The Future of Travel: Examining the Costs of Our Movement

Fresh off a semester in Barcelona, I am confronted by the idea that in 2019, my peers and I are born into global citizenship. We cross borders for work, for study, for play, for love. In a series of articles, I will look at the costs of our movement and argue why we can no longer afford not to look at them.

It is access to information, the rise of industry, technological advancements, and increasing levels of affluence, which have contributed to my entitlement to travel, and fuel a belief that I can and should jump on a plane or train for the sake of learning, experience or general curiosity. Over the last quarter-century, the internet grew to become our window to the world. In the internet we gained increasing and fast access to information. A New York Times article, the likes of “36 Hours In Aarhus, Bucharest, Denver etc.” or “In Chilean Patagonia, Following a Track to the End of the World”, can now reach us to the known and lesser known parts of the world. For better or for worse, we have developed our way to easy, accessible, and even ‘cheap’ world travel. Today the conversation is shifting towards what that means and how countries receive not just goods, but people. We can no longer afford to disregard the costs — environmental, social and ethical.

In the first of a series exploring these costs, I will look at the environmental cost and the notion that the future of travel requires us to examine our method of movement, the option for offsetting and the question of if we should go at all.

We want to contribute to making positive change, we just don’t want to have to significantly change our way of living in order to do so.

This comes after I, along with 37 second year students at KAOSPILOT, recently returned from a two and a half month stint in Barcelona. It is a tradition of the school that students move to a new context for one semester of education. A sampling of benefits include applying our knowledge and skills in a different context, working across cultures and challenging our perspectives. All the while, shaking our personal and collective foundations. There are valid arguments to be made for the value we were able to create for stakeholders on the ground and for ourselves as leaders in a learning space. Still, I am left questioning if the value generated balances out the costs of our getting and being there.

The future of travel requires us to examine our method of movement

In September last year, I attended a climate conference that engaged European youth in activating politicians to take climate action. A Danish politician, arriving directly from Italy after a four-day leisure trip, was asked by a youth why she would travel such a distance by plane for such a short time, simply for leisure. Her response was a candid one. She spoke to the paradox between climate responsibility and familiar comforts, such as the ability and desire to travel for pleasure. Her point highlights the crux of the challenge we face – we want to contribute to making positive change, we just don’t want to have to significantly change our way of living in order to do so.

Together the 38 of us, traveling largely by plane, accounted for upwards of 22 metric tons of C02 emissions.

The same paradox was in some sense also true for us. According to the school, traveling to Barcelona was a requirement. How we went about traveling to Barcelona was up to us. Part of our assignment was to calculate and offset our individual and collective C02 emissions. Essentially this meant we donated money to remove an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by investing in technologies and projects working to mitigate effects of climate change. It was the first time I had honestly thought in terms of my impact and looked so explicitly at my individual contribution to climate change. My decision on the way to Barcelona was to travel by plane, direct from Copenhagen, valuing convenience and time savings over cost and emissions. On the way back I traveled by car, with three others. It took three days of driving but the impact was much less and the pace of travel allowed me to be more aware of and responsive to my surroundings. It seemed to me a more conscious method of movement, granted expensive when you account for the cost of our time. I arrived back in Denmark having eased into a winter climate and having had time to reflect on our months on Outpost.

 Together the 38 of us, traveling largely by plane, accounted for upwards of 22 metric tons of C02 emissions (not including lecturers and staff flown down). By contrast, the annual household C02 emissions per capita for Denmark in 2016 was 6.66 metric tons, according to Knoema World Data Atlas. Meaning that collectively we expended in emissions more than what a household of three would expend in an entire year. In comparison, had we traveled by car it would have amounted to approximately 7.2 tons and by train just 2.4 tons.

Questions left lingering are – what is my right to movement? And what is my responsibility in that movement?

Danish organization RenSti was responsible for offsetting our emissions. 1000 Danish Kroner went to compensate for our 22 tons of C02 emissions, sending money to selected climate projects, mostly in developing world countries. Projects range from tree planting in Kenya to forest protection in Zimbabwe and landfill greenhouse gas capture in China. “As well as mitigating climate change, the funds will also contribute to several social purposes such as better education, sanitary clinics and protection of wildlife” says RenSti. In an article put out by the Guardian, “A Complete Guide To Carbon Offsetting”, in which Duncan Clark summarizes the debate on carbon offsetting, it is said that most of the best known carbon offset schemes have switched from tree planting to clean-energy projects, in part as measurable impact is more instantaneous.

Despite a wide selection of companies waiting to offer you offsets, there is still skepticism as to whether offsetting the emissions serves as a viable long term solution or if it’s just putting a bandaid on the problem, and providing a feel good factor for us frequent flyers. RenSti adds to the description that “It is our guarantee that we will actually save the C02 we pay for.” How far into the future that C02 is saved is another question.

Think really carefully why you’re going somewhere… Travel should be much more seriously thought through before you take that cheap flight across the world. 
 – Elizabeth Becker 

 “Offsetting is better than not doing anything differently at all”, says August Septimius Krogh, Sustainability Consultant and a 2nd year student who coordinated our offsets. He acknowledges that the choice of whether and how to travel is very individual but says “having discussion around it is more important than arriving at or agreeing on a single way forward.” He has himself confronted questions like, would I stop flying? Would I fly less? Would I buy offsets? “When we are disposed to a different way of thinking”, he says, “we can change our mind.” The challenge of course is that C02 isn’t the only factor. In addition to the emissions we emit, we value time, money and efficiency.

Now back in Denmark, home to KAOSPILOT, questions left lingering are – what is my right to movement? And what is my responsibility in that movement? In an episode of The Sunday Edition with Michael Enright on The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), guest Elizabeth Becker, author of Overbooked: The Global Business of Travel & Tourism, presents what could perhaps serve as a compromise, to “think really carefully why you’re going somewhere… Travel should be much more seriously thought through before you take that cheap flight across the world.” We can no longer afford to disregard the cost of our movement. The future of travel requires that we examine our method of movement and if we should go at all. According to Carbonfootprint.com, “Offsetting plays a vital role in combating climate change, but if done in isolation it is not the solution.The point isn’t that we cease to travel but that we do something – travel less, travel differently, pay the small extra for offsets, or simply raise the discussion at your next dinner party.

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