I’m back from a weeklong driving trip to visit clients and family, and it’s made me think about the meaning and costs of travel. There’s been a radical change in how I do things in the last few years. Back in 2010, Tanis and I took a hard look at our lifestyle choices — housing, food, travel, work — and how they affected our carbon impact. We wanted to figure out the biggest and most immediate ways to make a change for the better.
One way was to eliminate air travel. Consider this: for each tonne of CO2 equivalents, a passenger travels about 35,000 km by bus. But this drops to 10,000 km for train travel, and 6700 km if driving a car. It gets worse: that same tonne of CO2e only gets you about 1000 km if you fly economy class. In other words, flying has 35 times the impact of taking the bus. There’s irony in the fact that many people have reduced their driving or switched to more fuel-efficient vehicles, but still take flying vacations without a second thought.
Before 2010, I’d flown at least twice a year for both personal and business reasons. When I was growing up, the “need” to travel was culturally informed and unquestioned. It was seen by most people as an opportunity to open the mind and broaden horizons. My parents certainly encouraged it; they bought me my first plane ticket for a four-month stay in Europe after I finished high school. This was reminiscent of the old “European Grand Tour”, a step along the way to maturity for young English or American gentlemen before they married and took up careers.
These days, “gap year” travel abroad remains a common coming-of-age ritual for new grads. People seem to fly more all the time, and for a lot of other reasons. We do it for business, or for the pleasure of seeing members of our increasingly far-flung families. People travel under duress as refugees from war and persecution. Those who are more fortunate head south to escape the chill of winter. We may fly for fun and recreation, or to fill time in retirement — another culturally created expectation, marketed to us as the reward for hard work.
I decided in 2010 to stop flying for business, and since then our family has made short driving vacations the rule. Obviously, family emergencies may necessitate air travel from time to time. Also, I still see value in giving our children the chance to experience another culture, or to see parts of our planet that may disappear, so that they can learn to understand and cherish its fragile beauty. But in the digital age, they can experience more of the world than we ever did without physical travel.
Certainly more pressure should be exerted on the airline industry to reduce emissions, and carbon taxes and other changes do need to be made at the government level so that airline ticket prices begin to reflect the true cost of flying on the environment. But in the meantime, we should always seek less impactful ways to make the journey.