is the only way to visit them. Thanks for your post on ways to offset my carbon footprint. As you said, it won’t save the planet but will ease my mind.

  4. Julie Reply December 11, 2018 at 1:28 am

    The possibility of a longer travel per flight helps trains for all. Others can do cross-country bicycling (a great way to see places and meet people).
    Meanwhile we can all be pushing toward getting rid of coal use internationally, trying to each plant a tree (and get others to also), and increasing solar panels and/or wind (to charge our electric cars).

  5. Luke Reply December 10, 2018 at 5:52 pm

    Thanks for writing such a considerate post. It is convenient to ignore the impact we have since we can’t see the impact directly. By raising the issue you will have at least made people think about their impact, and maybe that will change some people. I am now going to carbon offset all my flights and look at cleaner investments, so thank you for giving such pragmatic examples 🙂

    • Marek Reply December 10, 2018 at 7:58 pm

      Thanks for your comment Luke. None of the things I propose are ideal as they don’t remove the actual impact, but moderating and offsetting seems at least better than not doing those things. 🙂

  6. Rob Reply December 10, 2018 at 4:31 pm

    If you’re serious stop traveling, or go by foot.

    • Marek Reply December 10, 2018 at 7:55 pm

      Would you give up travelling unilaterally?

  7. Mike Reply December 10, 2018 at 4:27 pm

    Given we live under capitalism which makes most people time poor (and money poor depending on how much they earn), overland travel can’t be achieved without spending some of our precious holiday leave on extra travel time.

    Nonetheless it’s interesting that trains are 20 times less polluting than planes. If you managed to do even some of your journeys by train it would make a difference. Maybe commit to travelling by train within Europe, and then using overland transport once you’ve landed in other parts of the world?

    I think that’s the only choice until we’ve got electric planes or have far better wealth distribution (i.e. overthrow capitalism), or both preferably.

    • Marek Reply December 10, 2018 at 7:52 pm

      Great point, the time factor is definitely an issue. There’s also an economic one as planes get subsidized in all kinds of ways, and trains don’t. The obvious/easy choice is usually to take the plane.

      Electric planes apparently won’t happen due to physics (batteries too heavy, not enough energy density, etc.) but hopefully some other technology will.

  8. Ian Paterson Reply December 5, 2018 at 5:19 am

    Sorry, meant to say “wouldn’t criticise any traveller if they DIDN’T’ above. Typo.

  9. Ian Paterson Reply December 4, 2018 at 5:30 pm

    Have you thought about giving up the flying? Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t criticise any traveller if they did but I have decided to give up flying for 2019. Big issue is – I have to travel from Scotland to Australia in April 19. So I am embarking on a great overland adventure through Europe, Russia, Asia by train and boat to Australia – more of an adventure than flying, huh! I think I can stay under 5 tons in 2019 by doing this, which will be my third consecutive year at meeting this target.

    Considerate post, as always Marek.

    • Marek Reply December 5, 2018 at 12:31 pm

      That’s awesome, Ian! The way my travel/life situation is currently such a move would be difficult for me, but I think it’s fantastic to challenge yourself to go completely overland. That’s not only good for your carbon footprint but it will surely lead to some amazing experiences as well! 🙂

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