We are facing a climate change disaster. Temperatures and sea levels are rising, causing mass extinction of plant and animal life, the necessary biodiversity that sustains our world.
Humans will also suffer the consequences. It is predicted that by 2050 there will be up to 300 million people displaced by climate change, and major cities like Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, and much of Bangladesh are at serious threat of soon being underwater.
The biggest changes need to be made on the larger scale, but that doesn’t make our personal efforts redundant, not by a long shot. In fact, one of the most effective ways to reduce your personal impact on global warming and climate change is by consciously travelling, particularly by minimising the amount of flights you take.
It is important that everyone considers climate change in their life, and travel is an important way to do so.
Travel, by definition, involves a lot of moving around. Sometimes, if you want to travel far afield, yes, flying is the only option. But for travel within a country, or over a smaller distance like within Europe, we should all seriously consider trains and busses instead of flight travel.
Air travel contributes to climate change in 3 major ways:
1) Burning finite fossil fuels (oil, petrol, kerosene) - “aviation is essentially a fossil fuel industry, one which guzzles an eye-watering 5m barrels of oil every day”.
2) Emitting greenhouse gasses (carbon dioxide) which “would take roughly 23,680,000 trees planted per month to offset all the aviation carbon produced each year”.
3) Leaving contrails (condensation trails), water vapour in the atmosphere at high altitudes, which research has found has a warming effect, acting like a light blanket, trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Flying is one of the most environmentally impacting activities an individual can undertake. Globally it is responsible for 2% carbon dioxide emissions. Plus, the popularity of air travel is growing. “Air travel worldwide is growing at more than 6% a year, outpacing the reduction in per-passenger carbon emissions gained from efficiency measures”.
There is currently no green way to fly.
“A return trip from Europe to Australia creates about 4.5 tonnes of carbon. You could drive a car for 2,000 kilometres and still emit less than that. And the average per capita emissions globally is around 1 tonne”
By making a different choice, you shift demand away from fossil fuel burning and major contributors to environmental damage. Getting a train instead of flying invests and funds better rail networks for the future. Individually, albeit small scale, everything makes a difference. In the first year of the Eurostar from London to Amsterdam (launched 4th April 2018), over 13,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions were saved.
“With a Eurostar journey from between the capital cities resulting in 80 per cent less carbon per passenger in comparison to a flight, over 13,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions have been saved to date by passengers choosing high-speed rail over flying”
This is especially the case for short flights, as planes burn the most fuel during takeoff, which happens far more often in short journeys. Short journeys are also the easiest to subsitute with train or coach travel.
There are other perks to alternative transport too. It’s usually cheaper, you don’t have so much hassle of airport organisation, prices and fees if you’re late or something goes wrong. You can take as much luggage as you want and you don’t have to wait for your baggage or carry liquids under a certain ml. In Asia there are many options of cheap ‘sleeper’ trains and busses, where you can sleep and the longer time won’t take a burden from your trip. In Europe, you can travel for short distances and break up the trip, visiting new places on the way to the main destination.
If you cannot feasibly find an alternative, and you have to get an aeroplane, there are a few ways you can reduce your impact while doing so. Obviously getting a private jet is a terrible option - but luckily, for most of us it’s not an option at all. But we can use the concept of a private jet to understand the logic of reducing our flying footprint.
Empty seats on a big plane equals wasted fuel and unnecessary carbon emissions, so find an airline where you can be sure they are packing passengers in, and not leaving empty seats. Usually this happens with the cheaper airlines, which have less legroom and baggage space. With less legroom comes less wasted space and wasted fuel, which is worth giving up comfort for, in our opinion. You can also research flight providers online, and check up on them before booking.
Another seemingly simple piece of advice, but surprisingly frequent, is don't miss flights. When short distance flights are so cheap it is not unheard of to miss a flight. Whether it was because of a drunken night, falling asleep in the airport, or simply changing your plans, remember your bank account is not the only thing affected by that mistake. Make sure you’re sure when you book flights in advance - that wasted seat is excess carbon emissions that could easily have been avoided.
Taking steps to help the planet doesn't mean that you cannot experience travel, but one important part of travelling ethically is considering the environment.
This might mean squeezing in a more packed mode of transport, but at least you can be confident that you're doing the least harm to the place you are going to explore.