Is travel bad for the planet?

Updated: Mar 12

An effort to understand the latest green shaming wave


If you love to travel, these are morally overwhelming times, with many heated discussions on the topic, especially after Greta Thunberg’s zero-carbon journey to the US last year. Travel is getting a lot of attention in the discussion for a good reason. The industry is heavily dependent on transportation, consequently heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Transportation increased its emissions by 30% in this century, which is the biggest emission growth in emissions so far.


By you have realized that reducing emissions is a much harder task then what people are stating on Instagram, I would dare say unrealistic. And even when we succeed we understand quickly that we need more than individual shifts to make the needed transformations on a global level. The entire economy, not only travel, has to be decarbonized.


Among all the industries, travel is being targeted by the media with more enthusiasm, since it is often related to self-indulgence and is aesthetically appealing, making it the perfect victim for #greenshaming. Even Greta Thunberg herself got massive critics saying that her trips were zero-carbon, but not really. Nevertheless, we need to stop avoiding the discussion, the matter is too urgent to wait. Therefore, I’d like to invite you to put the ethical dilemma aside for a minute to construct an honest and hopefully productive discussion about the nexus between travel and climate change — shall we? :)



THE CONTEXT OF TRAVEL

There are two main facts that transformed travel in the past 20 years. The first and most obvious is technology disruption, with the improvements from the internet and telecom, traveling is no longer a far dream, now it can be done with a browser and some clicks. Second is the increase in the demand, with the rise of new economies, especially the BRIC countries, that brought a brand new demand of travelers from these countries. To have an idea of the size of them, BRIC countries have a population of 6 billion people.


These factors combined made the entire travel industry grow exponentially. Nowadays, as per the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), tourism represents 10% of the world’s GDP, and 1 out of every 10 jobs in the world are in tourism. And maybe we might be seeing some behavior shift in travel, but there are no indications the industry will stop traveling anytime soon. 1,3 billion people traveled by plane in 2017, as per the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and they are forecasting 8.3 Billion travelers by 2037, a growth of 600% in 20 years.


The forecast of growth might look exaggerated, but if we take into consideration that by 2017 less than 20% of the world’s population had ever taken a single flight, we can quickly acknowledge that there is an immense and dormant demand for travel the industry hasn’t reached yet. To complement this fact, 90% of the Chinese citizens do not own a passport yet, and even in the US, less than 50% of the population owns one.


Overall, air travel is being demonized because the emissions per person are huge. Emissions can vary based on the length of the trip, the type of plane, the number of passengers, as it is nicely presented in this article from the BBC. There is a universal agreement that flying is the biggest responsible for the emissions related to travel. But bear in mind that the car is immediately behind. Depending on the journey, it's a photo finish. And our biggest threat against a reduction of emissions in transportation is the individual car, which represents alone more than 40% of the emissions in this sector.




SO, IS TRAVEL BAD?

This question sounds too binary and leads you to take a side instead of making a more overall discussion on the topic. But in my opinion, if I have to pick one, quite unlikely. Overall mass travel brought prosperity to many corners of the planet and collaborates with the international economy, and people enjoy doing it. And even if you do not travel as a hobby, you might find reasons to travel that are beyond you, such as work, studies, or if you have a familiar or a friend that lives far from you.


The ethical debate arrived in Europe, which already has a vast and accessible infrastructure of train or buses, more than 20 thousand kilometers of bike lanes, and overall the destinations are very well connected. So this discussion makes total sense there, but not necessary for the rest of the world. But in the other hand, in the US or Brazil, for example, the debate has to work completely differently. It is crucial to understand every region and debate the local context of each place instead of condemning every travel activity and human mobility. We should all attempt to live out your ideals to reduce our emissions, but it is naive to assume there is no such thing as an actual "conscious consumption" in our current economic model. To effectively reduce your emissions, we must also consider reviewing your life at your home and work, voting for politicians that are taking this battle to the parliaments and city halls, and support organizations that are advocating for the cause.


The same tip can be applied to companies. They an important part of the problem, therefore, can be part of the solution. They must also learn to gather forces and participate in the change they need to become sustainable, not to say viable. Companies must realize that there’s no way they can thrive without peace, resources and a healthy society. And all these things are at stake with the climate crisis.


I have the opinion that asking people to stop flying or stop traveling is quite odd, not to say unfair. It’s like asking people not to consume electricity. Sure they can reduce consumption, but they still need electricity to continue to survive in the current dominant lifestyle. The climate crisis creates an overwhelming sentiment that makes us easier to stand against something, but it's important to find ground to support the dreams we want to emerge.


Shaming companies instead of the end-consumers could be a start. Especially because we might not believe at first, but end-consumers do listen to the activists. Companies are changing their activities because consumers are demanding that, but I believe that this movement could be so much bigger if we were more supportive to consumers if instead of shaming consumers, we could empower them to make the best choices and join us in the climate action battle.



SO, HOW TO REDUCE THE EMISSIONS OF TRAVEL?

Given the insight about traveling, hereby are some common sense things that can be done to reduce emissions on travel. All the suggestions are more eye-opening to start the debate to shift lifestyles rather than rules, and they change very much, depending on your financial conditions, the country you’re visiting, every trip is unique and every traveler has its own limitations.


Avoid flying whenever you can. Until petroleum-based aviation fuel is replaced, you should avoid flying when possible, fly less frequently, fly economy class, and also prefer direct flights.


Find alternatives to driving. When possible, walk or ride your bike in order to avoid carbon emissions completely. Also carpooling and public transportation drastically reduce CO2 emissions by spreading them out over many riders.


If you need to drive, choose a fuel-efficient vehicle, either hybrid or electric. Avoid at all costs a minivan or SUV. Roof-top boxes increase aerodynamic drag and decrease fuel economy.


Pack light: avoid carrying too much weight in your suitcases, this will make planes and cars more fuel-efficient. Not only save fuel but also save time to enjoy the journey.


Give preference for responsible accommodation and services, that are recently renovated, has a waste management program, and uses renewable energy, for example.


Eat locally: the fewer food miles, the better. Even better choose places that grow their own produce. You enjoy better food and also support local businesses.


Consider adopting a plant-based diet: animals (especially cows) are known to produce high levels of methane and greenhouse gases and are often transported far. Choose to decrease the methane and food miles by going easy on the meat 🙂


Consider compensating your carbon footprint: this is a hard topic, but until we have a carbon taxing, we have the option to compensate the emissions by supporting an organization that will plant trees, for example. Here is a guide to learn a bit about it. I do not want to fully support it. Instead, I invite you to research and take your own conclusions. I personally do it, but I don’t assume that this is the pathway to buy its way to a carbon-free journey, I rather see as an available and temporary tool to take advantage of it.


Pay closer attention to the climate during your journeys: From heavy rains to droughts, strong winds to heats of heat, you will see the effects of climate change everywhere by now. Have a discussion with locals to understand the effects of climate change in their lives. A plus if you have the chance to speak with farmers and indigenous populations. And share your insights from your journey with your connections when you come back.



WELL, IF YOU GOT THIS FAR, THANK YOU!

To move to the closure to this discussion, travel needs to get better. If we think for a minute, travel has great potential to empower a community, bring diversity and prosperity, create jobs for locals, build the locals’ self-esteem, preserve the environment, bring awareness, connect people… but unfortunately, we are seeing the travel industry struggling. Tourism organizations of the cities and countries worldwide are lacking political power to stop the disorganized tourism, allowing touristic activities that disrespect the places, the environment, and the locals. We have countless examples of degradation in travel, that takes the destination to its exhaustion to list, sadly.


I mentioned previously that we need to stand for things. I personally stand for tourism that respects the destination and the local population’s boundaries too. Tourism made by humans, to humans, that involves and empowers the local population in the discussion and protects their resources. Tourism that has concrete diversity, that allows locals in that region to also have the chance to travel. It’s not reasonable, for example, that South Africans receive millions of travelers worldwide when the massive majority never dared to dream of traveling too. Last but not least, I stand for tourism that invests in technology and new models to improve this industry with infinite potential to transform and improve the world. Hydrogen, biofuels, electric cars, we need support to emerge these technologies that allow us to save resources and reduce the world's emissions in travel.


In 2018 we started Youth Climate Leaders because we believe in the power of education and travel to transform the realities of young people. Because we believe that these two tools together are powerful to connect young people with themselves and with concrete opportunities in the field.


I hope you can start fresh to rethink your own choices, and also support others to reach this dream of traveling in the best way possible. Furthermore, I want to invite you to join forces with YCL. Gathering in a community is a great way to expand your impact on climate action. Support the next generation in getting concrete opportunities in climate change by our side.

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