Plane and simple: your travel is ruining the planet

The glaciers are melting; polar bears are starving; and many small islands are slowly drowning. “Quickly book this flight to Iceland before the snow disappears completely, you don’t want to miss out on the beautiful glaciers there”, a voice whispers in my ear. “You are selfish”, another voice comes to mind, “your action is only accelerating their destruction”.

I am writing this blog entry while on my exchange semester abroad in New Zealand, a 20-hour flight away from home. So, it feels kind of wrong for me to write about this topic, as I am still struggling with the issue by myself, every time I plan a vacation. (Note that this was also written before the full impact of Covid 19 on international travel was apparent).

I know I am not the only one who feels that way. For a lot of people who also enjoy travelling, these are confusing times that we live in. How can something that seems to be so liberating and adventurous also be destructive and the incorporation of selfish consumption?

Looking at my own ecological footprint, I am shocked. I never eat meat and only buy organic and local products. I don’t have a car and I only use sustainable eco-electricity – so, I am really trying to live an environmentally sustainable life. Yet, this one time per year that I decide to go on vacation by plane destroys everything, by far.

For example, if I had taken the train to Italy instead of flying to New Zealand, my annual footprint would be 3.43t CO2. Now it is by 8.20t CO2, which is nearly double than the global average.

And, yet, here I am already thinking about my next vacation. Maybe I will fly to…

Planes allow us the freedom to get to far-flung and exotic places, like the Chatham Islands. But at what cost? Image from Adrian Paterson.

In my studies of natural resources management and ecological engineering, I often find scientific articles about climate change. One article in particular caught my attention as it addresses this special topic in a very human and authentic way. It is a research paper from Susanne Becken at Lincoln University in 2007. 415 scientists have since cited this paper.

Becken placed travellers into groups of around 5-10 participants to discuss air travel and its impact on climate change. The focus was on group discussions about different policy scenarios that could be solutions for this issue.

One idea was for voluntary options, where travellers and airlines decide for themselves if they would engage in initiatives that reduce emissions. This idea was most favoured because the people feared they would need to pay more to travel if there were other solutions, like air travel taxes, which would raise the price for flight tickets for everyone.

Travel costs are important in tourists’ travel decisions, whereas environmental factors are usually not considered. Participants generally lacked information (in 2007) about what caused climate change or were just not aware of the problem.

The groups stated that they would still fly anyway even if tickets were more expensive, so it seems nearly impossible to stop travellers from flying around the globe unless they have to (unless there is a global pandemic!).

Tommi Boom CC BY-SA 2.0 Fridays For Future demonstration

This paper showed the thoughts of travellers about their own actions and the urgent need of getting more information on climate change out there.
13 years after that paper was written, it appears that there might be hope for another generation to come. Since Greta Thunberg showed up and the Fridays For Future movement developed, people seem to be starting to actually care for our environment. So, is gaining information the key for not only climate but also social change?

The problem is, many people believe their actions don’t add up to impacting someone in the future. If you only hear general numbers about greenhouse gas emissions no one understands what it means and how much damage their actions can cause.

Let me give you a more visual example from a published paper of two climatologists in 2016, with a direct relationship between carbon emissions and the melting of Arctic sea ice. The result implies a sustained loss of about 3 square meters of sea ice area per metric ton of CO2 emission. In relation, around 36.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide was emitted globally in 2018.

An online carbon calculator shows me that my flight from Austria to New Zealand and back home puts an extra 10 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air (which will stay there for centuries) and that’s just for one person in this flight! That means 30 square meters of Arctic ice is breaking and melting down to the ocean because of me and my own selfishness. I imagine myself standing on this sheet of ice as it breaks apart and puts me into ice-cold water while a polar bear glares hungrily at me…

When I share these concerns with my friends, they try to find some justification for their actions. There needs to be something because what is the alternative? Giving up flying forever? No way!

Most arguments were based on the idea that personal decisions alone won’t stop global warming, and that there needs to be a policy change by governments on a global scale first. Also, what would countries do if tourism would stop, and millions of jobs were in danger in places starving for economic development? We can see this happening right now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Smudge 9000 CC BY-SA 2.0 Polar bear in the Arctic

According to the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) the international tourist arrivals will be down by 58% to 78% in 2020 when compared with 2019 figures. Asia will see the highest overall drop in travel and tourism revenue in 2020. Overall, this puts 100 to 120 million direct tourism jobs at risk. So, the solution of not travelling anymore seems quite harsh for the people depending on it.

Carbon offsets are at least a start in the right direction to offer travellers a way to soothe their guilt and free them from their sins. With carbon offsets, you pay a broker some money (not that much, just around $10 per metric ton) and this will be used to plant trees, which absorb carbon dioxide from the air, or distribute efficient cooking stoves, or capture methane gas at landfill sites, which helps reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Of course, not flying at all would be better, but people are just not willing to give up their current freedom of experiencing the world firsthand. So, it seems offsets are still better than doing nothing, even though when you buy a ticket you are not only buying just a seat on a plane, you are telling the aviation industry to run more flights, build more jets and expand more airports. No wonder the number of flights is expected to double in the next 15 years.

After gathering all this information and knowing that my own decision can make a change in this world, I would like to be able to tell you that I will not book another flight ticket.

The only problem is, my friends could not come to visit me in New Zealand because of the current COVID-19 situation so our planned trip was cancelled. And they are already talking about going somewhere together next year – maybe Costa Rica? And am I willing to miss out on this amazing experience with my friends? Staying home alone while they go and have fun together and see the world? I know that I won’t have the strength to say no here…

But before I go, I will buy enough offsets to balance out the carbon effects of my flight, maybe even those of my friends. May they can help keep a polar bear on ice.

If you are interested in more options in reducing your carbon footprint when flying or travelling, read this:

C’mon guys, let’s get forest-fire wise! | Lincoln Ecology

Clara Pesendorfer is a postgraduate student completing a Master of Natural Resources Management and Ecological Engineering. She wrote this article as part of her assessment for ECOL 608 Research Methods in Ecology.

Leave a Reply