An opinion piece on the sustainability of travel, by On The Road editor Cathérine Mester.
‘Thereonce was a planet called earth…’ my conscience whispers in my ear as I browseSkyscanner for cheap flights to New York whilst snacking on a perfectly ripemango imported, by plane, from Peru. As much as I would like to ignore thatvoice and only channel it in tirades against other people’s eating habits andconsumer behaviour, today I have decided to sit down and confront it.
Accordingto a study published in 2018 global tourism is responsible for 8% of carbonemissions last year and air travel alone makes up for 2-3%. As theinternational tourism industry continues to grow this number has increased inthe last year despite institutional efforts to counteract the harmful effectsof tourism on the climate.
Ona return flight from Edinburgh to New York a passenger is responsible for 1,2tons of carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere. The average carbonfootprint of a person in Britain is estimated at 9,1t. In order to effectivelyslow down global warming the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research recommends a90% reduction of carbon emissions. You do not need to be a math whizz to figureout that these numbers mean: Conscience: 1, me: 0. We have to face the factthat air travel is harmful to our planet.
Manyairlines offer passengers the option of offsetting their carbon footprint for asmall fee. As nice as this sounds, you cannot actually erase the emissions theplane you are on, already emitted to the atmosphere by possibly having treesplanted at some point in the future. In any case, in order to have a positiveimpact on our environment reducing the absolute amount of carbon emissions iskey.
Despitemany companies and international conferences labelling themselves “climateneutral”, there is no such thing as climate neutral anything. By being alive onthis planet, we have an effect on our environment. Every choice we make, thefood we eat, the products we buy, the transportation we use, and the trips wemake affect our planet in one way or another. Still, there is a differencebetween daily life, breathing, eating and going to work and journeying to adistant place. In most cases travelling, especially by air, is not strictlyspeaking essential. I did not have to fly the 5.574 miles to Tokyo, I couldhave explored the Lüneburger Heide on my bike, hiked in the Harz mountains, orat the very least boarded a train to a less exotic but not necessarily lessinteresting place in Europe. What do I have to say for myself? Only this: Thereis 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.
Youmay 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 travelis disproportionately harmful to the environment. Whether or not one lets thiseffect one’s travelling is a personal choice, a personal dilemma. Am I ahypocrite for advertising travelling through my writing? Does a personal desirejustify the impact my behaviour has on our planet? I have no answer, but Ithink it is important to – despite the discomfort – keep asking ourselves thesequestions.