Those who know me or have been following my blog for a while now, probably already noticed how much I love the US Southwest. Unfortunately, me and my happy-place are separated by more than 9.000 miles and a virtually endless ocean. And this takes us right into the topic of this blog post – traveling long-distance often doesn’t work without boarding an airplane first. While in my day to day life I’m on a vegan diet, avoiding fast fashion and rather jumping on my bike instead of driving a car, I’m unable to quit flying – the climate killer par excellence. When it comes to traveling and especially long-distance travel, I’m constantly battling to align my values with my passion to travel. So I’m really trying to figure out how to hold on to my wanderlust while still taking care of the environment. Is sustainable air travel even possible?
Air travel and sustainability: My thoughts and conflicts
First things first: Inherently, travel and especially long-distance travel aren’t sustainable or even eco-friendly. At least if we’re focusing primarily on the ecological impact and the carbon footprint. So with this article I definitely don’t want to suggest that there’s an easy guide, a step-by-step solution or smart advice that turns our next getaway into a climate friendly act.
Nor am I interested in pushing aside and ignoring the remorse that comes from stepping onto a plane. Flight shame and our ecological conscience, that flying – no matter how fast, comfortable and affordable it might be – needs to be avoided as much as possible, are essential to finally transforming our travel habits.
Moreover I want to discuss if and how air travel can be more sustainable and mindful. Are there any specific actions we can take while traveling long-distance, that will effectively cause less impact on the environment?
CAN WE REALLY AVOID FLYING?
Another truth about this matter is that most of us probably won’t ever quit air travel entirely. Too big is our wanderlust, too much is there to see all around the world and unlimited are the possibilities. Besides, travel often means way more than just going on vacation: We’re visiting friends, family or colleagues who no longer just live around the corner but are scattered all around the world.
SUSTAINABLE TRAVEL – IS IT A CONTRADICTION?
Like I already pointed out earlier, it probably goes without saying that travel per se is not great for the environment. Looking on the environmental impact and our carbon footprint alone it definitely would be best, if we all just stayed at home. But aside from the ecological element there are also social and economic aspects of sustainability.
By traveling we get to know different people, cultures, landscapes and ecosystems. Depending on how we shape them, our trips can actually educate us. At best we’re not only broadening our horizon, but are also cultivating a deep understanding for different ways of living. We exercise ourselves in tolerance and manage to dismantle prejudices against what’s foreign to us.
If we travel with the highest possible consideration of our environment and especially with respect for the people, cultures and habitats we visit, it is possible to explore this world in a sustainable way.
Tips and suggestions: How can I mindfully travel long-distance?
So, since we in all honesty won’t entirely stop flying and traveling long-distance, let’s have a look on what we can do to make our trips more sustainable.
1. FLY LESS & STAY LONGER
We can’t just shut down air travel but cutting the amount of flights we’re taking, does have a positive impact on the climate. Short-haul flights and jet set getaways for only a weekend are definitely not part of sustainable travel routines.
A good compromise, especially concerning long-distance travel, is to reduce the frequency of hopping on a plane while extending my stay at the destination. Instead of flying to the States two times per year for only one or two weeks, I much rather plan longer stays less frequently.
Being able to work wherever and whenever I want makes this way of travel planning a lot easier for me and I am aware not everyone can do the same. However, I believe that this slow travel approach within the meaning of sustainability is a step in the right direction. And I’m convinced that the constantly evolving working environment will allow more and more people to travel like this.
2. CARBON OFFSETTING YOUR FLIGHTS AND INVESTING IN CLIMATE PROTECTION
Flights are polluting our environment as they account for 2.5% of the global carbon dioxide production. On my last trip from Frankfurt (Germany) to Los Angeles (and all the way back) I produced almost 5t CO2 that got released into the atmosphere. For reference: The climate compatible amount in a year per person accounts only for about 1.5t.
Environmental organizations such as Atmosfair allow air travelers to offset their emissions and that way reduce their environmental footprint. Depending on the amount of produced emissions on your flight, Atmosfair calculates a so-called environmental contribution – in my case this added up to 111€ – that runs into environmental projects.
Of course, carbon offsetting your flights doesn’t get rid of the carbon dioxide which is produced and released into the atmosphere when you fly. But by paying off your emissions you’re actively investing in climate protection. Instead of just paying off your guilt and flight shame, it can raise awareness to the environmental impact and consequences of our flights. My remorse definitely still travels with me.
3. PAY ATTENTION TO HOW YOU’RE FLYING
There are many different elements that affect how many emissions are actually produced with your flight. So, in order to make air travel more sustainable, it’s worth to take a closer look at these before booking your next flight:
As well as travelers, airlines do have an interest to improve their environmental balance too. New aircraft designs and operations or improved fuel efficiency by using biofuels are just two examples on how this could be done. Some airlines do a better job than others. Definitely take some time to research, before you decide where to book your flights.
Of course, usually money and pricing are relevant factors. Nonstop flights might often be a little higher investment, in exchange they are more environmentally friendly though. One of the reasons is the shorter flight route compared to switching flights on one journey. Another aspect is that as much as 50% of carbon emissions come from takeoff and landing alone.
To fly as energy efficient as possible we should also pack lightly. And even our seating has an impact on how sustainable our air travel actually is. Flying economy instead of business or first class saves energy – more people on smaller space – and it also produces less waste.
4. CONSUME SUSTAINABLY
Consuming as environmentally friendly as possible is an important step we can take, if we want to make air travel more sustainable. Whatever we do at home, also applies to our trips around the world.
I’m sure we’re all familiar with images of landscapes covered with trash. All too well do we know that by 2050 there could literally be more plastic than fish in our oceans. Unfortunately tourism contributes to this problem, as it produces huge amounts of waste. This is why we should avoid single-use plastics whenever we can, even if it seems so convenient especially while traveling. A few tips and eco-friendly products to put in your luggage instead, you can find in this blog post.
In order to travel more sustainably we should also be mindful about what we eat. A plant-based diet reduces our greenhouse gas emissions almost about 50%. Isn’t this reason enough to cut meat and animal products from our menus at least while traveling? The global meat consumption uses large amounts of water, claims around 70% of cultivated areas just to feed the animals we later eat and adds to the progressing deforestation of the rain forest. And let’s not even start to talk about all the harm it does to our animals.
While exploring different places, many of us love to collect souvenirs, plan special activities or enjoy a nice meal in a restaurant, right? So why not spend our dollars where they actually do good and focus on local providers and regional products? That way we make conscious purchase decisions that boost the local people and economy.
5. SUSTAINABLE ACCOMMODATIONS
When choosing where to stay on our trips we often look out for the best deals or most unique experiences. Not always are these socially or environmentally compatible options. Just as airlines there are also accommodations that dedicate their focus to ecology and sustainability more successful than others.
Here it also applies to choose and support locals and smaller businesses. For many, many years AirBnB has been my go-to for a comfy stay wherever I was traveling to. Because of its negative impacts on the local housing markets I try to avoid it as often as I can now. And if I do book an apartment on the platform, I try to follow sustainable criteria here as well.
Good Travel or Green Pearls are great alternatives. They offer a wide selection of hotels and vacation rentals that are not just sustainable but also very unique – from edgy architecture, to regional and organic cuisines to local social and environmental commitment.
Sustainable air travel – it’s complicated but not impossible
I guess the volume of the blog post illustrates pretty well, how complex the issue of sustainable air travel is. I haven’t even been able to talk about every aspect in full detail. I’m sure there are more articles to come. However, at least for me and my own conflict my questions and research brought to light new perspectives and impulses.
Is our guilt and flight shame really bad or something we should try to shake off? Fact is: Flying still is (at least for now) a climate killer. But then again the perspective to just stay at home in the interest of sustainability to me feels one-sided and unrealistic.
For most of us (me included) it’s very difficult to cancel flying once and for all. If we bring along not only our joy of traveling but also at least a little remorse, it might raise awareness to the relevant issues connected to travel. Whether near or far, there are consequences to our explorations. And we have to take care of our environment as best as we can.
We ultimately won’t get around taking responsibility. If we start recognizing travel as a privilege again, if we’re considerate of our environment and if we meet different cultures, customs and habitats with respect we will be able to make even long-distance travel more sustainable.
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