I write this three hours in to one of the longest air journeys it’s possible to make on our planet. Toronto, Canada to Melbourne, Australia. Two long haul flights, twenty-six hours of door to door travel and, most troublingly 5.27 tons of carbon pumped into our atmosphere, for my seat alone.
I was fifteen when I took my first solo flight across the world, and nearly twenty-five years later, picking up the airline magazine still fills me with the thrill and wonder of travel, and the magnetic pull of places I am yet to see. And yet. On the same day I find myself gazing at mesmerizing images of the Moroccan desert, trulli homes in Puglia and the charming decay of Havana, I’ve also been reading articles that remind me that my home country is on fire, the oxygen is being depleted from our oceans, and that my children have never experienced a year without drought.
Air travel is a growing contributor to global carbon emissions, the main heat-trapping gas that is causing our climate to change at what is now a run-away rate. Currently, it contributes about 3% of global emissions, but this number is spiking in an era when we need to cut back at every level. Greta Thunberg highlighted this starkly when she chose to travel to the UN climate summit in New York by train and sailing boat, sparking a heated debate about the ethics of travel and popularizing the term, ‘flight shaming’.
So, is it immoral to travel now? Some say it is. To fulfil our curiosity, or perhaps to fill our Instagram feeds, we heedlessly poison the planet that sparked our curiosity in the first place.
But there is another perspective. Travel connects: it opens the door to understanding which, when closed, foments ignorance and hatred. It reunites us with deeply missed family members. It ignites a passion for the miraculous diversity of this world – from the cornucopia of its rainforests to the tiny flower that blooms in the desert; from bustling urban streets humming with human ingenuity, to solitary falconers on the Mongolian steppe. And how do we truly devote energy to fighting for something, if we don’t feel a passion for it?
Right now, there is no sustainable way to see the world. That is an inescapable fact. But I’m not sure I believe that we should stop traveling, or feel ashamed of wanting to travel. What we can do is make better choices and work a little bit harder to reduce our impact. I asked the views of some regular travelers, and these were their recommendations for being a lighter and more conscious traveller.
Before you go
- Consider, of course, whether you do need to travel. But if you do, planning your journey with the planet in mind can cut tons of emissions from your overall footprint. For example, can you carpool or take public transit to the airport? What about embracing the romance of train travel rather than flying?
- Did you know that you can offset the emissions of your travel and even local adventures? Organizations like Offsetters and my good friends at Protect Our Winters make it easy to support carbon reduction projects and it’s cheaper than you may think. The offsets for this trip cost me $100, much of which I got back by taking a $12 train instead of a $90 taxi to the airport.
- Try to pack as lightly as you can. The lighter the plane, the less fuel it will burn.
- Bring your own food and water for the flight. Not only do you feel better for eating good food, but you avoid piles plastic waste and save money instead of purchasing less-than-appealing airline food. I’ve found good choices to be salads, sliced veggies with a tasty dip and dried fruit.
While you’re away
- Instead of staying in that carbon-pumping chain hotel, try staying in a home or apartment. You’ll be living more like a local as well as treading more lightly on the planet.
- Buy food from local producers. You’ll be reducing food miles, supporting the local economy and, quite possibly, trying some of the most memorable dishes you’ve ever had.
- Take your own water bottle everywhere. If you’re concerned about water quality, there are many extremely effective water purification devices that are cheaply and readily available – ask at your local outdoor retailer.
- If you’re going to be eating take-out, bring your own reusable cutlery, straws and even containers. If you’re comfortable to, you can take the opportunity to talk to the locals about your choice. That way, they are less likely to be offended by your actions, and you may be supporting them to offer more sustainable options as well.
- Walk or bike around your destination. Not only does this create zero emissions, but you’ll see more, meet the locals, save money and be healthier. Win!
When you get home
- Be honest but not ashamed about the impact of your journey – Take the opportunity to start a conversation in person or on social media, about how we can be better stewards of this one remarkable planet.
- Share information that was useful to you (like how you offset your emissions).
- Give your time or donate to an organization working to protect the place you visited.
- Push your local representative to support climate initiatives, including funding more public transit and innovations like hydrogen and electric-powered vehicles that make travel more sustainable.
Undoubtedly, this is an uncomfortable conversation that we need to have. But we don’t have to retreat to the harsh dichotomies that the current state of global debate seems to expect of us. Do we as travelers need to do better? Yes. But it is possible to be part of the solution as well.
As for me, I can’t un-know the impact I’m causing by making this trip. I understand that offsetting flights is an imperfect answer to not polluting in the first place. But I believe in progress over perfection, and I know I am going to be deeply happy to have my first Christmas at home in 6 years – eating my mum’s amazing cooking, walking around my old neighbourhood, and learning more about our fragile climate from friends who, with any luck, will be returning home from fighting the raging bushfires in time to have Christmas with their own families.
Ali Wines is an Australian writer and communication consultant, based in Toronto, Canada.
A former lawyer, she prefers the thrill of financial instability that comes from freelance writing and managing her own business.
Ali loves to travel and has lived in four countries. She is passionate about the power of the outdoors to transform lives. She is a member of the Canadian Ski Patrol and leads the Toronto chapter of Protect Our Winters, a nonprofit that brings the outdoor community together to fight climate change.