According to a report by the UN World Travel Organization (UNWTO,) more than 1085 million people traveled in 2013. Over half of those, or 542.5 million people, used air transportation. The figure is expected to be 5% higher in 2014 and the trend shows no sign of slowing.
Air Travel's Carbon Footprint
Air travel, as we know it today, has a huge carbon footprint. It would be a stretch of the imagination to call the flights themselves “responsible”, however the other side of that transportation story is that without the possibility of air travel a significant amount of tourism (up to 542.5 million travelers?) might be lost – as would the financial, social and yes, in some cases, ecological benefits responsible tourism can bring to those far off destinations.
Can we Create A Balance?
So, is there a way to balance the environmental cost of air transportation with the benefits of location based responsible tourism practices?
Recently I had a conversation with my good friend John Williams on exactly that subject. You may know him from his Eurapart travel site or as @Eurapart on Twitter
From Mining Engineer ...
John developed his keen interest in the natural environment very early on. Interest became concern first during his studies and career as a mining engineer and later a SHE (Safety, Health and Environment) Advisor for a multinational energy company.
to Travel Writer ...
When he segued into the travel industry as travel writer and blogger, his earlier experience and knowledge allowed him a rare “both sides view” of the fossil fuel powered tourism question.
John has some very definite thoughts on the use of air transportation in relation to its environmental impact. I warn you – some of his opinions are not necessarily mainstream – however they are born of a deep respect for, and understanding of, the ecological damage we are doing to our world. The following are excerpts from our conversation:
D:W (Roberta): John, you studied mining engineering at Cardiff University (UK,) then later became a SHE advisor. How did your studies and career influence your thinking on the issue of fossil fuels?
John: (At Cardiff) I learned a lot about finite mineral resources and their interaction with economics. The second half of my career as a Safety, Health and Environmental Adviser laid the foundations for Risk Assessments, Environmental Impact Assessments, Corporate Sustainability Reporting and how behaviors are more important than attitudes when striving to reach "Zero Harm".
Travel & Air Transportation: The Environmental Impact
Roberta: Was there a moment in time when you came to believe that the act of traveling itself has an impact on the environment?
John: Yes. When I was still at school, I saw erosion on paths in the Snowdonia National Park caused by the sheer numbers of visitors using them and realized that travel can cause harm. Since then I have seen many more examples of travel impacts both positive and negative.
Editor's Note: Snowdonia is both region and an 823 square mile national park in north Wales. Designated in 1951 it was the first of Wales’ three national parks.
Roberta: All transportation has some impact on the environment – even foot traffic as shown by your Snowdonia example, but air travel is your particular concern.
John: Air Travel is an easy target as it produces lots of greenhouse gases per dollar spent and is a rapidly growing contributor to Climate Change. However, I am also deeply concerned that there appears to be a disconnect between airline growth projections and supplies of fuel from commercially proven production sources from 2030 onwards. If I was an airline CEO I would be very concerned.
Editor's Note: Greenhouse Gas is defined as: 'any of gases whose absorption of solar radiation is responsible for the greenhouse effect including carbon dioxide, methane, ozone and the fluorocarbons'. The effects of these gasses in the atmosphere have been linked to Climate Change.
Roberta: Are there other means to power jet planes?
John: (No, at present) it’s not possible to power jet aircraft by electric batteries, LNG (liquefied natural gas), hydrogen, or electricity from renewables or nuclear. Thus aviation is potentially the least sustainable transport mode.
About Carbon Off-Setting
D:W (Roberta): In the past you'd been a great advocate of carbon off-setting to balance the effects of jet fuel.
John: That is true. When I became aware of the effect of the airline industry on the climate, I added a caution to all of my articles on European budget airlines on the Eurapart site. I also included a link to a carbon-offset company that I used to offset my flights. In 2009, my partner was working for an NGO protecting the forests and she told me that they considered carbon offsets to be dangerously distracting indulgences. When I researched the carbon-offset industry, I was shocked.
D:W (Roberta): How so? I’ve read that carbon offsetting, while not perfect was helpful in controlling fossil fuel’s negative environmental effects. Can you explain how it can be a “dangerous indulgence?” Planting trees for example …
John: Carbon offsetting has many flaws. Planting trees sounds like a good idea, but they take 100 years to grow and offset the carbon dioxide generated in a few hours. (And) I’ve read cases where locals were evicted from their lands so that offset plantations could be created and read reports of dead saplings with no money for replacement or ongoing husbandry.
D:W (Roberta): Do you feel there is any way for the airline industry to reduce it’s harmful effects?
John: The airline industry has plans to become more environmentally friendly. “Sustainable Aviation” in the UK published a road map to reduce their carbon emissions 50% by 2050. Carbon trading is relied upon to halve the fossil fuel emissions. Improved aircraft designs and operational measures make up further reductions in emission. Biofuels make up the rest of the savings, the production of which is not yet commercially proven.
Editor's Note: Sustainable Aviation is a long-term strategy setting out the collective approach of UK aviation to the challenge of ensuring a sustainable future for the industry. A world-first, Sustainable Aviation was launched in 2005 bringing together the main players from UK airlines, airports, manufacturers and air navigation service providers.
D:W (Roberta): Is there a difference between carbon trading and carbon offsetting?
John: Carbon trading relies on the same logic as carbon offsetting and that has so far had no success in reducing carbon emissions. The film 'The Carbon Crooks' highlights this fact.
D:W (Roberta): So you stopped advocating any type of air travel for tourism?
John: I … realized that without the comfort of carbon offsets, I could not justify promoting air travel. I also figured that paying someone else to take care of my greenhouse gas emissions was not ethical, and I chose to take full responsibility for my travel choices.
D:W (Roberta):Until the airline industry can become ecologically sustainable do you propose not traveling by air at all for tourism purposes?
John: No, but I do advocate using lower carbon forms of transport when available. Bear in mind that some of the other forms of transport can be equally carbon intensive. Research and never assume.
Mike Berners-Lee gives a great example in his book How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything. He calculates that if a cyclist ate airfreighted asparagus to provide energy (for himself) then the per kilometer carbon footprint (of his cycling trip) would come to a shocking 2.8kg. A bigger footprint than a single occupant in a Hummer!
D:W (Roberta): I would never have thought that a vegetable could have that kind of negative impact. Of course if that same cyclist followed the responsible tourism concept of eating locally grown food that huge carbon footprint would never be a question, and he’d be helping the local economy.
On Reaching Zero Negative Impact
D:W (Roberta): You’ve often stated that reaching a “zero negative impact” or “zero harm” lifestyle is your long-term goal. How have your personal travel choices changed to meet it?
John: My lifestyle is nowhere near sustainable, but I take responsibility and action towards achieving zero harm. I restrict my recreational travel to within Europe and my flying to emergencies e.g. medical. The only other exception for me is travel that necessitates me flying to see a family member when overland is not a viable alternative. I tend to stay in accommodation with a low ecological footprint like hostels or family run B&B's.
Fly Less - Stay Longer!
D:W (Roberta): When we choose to fly for tourism are there choices we can make so that our air travel is less negatively impactful?
John: If you need to fly then make sure you do so infrequently, stay longer at the destination and give your travel a positive impact.
I'm not sure you can make compromises with the eco-system. If it becomes possible to find sufficient, affordable, non-polluting, sustainable aviation fuel then the problem will be solved.
D:W (Roberta): As we speak there is an experimental solar powered plane doing a round-the-globe test flight. Any thoughts?
John: Ah, the Solar Impulse 2! It is a fantastic project that is pushing solar, battery and material technology to its limits; bear in mind that the first official solar powered flight took place 36 years ago in 1979, so current progress is slow.
D:W (Roberta): What about travel by train or bus?
John: I love train and bus travel it's such a civilized way to travel. It’s possible to get a feel for the people ad places as you pass through on your journey. Trains and buses can be powered by renewable energy, it is even possible to take sleeper services and wake up at your destination.
D:W (Roberta):There are many stories of nature tourism turning wildlife hunters or fisherman into conservationist and poor villages into economically viable ones. Can these positive results justify the sometimes long-distance travel necessary for tourists to get there?
John: Yes, if tourists use the travel mode with the lowest negative ecological impact. If they have to fly then ideally, they should fly less and make their visit count by making a positive impact at their destination. Unless a sustainable mode of long haul travel is used, the supply of tourists will dry up and the conservation initiatives could be starved of funding unless other measures are taken.
D:W (Roberta): At what point does the (respectful) visiting of a destination or environment out weigh the negative aspects of getting there?
John: A really good question! I guess it's when the trip itself does more good than harm to the environment. Personally I don't believe that positive action enhancing the performance of the economy or the society and cultural pillars of sustainability can compensate for degradation of our eco-system.
Sustainable vs. Responsible Tourism
D:W (Roberta): In your opinion is there a difference between “sustainable” tourism verses “responsible” tourism? What and why?
John: Sustainable tourism is the goal. It is tourism that can go on for centuries without degrading the environment, human society, and the economic viability of the local community. I am not aware of any documented forms of travel that meet these criteria.
Editor's Note: 'The primary idea behind the concept of 'Responsible Tourism' is to assess the main socio-economic and environmental priorities at the local level and take action to address them with the aim of achieving sustainability. The Capetown Declaration outlined the concept which is based on a UN initiative. Destination: Wildlife's corporate credo is based on it.
Can "Responsible" Tourism Practices
John: “Responsible travel” often works towards the goal of sustainability while “sustainable travel” requires responsible travel behaviors to remain sustainable. It is possible, though, for “responsible travel” to exist without sustainable travel.
D:W (Roberta): I see what you mean. Going back to the question of transportation, a tourist might travel to a developing country that offers goods and services beneficial and sound for the local economy and environment, but if those tourists need long-haul flights to reach them, the idea might be “responsible” as per the destination but not necessarily sustainable over-all.
D:W (Roberta): What about the power of responsible tourism to positively (or not) impact local conservation/preservation efforts?
John: Responsible travel if practiced well can engage tourists giving them life-changing experiences while opening their eyes to local issues. Responsible tourism engenders real change in the visiting tourists and increases their support for conservation / preservation efforts.
Tourists & Environmental Education:
Accessing Unlimited Human Capacity
D:W (Roberta): What about us, the actual travelers ourselves? Do you feel that we, the public, are sufficiently informed about the environmental impacts of our holiday transportation choices?
John: As a general statement, I'd say that the knowledge the public has on the environmental issues surrounding their travel choices is sketchy. The environment is not considered high up the priorities list of most tourists, to change behaviors and get lots of people asking about carbon, water and waste would be a game changer.
What Can A Traveler Do To Make A Positive Impact?
Accessing Human Capacity.
D:W (Roberta): What one thing would you have us know that would make a positive impact on our pleasure-travel choices?
John: Try not to get sidetracked by the small initiatives such as not requesting fresh towels every day or avoiding bottled water. Affect them as a matter of course as they are very easy hits that make a positive action on the environment. In many cases, they are publicized to draw attention from a multitude of unsustainable practices. Beware of greenwash!
Whatever you do, always look for the big hitters. I'm of the opinion that human society and, therefore, the economy cannot exist if we degrade the environment to such an extent that it cannot support us. We are consuming more than our earth can sustain. Reduce spending on travel supported by the extractive industries such as energy-intensive travel and over specified accommodation. Increase spending on travel experiences that make use of the unlimited human capacity such as education by hiring local guides or learning skills such as cooking local dishes.
D:W (Roberta): I love the idea of making travel decisions based on utilizing the “unlimited human capacity.” It would seem that that could be a win for the travelers, the locals, and the environment.
Where is Eurapart Now?
Recently you took down your very popular Eurapart site. You mentioned that you are rebuilding the site to better reflect new knowledge on environmental concerns. When it returns (and we hope it does soon) what will be different?
John: I'm not sure really. The Eurapart site started as a means of sharing my experience when travelling Europe with my family. Whatever my next project will be, it will be related to achieving zero harm travel. In the meantime, I want to learn a lot more about the subject.
John's Most Important Message?
Don't Get Distracted!
D:W (Roberta): What is the one thing you want people to take away from this interview?
John: Don't get distracted by greenwash, carbon offsetting, and publicity for insignificant environmental initiatives.
Build an awareness of the big threats to tourism, most of which are related to the pursuit of infinite growth on a finite planet. Climate change is a huge challenge to be overcome en route to zero harm, but it is by no means the only one.
Sustaining sufficient supplies of affordable oil and water to service a 50% growth in tourism by 2030 is a huge ask. What will happen to destinations and communities dependent upon tourism if the tourists can't afford to travel there?
These are some articles that you might want to read to learn more about off-setting.
Roberta: Thanks John! You raised a lot of important questions travel/environment questions. Let's keep this conversation going, let's see if we can reach that balance.
Follow John on Twitter @Eurapart