Travel and climate change. Before Corona…

Travel and climate change. Have you ever thought about the connection between the two? In recent days I have seen quite a few articles on various newspapers talking about travels and its environmental costs so I think it’s time to address the issue.

Let’s face it. We are used to traveling, we take it for granted (at least before the coronavirus) and it seems incredible to think that someone/something could limit our freedom. Yet we have to consider the fact that maybe climate change means something more than recycling and a couple fewer degrees on our heating system during winter. So, to be honest, should we stop traveling?

Travel and climate change: the truth, the ugly truth

The question provocatively posed in the NYT article is this: “If seeing the world helps to ruin it, should we stay at home?”. To ask this question, especially in a travel blog, seems a contradiction. Yet I think the issue needs to be addressed here and now. It’s time to consider if, while traveling, we are also destroying the environment.
“La Repubblica” (Italian newspaper) wrote about travel and climate change in an article, same as the “Corriere della Sera” (another Italian newspaper) and the English “The Independent. #flyggskam, flight shaming, is (was?) a trending topic on IG and Twitter.

The point of this discussion, when it comes to the ecological footprint of travel, is related to the emissions of carbon dioxide caused by air flights, which represents between 2% and 3% of the total emissions.

I know that is not related to travel and climate change but plastic pollution, especially at sea, is another major problem. This photo became viral a year ago, one the symbol of the so called “anthropocene” and of the damages men are doing to the environment.

It may not seem like much, in fact, it is more or less the share of CO2 emitted by Germany. If plane travel was a nation it would be the seventh most polluting nation on the planet.

This data about travel and climate change should worry us…

The first reason why we should worry is that today there are 4.4 billion people traveling by each year (about 100,000 flights a day on average with a peak of 200,000 last June) and there will be 8 billion people in 2038. And all this won’t happen without consequences. We are talking about the size and number of airports, noise pollution, especially during take-off, and fossil fuel consumption.
The second reason is that the grams per kilometer of CO2 emitted by airplanes are about 258, while on the road we go down to 158 and by train to 14. The difference is enormous and the significant increase in air flights only makes things worse.

In this situation, one could really say that there are not many solutions if you want to travel and have the environment at heart. Do you have to prepare for the next trip to Morocco? start planning because you will need quite a few train tickets if you care about the environment. Not to mention a couple of weeks in India (how about train coincidences in Iran?).

Travel and climate change. Do I have to stop using airplanes for buying groceries?

Yes, you got it right. No more weekends in London to see The Lion King musical, no Sicily in November, and Canary island in February. Can you imagine what it would mean for the world if we abandon travel by plane? Of course, someone would enjoy it thinking “the worse the better.”

Maybe transatlantic solar-powered ships would resume travel the Atlantic with a much higher frequency. In Italian ports, always closed to foreigners and migrants, we could begin to hear phrases like “Give me a ticket for the ship leaving for New York through Cadiz!”

This photo went viral just a few weeks ago and it's one of the most striking image of the impact of climate change on daily lives of people in the northern part of the emisphere (and as traveller we have not acknowledge we are part of the problem). It seems a CGI effect but it's the sad truth of global warming in the arctic. Dogs on water. And it's not art.
This photo went viral in 2020 and it’s one of the most striking image of the impact of climate change on the daily lives of people in the northern part of the hemisphere (and as a traveler we have not acknowledged we are part of the problem). It seems a CGI effect but it’s the sad truth of global warming in the arctic. Dogs on water. And it’s not art.

If we talk about travel and climate change are there any reasons for optimism? yes, 3

Personally, I made anticatastrophism one of my mantras. In this complicated case, I see important glimpses of hope, at least three. And even if you don’t give a damn, I’m going to list them for you.

Me, you and coherence, a difficult relation

The first is philosophical in nature and goes by the name of coherence. This beautiful lady. As Gianni Morandi (famous italian singer) sang “tell me about yourself, beautiful lady / tell me about yourself, I am not afraid / take me with you, in your silences / take me with you, to your apartments”. Just kidding. But follow me, let’s try to be coherent for once.

When someone tells you “where is the coherence?” you know that he’s good and done (“essere alla frutta” we say in italian). Even if it may seem that with the “coherence talk” this intellectual adversary is going to put you to the mat, in reality it is he who has finished all the good arguments.

I see a ghost here

Because coherence does not exist. Can you be an environmentalis and travel by plane? of course! Because everything needs to be put on a human dimension. No one is 100% coherent and seeking 100% coherence, or else abandoning the struggle, is absolutely wrong. Instead, you have to get your hands dirty with unclear compromises and bad stories, you have to take the problems and work them on their weak side until they give in to exhaustion. You don’t abandon the struggle because you are not coherent, you fight more and improves.

Measure, common sense and reason must be our guiding “spirits”. You can’t be an environmentalist if you’re president of a company that spills chemical waste in a river, but using a few plastic boxes and taking a plane disqualifies you? of course not.

And with this I promise that I won’t use the word coherence anymore in this post 🙂

It’s technology my dear. From horse shit…

Cruises, travel and climate change. Oh nooo, let’s not talk about cruises. They are terrible for an innumerable series of reasons, including environmental ones. I’ve heard some of this in “Patriot Act” with Hassan Minaj and in a few other publications (A supposedly funny thing I’ll never do again sounds familiar?). But this is not the time and place. I just want to tell you that all the Carnival cruise ships in Europe emit more CO2 than all of the European cars combined…

The second argument is of concrete/technological nature. If they had computers in 1793, they probably would have calculated how it would take for the world to have been covered with horse shit. I imagine the headlines “With the increase in horses owners, excrement has become a problem. At the current rate, the city of London will be covered by 1907”.

Then, by chance, the internal combustion engine jumped out (1850 or so) and that problem was replaced by a myriad of other problems. Today horse shit no longer takes up much space in newspapers.

This is not to say that in the end everything is always resolved. What I want to say is that worrying is right, but we have to direct our concern in search of a way out that can come from small changes or great technological revolutions. Let’s not lock ourselves in the house, through the keys out of the windows and then say “oh we are stuck here”.

…to winglets

In recent years more and more planes have wings that end with an upturned tip. It’s called winglet and serves to reduce the turbulence generated by the moving plane “Only this small trick saves fuel between 4% and 6% per journey. Does it seem little? A Ryanair 737 consumes at least 3000 liters of fuel per hour … you do the maths”.

This small solution has a direct contirbution on reduving the impaxct of travelling by plane on climate change. Redcued fuel consumption thanks to reduced turbulence.
Winglets. This small solution has a direct contribution to reducing the impact of traveling by plane on climate change. Reduced fuel consumption thanks to reduced turbulence.


Third argument. Here too we remain on the technological level. In the not too distant future, the planes could be very different from how we have always seen them (see photo below), for reasons that have to do with the laws of aerodynamics and with the constructive possibilities that the new materials give us.
Or they might not use more fossil fuels but travel with solar energy or some other form of energy stored in batteries that do not currently exist or exist only on paper.

If we talk about planes and climate change, this project of a new type of aircraft, as of now only on paper, could reduce the use of fuel 20%. Unfortunately to see an airplane like this flying for a commercial airline it will take at least 30 years
If we talk about planes, travels and climate change, this project of a new type of aircraft, as of now only on paper, could reduce the use of fuel 20%. Unfortunately to see an airplane like this flying for a commercial airline it will take at least 30 years
The airplane in thiis picture is the Solar Impulse 2 that in 2015 travelled around the globe without using fuel but only with sola power. Promising beginning but to see something commercially sound it will take a long time.
The airplane in this picture is the Solar Impulse 2 that in 2015 traveled around the globe without using fuel but only with solar power. Promising beginning but to see something commercially sound it will take a long time.

Even in this case the reasoning is not “we don’t care now because in the next years we will find a way to travel and not affect climate change”, but rather to make people think, push imagination and human capacities in order to solve a problem rather than cynicism or nihilism.

The show must go on

On the other hand, I know, there is someone who says we have reached the point where the show has to end. We played above our possibilities for quite a long time. It was nice but that’s enough, put your heart at rest and close this parenthesis as overdeveloped twenty-year-olds going from party to party. As you probably understood I’m not among them.

However. If you cry when you take a plane you can do something. You can, for example, join a compensation program.

These are organizations who uses your money for certain projects with the objective to offset the CO2 emissions caused by your flight or your cruise. The idea is interesting and some companies like LATAM and Delta have already set it up on their own.

Of course, the objection is easy here and it derives from the fact that it is not always easy to trace the results and the seriousness of these activities and the fact of saving a section of the Amazon forest does not in itself eliminate the problem relating to the rest of the Amazon forest. And for years to come. The impression is that it could be more of a way to wash one’s conscience than anything else. But I’m not that cynical. Just choose well.

Travel and climate change, conclusion. So what?

If we examine the relationship between travel and climate change, there are many challenges ahead, sure. The problems raised by such a large number of travelers are such that they can no longer be ignored. We should all think and act.

If I don’t see the need to say goodbye to our passion, because the damage would perhaps be even greater (think of those areas of the world where tourism guarantees jobs and allows us to make sense, even economically, of the principle of nature conservation ), at the same time I don’t see the possibility of evading the speech. Let us arm ourselves with goodwill and 5% at a time we try to break down the wall of emissions. We can do it and we will do it.

If you are going to and you want an answer to the question is Colombia safe for tourists? follow this link.

A travel to Jordan and to Petra.

Armenia, copper and spirituality in the Debed gorge.

You can travel to Oslo!

2 commenti

  1. Io penso che smettere di viaggiare non sia la soluzione ai problemi ambientali. La conoscenza, l’esperienza e la condivisione che nascono da questi viaggi portano molte cose positive, per non parlare dell’impatto economico che il turismo ha su certe aree. Ovvio che ci sono dei problemi ma il rimedio in questo caso mi sembra peggiore del male.

    • In linea di massima sia io che Andy, intervistato qui , siamo d’accordo con te. Per fare l’avvocato del diavolo potrei però dire che bisogna smetterla di considerare solo il punto di vista economico (l’impatto in termini di ricchezza monetaria prodotta dal turismo ha in una certa area) o quello individuale/esperienziale. Se la vedi dal punto di vista ambientale non ci sono scuse che tengano, siamo dalla parte del torto e possiamo solo cercare di migliorare. Anche una fabbrica inquinante dà lavoro e crea legami sociali, per cui dovremmo sorvolare anche su questa?
      Il punto è, credo, più complesso di quello che immaginiamo e, ripeto, nemmeno io mi sento pronto ad abbandonare i viaggi in aereo. Però dobbiamo iniziare a ragionarci assieme.

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