An opinion piece on the sustainability of travel, by On The Road editor Cathérine Mester.


‘There once was a planet called earth…’ my conscience whispers in my ear as I browse Skyscanner for cheap flights to New York whilst snacking on a perfectly ripe mango imported, by plane, from Peru. As much as I would like to ignore that voice and only channel it in tirades against other people’s eating habits and consumer behaviour, today I have decided to sit down and confront it.

According to a study published in 2018 global tourism is responsible for 8% of carbon emissions last year and air travel alone makes up for 2-3%. As the international tourism industry continues to grow this number has increased in the last year despite institutional efforts to counteract the harmful effects of tourism on the climate.

On a return flight from Edinburgh to New York a passenger is responsible for 1,2 tons of carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere. The average carbon footprint of a person in Britain is estimated at 9,1t. In order to effectively slow down global warming the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research recommends a 90% reduction of carbon emissions. You do not need to be a math whizz to figure out that these numbers mean: Conscience: 1, me: 0. We have to face the fact that air travel is harmful to our planet.

Many airlines offer passengers the option of offsetting their carbon footprint for a small fee. As nice as this sounds, you cannot actually erase the emissions the plane you are on, already emitted to the atmosphere by possibly having trees planted at some point in the future. In any case, in order to have a positive impact on our environment reducing the absolute amount of carbon emissions is key.

Despite many companies and international conferences labelling themselves “climate neutral”, there is no such thing as climate neutral anything. By being alive on this planet, we have an effect on our environment. Every choice we make, the food we eat, the products we buy, the transportation we use, and the trips we make affect our planet in one way or another. Still, there is a difference between daily life, breathing, eating and going to work and journeying to a distant place. In most cases travelling, especially by air, is not strictly speaking essential. I did not have to fly the 5.574 miles to Tokyo, I could have explored the Lüneburger Heide on my bike, hiked in the Harz mountains, or at the very least boarded a train to a less exotic but not necessarily less interesting place in Europe. What do I have to say for myself? Only this: There is a whole world out there and I want to see it.

Every day we are told that it is up to us, to our generation, to save the planet. We know this is true, but at the risk of sounding like a spoilt child: it does seem a little unfair. For years our parents enjoyed the benefits of rising global capitalism, they ate shrimp and saw the world, and enjoyed the advent of technology, carefree and uninhibited, and now that it is finally our turn to lead the lifestyle we have been born into, we are expected to resist temptation and to curb the impending disaster all those indulgences imposed on the future of humankind. As a citizen of a wealthy country, to be more environmentally friendly requires a conscious detachment from the conveniences we are surrounded with in our everyday life. It means saying no to the air freighted mango on the supermarket shelf, it means not booking the cheap flight to New York that only a single mouse click can buy.

You may wonder: What is the point I am trying to make here? I admit, I don’t know. It took only one sentence to filter out the essence of the matter: Air travel is disproportionately harmful to the environment. Whether or not one lets this effect one’s travelling is a personal choice, a personal dilemma. Am I a hypocrite for advertising travelling through my writing? Does a personal desire justify the impact my behaviour has on our planet? I have no answer, but I think it is important to – despite the discomfort – keep asking ourselves these questions.