In the late 1960s, three guys took an especially shaky bus ride. One that would change the perspective of the world for ever. A trip from Cape Kennedy in Florida that left everyone gazing at the sky. And their grainy TVs. Thanks, in a way, to one little remembered man who took a trip from Moscow to Copenhagen, fourteen years earlier to stand at a podium and say calmly: “The realization of the Soviet project can be expected in the comparatively near future”. And with that, Leonid Sedev had effectively fired the starting gun on the space race. The ultimate race to be first to visit somewhere that would see humans planting a flag on the moon in less than a decade and a half from that untheatrical moment at a business conference, as Sedev calmly intoned the Communist superpower’s response to President Eisenhower’s US ambitions to launch the first artificial satellite into escape velocity around the Earth, announced just days before. The exploration of the future was go for launch, and with it, the highpoint of the cold war’s power struggle, ignighted in early August 1955.
A continent away, just a few months later, a publicly unknown young woman took a bus ride into Montgomery in Alabama and publicly refused to stand. Across the same period of ensuing time as the build up to the moon landings, Rosa Parks’ metaphoric powerful stand for racial justice in the ordinary everyday comings and goings of people helped lead to the unprecedented visibility of the civil rights movement.
We like to get out, don’t we? And all our modes of transport are vehicles for the human imagination. We are explorers. Internal and external; emotional and geographic. And we push back frontiers when we feel trapped.
It may be as primal to us as the urge to eat, laugh, fancy footballers, retweet cat GIFs, worry about foreigners and not want to leave the sofa – curiosity. Humans just won’t stay put. It’s there in the DNA, man – it’s why your home is a forest of highway barriers and gates during your kid’s toddler years. Journeys change your perspective. Breathing in foreign air changes your feelings. Having to pack a single rucksack and physically lug it off carousels and onto buses can help you appreciate what’s really useful to you – to say nothing of the invaluable treasure of a washing machine and a working shower. Listening to people from a whole different cultural experience to you can make your home town seem hopelessly small and silly and far away – and it can help you come all the way back around the world to realise just how valuable it really is.
Pilgrimages, migrations, conquest, plunder, show tunes cruises and stag weekends, the noble tradition of travel has always consciously embodied in humans the evolutionary instinct in nature to mix things up. DNA and luggage. Often in one trip.
And it has inspired nothing less than the spirit of adventure in that other primal human instinct, storytelling. Travel puts an itch in our pants in every imaginable way.
But in the century and a half since rail, aviation and the motor car transformed the scale of human boundaries for millions of us, there’s been an unrecognised cost building up in a tab of the Excel travel spread sheet, just off the screen, that even the most organised of us digital nomads, schlepping around Asia travel blogging, didn’t notice. An environmental cost. An unimaginably high one, that threatens to smother the thing we apparently love – the “exotic” destination.
While tons of us have been continuing to jet off to the sun for fifty quid plus taxes, or to business meetings in the Gulf on the company in business class, the five warmest years on record happened during the past five years and the 20 warmest occurred over the past 22, as Climate Central puts it from the most recent NOAA and NASA data. Across moving, eating and using stuff, the tourism industry contributes almost ten percent to the current human planet’s annual greenhouse gas emissions toll, even as it adds a bit more than that percentage to the world’s GDP and is responsible for one in ten jobs on the planet. ( https://www.wttc.org/economic-impact/ ) Transportation on its own, but across the sectors including freight, has added up to about 15% of all Earth-troubling emissions by the middle of the twenty-teens, while at the same time the total contribution of travel and tourism to the global economy is put at nearly 8.3trUSD by recent Statista figures. And everything is, of course, forecast to grow and grow.
From the stuff we order to come to us, to the places we want to physically take ourselves, as a seven billion-strong increasingly mobile generation, are we reaching a moment where we’ll have to ask ourselves soberly – is that bit of travel we’re wanting to consume worth it? Knowing full well… we want our cheap stuff. And we don’t want to be tied down. Zoom may be a bit better than Skype, and Fortnite on your Occulous might be a little more immersive than watching telly. But, once you have a job, that moment on actual vacation when all seems bigger, calmer, more exciting, more possible… will always seem worth everything to get there. That moment is not about counting costs. It’s simply about remembering you are actually alive. …And it’s a bit about feeling a leeetle better than those other schmucks still at home. If only for that Instagrammed moment as the sun kisses the sea off the Cafe Del Mar.
You don’t post a pic of la cuenta telling you your four mojitos cost you sixty euros, do you.
With conflict and climate crisis migration forecast to force millions more of us to leave home and pit ourselves against land, sea, weather and economic strongholds in the coming decades, whether we’re used to choosing how we travel or not, some big disruptions are heading to our cosy Kansas homesteads. So the question is, are we ready for it?
Will the futures facing our travel plans be a journey into the heart of darkness, a fickle quest for El Dorado, or a trek to the source of the spice trail? A ticket on the Mars express, or the Windrush?
And out there will we find ourselves? Or more like everyone’s gap year, just come home with a lot of debt and dissatisfaction with Luton.
I’m Timo Peach. Pack your wicking pants and solar phone charger. Because we are all on a journey now, man…
Bloody hell, it’s all so crappy, isn’t it? The bins in the street, the rubbishy housing estates, the drunken town centres, the job centres, the industrial estates, the boring global chain stores, the Brexit tweets, the awful pop, the sodding council, the ruddy neighbours and the sh**y weather.
Why can’t here be much more like over there, where the weather and the streets and the houses and the awful pop and the healthcare systems and the social problems and the intractable politics and the bins and the neighbours are all just so… different? A bit different. Even if the boring global chain stores aren’t. No matter where you are.
Ah, travel. Isn’t it romantic? I do love it. I know we’re not supposed to any more, now we’re all angry populists who hate foreigners. I’ve actually always liked the process of travel, almost more than reaching the destination – it’s the end-to-end experience that somehow appeals to me. Piecing together a whole journey across all the passenger nodes, planning the connections and identifying the thrilling unknown links in the chain. Reading up on local abduction statistics. Transit systems and information design and maybe some funky architecture, leading to dusty roads through the hills or muggy street corners with tequila bars playing woody-bassed jazz. All while trying to project an air of insouciant, uncreased confidence – in your head stepping off a sea plane in a linen suit to swoop up a martini on the way to the ambassador’s residence, trying not to look in reality like a frazzled pink tourist clutching their bum bag, completely at the mercy of the cab driver cruising you out to the townships, who’s language you very obviously don’t speak a word of.
Long before I pitch up with the locals and grab a cicada-serandaded first glass of wine, hard-earned across maybe thousands of miles of mostly sitting around, I find travel interchanges are the places of possibility and dreams. Wondering what lies at the end of different rail tracks, who everyone is crossing over in the swarming multi levels of routes, what the cab drivers really make of the city they work. Travel brings energy and infrastructure – visceral and material experiences that make it impossible to believe the world could end, or all that could be gone.
Airports never sleep. The refined procedurality that keeps ten thousand planes and a million people in the air around the globe at any one moment
involves trillions of tiny transactions between moving parts, human, engineered, transmitted, cross-checked, practiced. As Chris Hadfield says: “No astronaut launches for space with their fingers crossed – that’s not how we deal with risk.” And he could be speaking for the multi-squillion dollar airline industry by the same token. It’s a century-refined process that laces together a matrix of actions around one key, ostensibly high-risk, mode of transport to translate it into a very low probability of accident, through a million repeatedly ironed-out behavioural and technical creases. It’s freaking amazing, the airline industry alone.
But the whole tourism and travel industry combined does depend on something very similar to the car industry, as we saw in EP25 of Unsee The Future – evocative storytelling. Only, it seems to rely on you doing most of that bit these days.
As Kerryn du Plessis wrote for HuffPost’s blog, if you dream of turning adventure into your job by working in travel it turns out the word industry is a clue to the last century reality of that.
“From the time I was a little girl, I had great aspirations of working in the travel industry. I used to spend hours studying an atlas, learning everything I could. When I was 12 years old I could tell you the capital city, currency, flag and official language of every country in the world. I dreamed of travelling the globe, exploring new places and learning about other cultures” she said, with all the enthusiasm of every travel dreamer. “I started working for a well-known international travel agency in 2003… but I quickly discovered that I’d picked the wrong career. I breathed, ate and slept bookings. Planning somebody else’s travel itinerary is far less exciting than planning your own.”
By contrast, some years later, Instagram. And podcasts. The rise of the travel influencer. In the social channels age, it starts with scrolling straight to the reviews and comments on Trip Advisor but easily shifts to following particular travellers with more real sounding experience to share, greater interaction with us as fellow travellers, not customers, and more themed threads of story to follow in why to even get out there into the planet.
For the travel professional, it’s making a career on your own terms to keep the passion stoked, free of corporate bookings farms. For the travel consumer it’s something brashly more immediate – and a lot harder work to make, by the way – than spending time with classic travel writing or Googling deals in the Algarve. And it blurs the line between pro and bro – you quickly feel you really could be them, living their – sorry your – best life.
In the dream of making travel your job, your dad might have fancied himself as a new Paul Theroux, evolving into a new Hemingway one day undoubtedly, or maybe a new Evelyn Waugh becoming at least a new Bill Bryson if not a new Hunter S Thompson, but the languid pace of a reflective long read in print alone, witty or visceral, can easily be a dreamily distant alternative to actually traveling. Never mind actually writing about it. Which is why he never did either. Not that he let you read anyway. Not after his years in the Merchant Navy. Travel bloggers do lots of both and more and just seem to get on with doing stuff. They grab Go-pros and dive into the surf and invite comments about how rad it is to be a digital nomad. And more importantly, how normal. How human. How personal. How problematic. People like Mel Giroux may have created a complete professional service with A Broken Backpack, but she feels like a friend helping you out, making sense of a complex, colourful but accessible planet.
Or folk like Viv Egan and Kit Whelan essentially helping women find a particular sense of support while working around the world in Nomad and Spice. Or travelling the world gay – it might sound enormous fun in the hands of top bloggers like The Nomadic Boys but the need for some specific community knowledges when traveling a very unevenly open world can be fundamental. And now, thankfully more possible.
It’s a far cry from the package tours to Spain of your parents or grandparents.
And it’s still a far cry from how the old components of the travel industry often sell their own services. While there are notable creative exceptions – such as the rather lovely marketing campaign from 2016 The Swedish Number which invited anyone at all to call Sweden and: “get connected to a random Swede, anywhere in Sweden and talk about anything you want” – mostly holiday ads in old media are just that, in approach. Old. As a snapshot like AdEspresso’s analysis of a bunch of online ads, the industry isn’t always very imaginative in how it sells the story. Hotels sell discounts, tour operators sell discounts hung off destination names and airlines heavily trade on their own brands. With a lot of stock photography being used. Instagram might be very carefully and misleadingly framed, but at least it’s you.
Yeah, tour operators did talk enthusiastically about Virtual Reality back in 2015 as we all did, but it takes time for a creative medium to really find its mature expressive feet. What did happen to Tui’s digital concept stores? Did they stop people feeling they even had to bother actually going on holiday from the shopping mall?
And sure, there are platforms like Travala which aim to use **blockchain!** to verify up the search and booking process between social and independent
and such incremental seeming ideas may turn out to be quietly fundamental to future ways of doing stuff. Like AirBnB trojaning the unregulated badlands of the gig economy – SORRY – unlocking spaces, entrepreneurialism and more relational connection to place.
But the reality of travel, behind the circus of dreams, is as we’ve long put it: Everywhere is somewhere.
Everywhere has bins, politics, waste, weather, corruption, politics, rodents, food miles, politics, beige offices, industrial estates, boring Tuesday afternoons, politics and crap telly. It’s just, almost all of that can seem like something joyous when you’re fresh off the boat because of the idea of somewhere in your head. Which is the one bit you bring with you. You are the keystone in activating your brilliant holiday.
Building city and country branding seems a hugely important aspect of selling people expensive trips away from their homes. The best of it tells stories based on the truth of a location’s heritage and its aspirations, sewn together in the experience of the visitor by the truth of how all the locals seem to live and own their linked spaces there. Does it all add up to a real seeming place? Real enough to keep buying into? Or is everything just a moment in time based partly on dumb luck? Well don’t say that to the Trivago woman or your local STA rep.
And especially not your Thomas Cook travel agent, because the 178 year old business has been amassing so much debt since its near collapse in 2011 that today it’s in desperate talks for a £750m bail-out from some Chinese firm simply to make good on the original £1.2b debt from then, in order to keep its more than 500 traditional high street stores open.
The world of travel is truly changing on all levels – technology, recreation, trade, and all in the context of climate breakdown. Travel is life blood to the human system, but it can be tumour to the environment. It can also just be tedious, perhaps especially when you’re so determined to be having a brilliant time, not just trying to get somewhere.
In the middle of all this uncertainty and cost, is it really such a good idea to Skyscanner some sangria? What is behind the sun?
“Bespoke. Curated. Crafted. Artisan. When will travel industry operators stop using these “authenticity” terms for everything from bath plugs to buffets as a way of appealing to the Millennial market?” asks Ben Groundwater, writing in Stuff. “Coupled with not actually doing anything particularly thoughtful and place-appropriate, let alone unique – a subway tile here, a vintage print there, this movement has become hackneyed, lazy and meaningless.”
In an article entitled The worst things about travel in 2019, he lays out the unromance of it all, if you’re currently thripping through your traveler’s cheques wondering where to spend them. Apart from in 1978.
It’s not simply about your inconveniences as a traveler, of course. Unmodernised bathrooms. Uber pulling out of the country. Or airlines bumping prices with surtaxes and luggage allowance costs and fudging the clarity of them to compete for your attention. Or perhaps more worryingly, the imminent roll-out of facial recognition software across the globe’s airports, as aviation attorney Mark Dombroff highlights – which promises to make security a more seamless experience but in practice will make terminals complete, permanently recording digital security zones, using software and camera systems that many want to ban from public life not simply because it can store trillions of images with no public recourse, but because currently such tech, as Steve Lohr puts it in the New York Times: “is accurate. If you’re a white guy.”
No, the larger mass of concern about travel as an economic behaviour is really about the destinations and their communities themselves.
“Overtourism, as it’s been dubbed, is a huge problem with no easy answers, and it’s one that’s still growing” Groundwater says. Even here in Europe. “Cities such as Venice, Amsterdam, Barcelona and Dubrovnik are being trampled daily by tens of thousands of feet, as the global number of travellers increases and interest in the hotspots shows no sign of waning”.
A rather awkward looking expression of tourism as a consumption habit, you might say, are the pictures of sacred Aboriginal site Uluru in Australia snaked with tourists all apparently rushing to climb the famous landmark ahead of a ban on this coming into effect in October. Which has made some reporting on the story think of similar nutty scenes of queuing and rubbish on Mount Everest, in the Himalayas.
And it’s not just all the usual landmarks. The increase in interest in favela and slum tours is a growing commodification of local culture that’s also problematic to say the least, as Groundwater also notes: “Travellers have to be very careful that the tours they choose to do are actually beneficial for the people they go to stare at. There are plenty of exploitative experiences out there” he says.
Y’know, when you think about it, the tourism “industry” is rather an expression of an old world view of, well, the world. Because it is a bit…
..well, I mean it IS a bit, isn’t it?
..colonial. I mean, isn’t it?
Hospitality is an ancient art, as is wanting to feed your family, and celebrating heritage and identity is just kind of sacred in principle. But really, who currently has the money to do the most travel? And the most travel damage? Economic class might not be slavishly wedded to ethnicity quite as it was, shall we say, but cash still flows heavily down some very entrenched national economic irrigation channels – which are usually more like sealed pipes across your family land. There are those that consume travel and those that serve those that consume and in a fair world we’re supposed to all be doing all of those roles at different times but, yeah. There’s still a hierarchy of expectations when we turn up with iPhones and Apple Pay wanting a camel ride or a great turn-down service and a little traditional ceremony.
Who benefits? We certainly do, as tourists, on the face of it. As tourists and as co-patriots of tourist global travel businesses, quite possibly still based in the wealthier of our home countries. Of course, many would want to say that the travel market is continuing to evolve its conscience, partnering with local tour operators, and the industry is – just as of course – full of people who love travel and exploring the planet. And the market for trampling feet is growing, which means the wealth to do it must be spreading, but many would also argue it’s proving no quick fix for poverty. And has often been the reverse.
As Geert Vansintjan puts it for Uneven Earth, walking through town in a remote, picturesque mountain region of Vietnam, a young woman helped him find the market and they got chatting along the way.
“She works in the kitchen in one of the hotels. Her mother is in charge of the kitchen. She is off to buy groceries” he says. “What will be her future? In any major city of Vietnam, a bright woman like her with this level of English fluency would be expected to study. Here, I expect her to work at the hotel for most of her life and move up the hierarchy until she fills the place of her mother.”
Is this true? And is this bad? We’d have to ask the young woman herself. A lot of young people. A lot of older people, doing it for a long time.
Vansintjan’s point is a place-making fundamental – single-use infrastructure. People’s lives, as well as the stuff we cement in around them. It’s the opposite of Jane Jacobs’ healthy teemingness of a place.
“A region’s dependency on tourism inhibits development in other sectors—sectors with more productivity and development potential” he suggests. “Often public infrastructure for tourism promotion is only single-use: a highway to an economically unimportant city, a cable lift, a hotel. The private and public infrastructure for tourism is often exploitative: building a hotel in a prime landscape makes the landscape less prime for others, and inflation on investment leads to it becoming a typical tourist trap, as in Niagara falls, where the landscape is only a backdrop for tourist fleecing.”
And he thinks too: “As a lot of private infrastructure for mass tourism is foreign or large, the focus is on fast returns on investment, without much attention to the needs and potential of the local communities and the local economy. The returns flow back to the investors, and the unschooled local population stagnates. ..Tourist areas are not leading towards a diversified, sustainable economy.”
Fast returns on investment.
The whole tourism thing is a a story about escape, isn’t it. It’s not about taking on someone else’s reality, but forgetting yours for a bit. To pin your sanity on a week or maybe two out of the system. And increasingly, to go somewhere original – go find your different. Go find the natural beauty of the world, even. Follow your love of wildlife and conservation, yes. Do some schools building! And, handily, there is a whole corner of the economic system set up to facilitate this seemlessly.
“”Off-the-beaten-track” is, ironically, a very well-beaten path taken over the centuries by colonists, anthropologists, missionaries, developers, international aid agencies and World Bankers, environmentalists, and the ever-expanding tourism industry” wrote Deborah Ramer, twenty years ago now for Cultural Survivor. “This industry is now a sundry crew of tourists, thrill-seekers, adventurers, bird and whale watchers, sports enthusiasts, cruise ships the size of cities, builders of airports, hotels and global communication systems, traveling scientists and academics, well-intentioned social justice activists, and millions of others. This well-worn path, once limited to the rich or the resourceful academic, has now been deeply traced into the most isolated spaces on Mother Earth by a growing number of outsiders.”
This rather knocks the edge off your climate science gap year expectations, doesn’t it? And Cultural Survivor, as a charity, has been highlighting the negative effects of the typical tourism approach upon locals, indigenous people, for almost half a century. Because, much as we are told local economies depend on tourism, it’s still so often unclear quite how its cashflow flows broadly out into wider local economic life. I mean, if you live in Orlando and don’t work for Disney, what the hell DO you do, right?
“Tourism often creates conflict and resentment with local peoples, particularly once the realities of its impact become clear. Examples of the negative impacts of tourism upon indigenous peoples are numerous throughout history and continue largely unabated today” says, Ramer, and it’s still true, decades after her words. Her list of examples is still illustrative, in fact: “Beach hotels have displaced the fishing communities that once lined the coasts of Penang, Malaysia and Phuket, Thailand. A Mohawk uprising in Canada was triggered by plans to extend a golf course on to Mohawk burial grounds. Indigenous burial sites have been desecrated by resorts in Hawai’i and Bali. In the tropical jungles of the Amazon insensitive tourism operators have disrupted religious ceremonies, and even brought diseases like tuberculosis into indigenous communities.”
Well. So. Caravan holiday in Wales this year, then?
So long as you live pretty close to Wales. Preferably in it.
Thing is, there are just so many ways to be part of the problem before we can practically envision a different way of doing things. It’s a giant minefield of hypocrisy we are bicycling downhill through with our feet out going weeeee. Which is an ironic metaphor because the bicycle is far and away the least of our transport problems looking forward.
“Tourism creates jobs – lots of them. When it is well managed, tourism provides an incredible economic boost to host communities. For these reasons, almost every country in the world wishes to expand its tourism sector and increase the number of tourism arrivals” suggests the always super-local World Economic Forum.
So is there a way to get a bit more >drum roll< sustainable in our travel plans? Across personal tourism, business and trade? What might this really mean? Because what does it cost to even get to foreign communities?
“Is sustainable tourism possible?” asks Morgan Saletta in The Conversation. “What options does the environmentally concerned tourist have? Is the only responsible action to restrict holidays to places that can be reached by foot, bike, or train?… Is it possible to enjoy an overseas holiday without contributing to catastrophic climate change? Will our enjoyment of a remote tropical beach literally submerge it under rising sea levels? Is there a balance between the environmental costs of tourism and its benefits?”
“Sustainable tourism” he suggests, “arguably means working out what this balance is, and then ensuring we stay on the right side of it.”
There is, I would argue, one main problem with everything we do to get about, dithering hither and fro, to and yon across the planet surface every day. We. Do. Not. Think. About. The. Cost.
The real cost. That will come to collect. That many believe simply is coming to collect.
What it costs us in degrading the environment we live in. Breathe in. Yield crops from. Want to go and selfie in front of.
Degrading it with harmful emissions. Partly from our travel. Greenhouse gases – most notably Carbon Dioxide and methane. Methane is freaking lethal for climate breakdown if it builds up too much but you’re guffing out that mostly through cows and as we can’t take cows on the airplane – and no, you don’t remember when you could take cows on the airplane – I shall ignore that in this episode.
But it’s a habit I am beginning to think we should all be getting into, prompted by the airlines and ferry companies and car hire firms and rail operators, to say nothing of our energy suppliers – keeping track of what we emit. Just getting it in our heads habitually – to check. To factor it in when we’re making our travel plans.
“Offsetting” has a blurred place in the public imagination at the moment. It’s hard to know what it really is, and there’s the vague whiff of at least uselessness about it, based on the not very effective seeming equivalence it uses – “We’ll plant some trees while you blast tons of carbon into the stratosphere at 500 miles an hour. Heart you!” – but also because it’s sort of tangled in the mind with carbon trading and the small matter of the EU’s Carbon Credits emissions trading system getting kinda punked by organised crime, ten years ago. Or something.
Plus it just sounds like a terrible terrible fig leaf for some gigantic banging balls of hypocrisy – atoning for sins of emission, as Morgan Saletta beautifully put it. Akin in lots of people’s minds to the old Catholic church selling indulgences.
I am getting my head around the idea of personal carbon offsetting as a helpful thing, in the end. Because it’s on the list of tiny little behaviour adjustments to modern living that can do a stupendously significant, even fundamental thing for our current global problems – make you bloody think about it. What you’re doing. How expensive you really are. You waddling twerp. And invaluable poetic soul.
Now, while you spool up a complete cycle of indignation about this, poised to run through the whole spectrum of snorting, laughing, How Dare You-ing, Godwin’s law breaking or invoking, one or the other, and basic scorn, let’s cut straight to the part where you feel better about yourself compared to me and also discover that this whole thing might be quite nifty and useful to say you’ve looked into when it comes up down the pub. The neighbouring village’s pub, obviously, that’s not in the valley and so not flooded to the bedrooms again.
So here goes. Ready?
I went to a conference about sustainability in April. And it wasn’t in the southern hemisphere or even just the US. It was essentially in my European back yard, in Malaga. And so I flew.
I flew. Yes.
To a sustainable wellbeing economy conference, yes.
So I’m just another one of them, yes. Obviously. ..Haven’t you been listening?
Look, it came up at the last minute. I have a budget electric car now, so there’s no way I’d make it down to the straights of Gibraltar by road in less than a week or something and the train seemed just a wallet crusher with a week to go. And with four of us to organise in different UK towns, and a feeling in my water that we should just be there, we organised flights from Heathrow. It was easier.
Of course you would. And the fact that you will be mocking me in the neighbouring village pub possibly for ever for this does at least mean you have been paying some attention – and know that there’s something a bit hidden about the true cost of flying. Actually, about the true cost of all travel and all freaking living. Even though, like me before I did this, you’ll have no idea what what I’m about to tell you even means.
Sustainability consultant and environmental campaigner Stuart Lane confirmed a good site to go explore all this, and so please do – carbonfootprint.com. It’s nicely laid out with all kinds of useful information clearly around the actual online calculators to start getting familiar with the figures of your own life.
So here are some figures as an illustration. According to carbonfootprint.com, my flight to Malaga from Heathrow spent 0.54 tonnes of CO2equivalent in getting a seat on a full Airbus A320.
O-kay, so how do I “off set” that, and for how much?
I’ll get to that, but let’s do a double-decker bus / the size of Wales / football pitches-type comparison that helps munting dimwits like us lot actually make sense of abstract figures.
If I spent 0.54 tonnes of CO2e to fly from Heathrow to Malaga in two and a half hours or so, how much would I have spent if I’d driven from my door in my faithful old 1.9L Audi TDi? If I hadn’t sold it for a budget EV? The RAC route mapper clocks the road distance from Bournemouth to Malaga via Portsmouth ferry at 1308miles which would take me over 22 hours of driving… and spend 0.365 tonnes of CO2e.
Is it really worth the difference? Having to go to Portsmouth ferry terminal?
Well, the figure IS less. And a bit more less, because we had to take the train to Heathrow to catch our flights which added – according to fag packet scribbles from carbonfootprint.com – 0.01 tonnes of CO2e. (..Wait, is that all? Wow. Okay.) But. Remember – we would have been four-up in the old Audi. So divide its figure by four – and suddenly you get to less than 0.1 tonne of CO2e each. And over two tonnes of it putting all four of us in the air. That’s quite a bit more, flying over driving.
Driving to Malaga in an old diesel as a party would have spent roughly fifteen percent of the carbon budget we actually spent flying. Have I done the basic maths right? It just would have cost us more in our own feels – in money for fuel and extra accommodation and tolls and wear and tear and a crate or two of wine, and in time. Cruising through the French and Iberian countryside.
We’d have felt more of the true cost and scale of that trip. ..Who wants to do that, right, weekend getawayers?
It’s worth noting that you wouldn’t do this trip in a high-end autobahn cruiser, if emissions was your concern even more than fuel costs – tiddling about with car types in the calculator I found it was possible to add a tonne – a tonne – of CO2e to the journey if you borrowed your mate’s Bentley to drive to Andalusia from the UK.
But while we’re still comparing flights with old driving, by contrast what would our new electric Moonbuggy have done for the planet, assuming we could have made at least ten stops to recharge because it’s currently not a Tesla?
Er. Okay so I did do it. I did just go to the carbonfootprint.com calculator and actually curse when there was no dropdown menu option for a ZERO EMISSIONS VEHICLE.
So there’s that. Zero emissions. Across thirteen hundred miles. For four people. By the same methodology.
Here, it’s also worth making one other comparison to keep in mind. Before you go put a deposit down on a Hyundai Kona or What Car’s Car Of The Year 2019 the Kia e-Niro both of which have a three hundred mile official range, BTW. ..Because: Rail.
Bournemouth to Malaga via London by rail, roughly – 0.03 tonnes CO2e. Negligible compared to flying. Less tiring than driving. Possibly quicker on some routes. You can drink all the way there. Yeah. Rail.
And the actual offsetting cost? According to this system… >drum roll< six quid a ton of CO2e on their basic global portfolio – which I’ll explain in a minute. Six quid. That’s all they’re asking for. So 0.365 tonnes of CO2e from my old Audi TDi would cost me a bit over two quid to add to maybe five 500mile tanks of diesel there and back at maybe sixty–seventy pounds a refill – £350 fuel.
(There is no offsetting for NOx emissions so let’s smile at the children walking past us to school in the traffic jam in the suburb of Barcelona and wait awkwardly to move on slowly from that emissions expenditure.)
The flights would have cost me rather less in dosh than car fuel, had I driven down alone, but for all four of us, flying worked out a bit more expensive. It didn’t take two sensible days of driving plus the cost of a nice French B&B to fly, of course, but it did cost rail fare and bus ticket pennies on top and ultimately did take nine or ten hours door to door, when you add up all the travel to the airport and buggering about in WHSmith and Leon and getting dressed after security.
But if you want real perspective on all this? Half a ton of carbon to get to Southern Spain by jet plane? According to the Green Ration Book from 2010 figures, “The average UK citizen is responsible for the creation of over 11.1 tonnes of Carbon Dioxide Equivalent (CO2e) per year. The government’s target is to cut this by 80% by 2050. That must mean just over two tonnes of CO2e per citizen per year.”
In fact, an article by Tourism Concern on Travindy quotes the Tyndale Centre for Climate Change Research suggesting that we really need to get that down to just one tonne of CO2e per person per year.
Flying to Sydney and back from London, on just one round trip would, it seems, create three and a half tonnes of CO2e. And a few non-compostible pretzel wrappers.
Starting to get it?
So how do they calculate all this? The monetary cost of our mealy-mouthed reparations?
“Carbon offsetting is a way to reduce the emissions that you can’t” says carbonfootprint.com. “It both helps to combat global climate change as well as caring for local communities. In many instances providing much needed employment, health improvement, biodiversity and broad social benefits to impoverished communities.”
When you punch in your numbers on the website’s calculator for, say, a flight return journey, the calculator then offers you a click through to “offset” the amount it works out – and when you do, it presents you with a range of options.
And it’s quite a range of specific projects you can choose from to put your money into. It’s more than just a sort of mindless indulgence, though they do have a basic “global portfolio” option at the top, which gives them permission to split your indulgence, sorry offset, between a few key projects. But you can choose to spend specific amounts on, say, UK tree planting – at more like twelve quid for an average short-haul flight – or reforestation in Kenya, or improved cookstoves for social impact in Uganda, or a clean water programme in Central America or a solar power project in India or reforestation in Brazil and, well, their list goes on. You can choose.
Regulation for all this seems to involve various international certification standards, and carbonfootprint.com lists a bunch of them to go check out. And all across the site is a rich crisscrossing of paths to connected information about the way we spend and can help mitigate CO2 in our lives, personally and as big businesses. It’s a lot to take in – and a whole new world to begin to research the efficacy of. But while this all feels very different to the world of your flyover life, the projects begin to point you to the life happening below your aircraft, say, that needs to be factored in to the disruptive cost of your cocooned slightly reclining seat.
Because it’s no surprise, is it, that those of us in the West have been spaffing the carbon budget on behalf of the whole planet and generations to come – essentially piddling the resource up the wall without asking anyone if they wouldn’t mind us just having their fair share. Because, well. Our whole economic culture to date. See: every other episode of Unsee The Future.
The latest edition of the invaluable Delayed Gratification, Issue 34, synthesises updated figures from various data sources into a brilliantly helpful article, Desperate Measures, and one particular basic infographic that I think makes a useful final comparison here.
The average human on Earth in 2019 generates 4.81t CO2e per year. That’s up about 0.7t on almost thirty years ago. What this tells you is that some of us are generating way less than that figure… and some of us waaaaay more. The average – average! – American is responsible for 16.2t CO2e per year. And that’s down from 20-odd in 1990! Ruddy nora. Interestingly, it’s not the worst culprit on the planet as a nation, responsible for less than fifteen per cent of all annual carbon dioxide globally. Whereas China is responsible for 27% of it on its own, according to these figures. And the average Chinese person has ballooned their carbon dioxide emissions from 2.1t to over seven in the last three decades. That spread of middle class wealth.
As an aside, it’s worth noting here that the average UK person has brought down their CO2e per year by essentially half in that time, and really since the start of this decade – just five and a half tonnes now, not eleven, thanks to the quietly dramatic increase in clean energy across the UK grid. Well done you.
But when it comes to travel, this is a small positive compared to the potential of the trends. While it’s said that America is probably reaching peak plane right about now, China is adding new routes and aircraft to the mix very fast. For all its investment in clean grid energy and transport, it also thinks way more Chinese are wanting to get into the sky. And it’s not like old polluters who’ve been spending everyone else’s budgets are anywhere near willing to start cutting back on their activities to help the environment compensate.
Travel writer and environmental campaigner Edward Hasbrouke, talking to Mick Dunn on Sustainacast a few years ago, suggested that America was and undoubtedly still is very reluctant to reduce its aviation industry or curtail it in any way because it’s one of its key export industries. He also points out that, of course, the aviation industry is effectively subsidised by governments around the world in a number of ways, not least because it is exempt from tax on, er, the thing kind of at the heart of the big problem with emissions – fuel. Thanks originally to the 1947 Convention on International Civil Aviation, which was agreed by umpteen signatory states in a spirit of post-war hopey-changey co-operation. But over the last fifteen years or so, a figure kicked about that still seems to hold ballpark relevance to the UK’s part in this, as one illustration, is that the Treasury is missing out on some £10b because of this agreement. Imagine what that money could do to help roll out subsidised solar energy for your apartment block.
It’s a complicated sector to understand that doesn’t seem to function quite as standardisedly as others within the WTO, but around Open Skies agreements for carriers and subsidies for regional airports – most notably in recent times in supposedly transport-progressive China, where the rapid expansion of major airports in the country has left smaller airports “bleeding money”, according to Asian Review with over 70% of them supposedly in the red and the government raising the bailout to some $260m, they think – and with various tax breaks on fuel and airport business, aviation doesn’t seem to run its business on quite the same level as other transport. Yet somehow, for all that ingrained financial support, at one of the world’s busiest airports, good ol’ Heathrow, some 4,000 airport workers are set to disrupt travel this summer with strikes – because while dividends to shareholders of the business have totalled a couple of billion over the last two years, according to a Unite spokesperson in The Independent, and the chief exec of the airport, John Holland-Kaye, recently doubled his pay to £4.2m in 2018
a pay negotiation for the union members promised an extra £3.75 per hour.
Ah. Free market economics. Always brings out the best in us all, and for the planet, don’t it?
I’d not know how to compare any of the transport sectors fairly with each other and, y’know, I famously love flying especially – frankly would still love to learn to. But as an industry, it does seem built on some very last century thinking – thinking that got us into the climate mess we’re in, including the fact that you and I just don’t think about it.
I’ve simply ended up wondering. Where is the clear civil global offsetting agreement? To standardise and regulate it all at our level, while national military and aerospace industries bicker about how unfair the whole idea is. Don’t we need to push for a global treaty on offsetting and make it mandatory to do as any flight or travel? And how ever we want to get about, don’t those of us with a few middle class choices all need to be geekily obsessing over carbon trackers? Like our lifestyles depended on it. And a few livelihoods.
Don’t we, in fact, need to be pushing for nothing less than a martial plan for the planet right about now? Like it’s a freaking emergency of the largest possible proportions?
Hold your horsepower there. Surely there must be a technical way out of our international travel costs before we commit to the joyless hippydippy dystopia, which we never will?
In the more futury future, how else could we get about the planet, if not punched beyond the troposphere by Frank Whittle’s genius but hidden-costly engine?
Next time on Unsee The Future, we’ll take a look at a few jolly futury ideas to find technical solutions to getting around the planet more cleanly, including in trade, and in The Hopey-Changey Bit we’ll paint a picture of a rather different way of seeing the planet as a future wanderer.