Should you stop flying? The truth about travel & climate change

With concepts like flight-shaming and overtourism, travel is becoming a dirty word among eco-campaigners. But can you satisfy your wanderlust and still protect the planet? Yes, says Allison Foat

13 October 2019 - 00:00 By Allison Foat
By making a donation to a reforestation project you can help to offset the CO² emissions you rack up when travelling by plane.
By making a donation to a reforestation project you can help to offset the CO² emissions you rack up when travelling by plane.
Image: 123RF/etiamos

There's a moral dilemma at the heart of globe-trotting: you want to explore the world but by travelling, you end up increasing your carbon footprint and harming the very thing that you love.

There's no question that travel is enriching, perspective-shifting and liberating and that it presents unparalleled opportunities to engage with and appreciate different societies and cultures. But the tourism industry has come under scrutiny for its high carbon footprint, which is negatively affecting the very urban and natural environments we so long to discover.

This article is not about discouraging travel but about exploring how those who do can adopt a more sustainable and responsible approach.

CLIMATE CHANGE 101

Since the Industrial Revolution, energy-production has largely relied on the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and coal. This has greatly increased the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases (water vapour, carbon dioxide (CO²), methane, nitrous oxide and ozone) in our atmosphere, the critical buffer between the planet and space.

Climate change caused by rising temperatures is wreaking ecological havoc across the world, evidenced through extreme weather, species collapse, runaway fires, floods, droughts, storms, heatwaves, rising sea levels, altered crop growth, and disrupted water systems.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that we are heading towards a global average temperature increase of 1.5°C. This is regarded as the irreversible tipping point, when we'll suffer the collapse of the very eco systems that sustain our existence. It's a very big deal and without a rapid and radical 50% cut in human-induced emissions by 2030, we're in trouble.

THE TROUBLE WITH TRAVEL

According to Travalyst, the new global initiative - founded by Booking.com, Ctrip, Skyscanner, TripAdvisor and Visa, and launched by HRH The Duke of Sussex (aka Prince Harry) last month - the travel and tourism sector turned US$8.8 trillion in 2018.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) says 4.4 billion passengers flew last year (that includes multiple trips by individuals). And with one in 10 people employed in the sector, it's a valuable GDP asset that can't be ignored.

The problem, however, is that it's a major contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions, flying in particular.

Take the Boeing 747: it uses approximately 4 litres of jet fuel per second. Over the course of a 10-hour flight, it might burn 150,000 litres. Do the maths on the 45 million flights taken in 2018 and that equates to a staggering amount of fuel guzzled, accounting for at least 2% of worldwide carbon emissions.

FLIGHT SHAMING

Since the Swedish singer and self-confessed carbon dieter Staffan Lindberg blogged about giving up flying in 2017, flygskam, or flight-shaming, has been a thing.

Prince Harry and Meghan took flak in August for their fuel-guzzling private-jet habit - including Harry's private flight to a summit in Sicily, where he delivered a speech on the imminent threat of climate change. Famous eco-campaigner Leonardo DiCaprio has also been called out for similar offences.

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Image: Ruby-Gay Martin

Climate-change poster child Greta Thunberg has not flown on a plane since 2015. She takes trains in Europe, and recently did a much-publicised 15-day Atlantic crossing to New York on a completely carbon-neutral racing yacht, adding gravitas to the anti-flight sentiment that is on the up in Europe.

IF YOU MUST FLY

Fly direct: Most carbon emissions are spewed into the atmosphere during take-off and landing, so the fewer layovers the better.

Fly less: Consider, for example, replacing in-person meetings with Skype conferencing and Facetime - same, same but different. If you're planning to visit a few countries on the same continent in a year, consider combining all cities into one trip and using the train once you're there.

Class counts: When booking, be aware that each class emits different levels of CO². On a flight from OR Tambo to Heathrow, for example, economy emits 3 metric tonnes, business uses 5.7, and first 8.9, so offset accordingly.

WHAT ARE CARBON OFFSETS?

Carbon offsetting is a way for us to compensate for emissions, by donating towards sustainable development projects around the world, such as reforestation and renewable energy. It's not a solution but in situations where it's impossible to avoid CO² emissions, such as with air travel, it is a means of reparation.

In essence, offsetting aims to match the carbon damage done in one place with a carbon repair elsewhere - a ton of benefit given for a ton of harm.

There are several companies that will measure your footprint and offset on your behalf (for a fee). Check out climatecare.org and carbonfootprint.com.

Cape sparrows perched on a CO2 sucking spekboom.
Cape sparrows perched on a CO2 sucking spekboom.
Image: 123rf.com/fouroaks

For your own personal offset project, plant spekboom wherever you can. A spekboom thicket is 10 times more effective hectare-for-hectare than the Amazon rainforest at removing CO² from the atmosphere.

PICK YOUR PLANE

There are currently around 30 International Air Transport Association (Iata) member airlines that have offset options, either integrated into their web-sales engines or to a third-party provider.

When booking a flight, customers can add a donation towards various programmes, that should also be compliant with reputable certifiers like Carbon Trust.

Some airlines go further and take responsibility through their own efficiency projects:

  • Emirates introduced sustainable blankets into all economy class flights last year, made from 100% recycled plastic bottles. By the end of 2019, the airline will have removed 88 million bottles from landfills, equivalent to the weight of 44 A380s.
  • Kenya Airways' offset programme benefits The Kasigau Corridor REDD project, which aims to protect 200,000ha of dryland forest in the southeast of the country.
  •  In 2014, Mango became the first non-Iata member airline to join the Iata Carbon Offset Programme, making a R6 donation option available to passengers when booking a flight.
  •  Delta partners with The Conservation Fund, an organisation dedicated to protecting water and land resources. In 2007, the airline kicked off its campaign by planting 47,000 trees, one for each of its employees.

When booking your flight, consider FlyGreen, a booking portal that will offset your flight on your behalf, for free.

TAKE CARE WITH ACCOMMODATION

The UN World Tourism Organisation says this sector accounts for about 20% of emissions generated within the tourism sector, be it through air-conditioning, hotel maintenance and so on, with emissions dependent on the location and size.

Pensions, B&Bs and camp sites (safari and caravan) have a gentler impact but if hotel stays are your thing, choose one that combines personal satisfaction with a positive social and environmental impact and look for actual examples of their outcomes on their websites.

Hotel brands coming in hot on the green include Verde Hotels, Anantara, Natural Selection and Hilton. For lists of eco-friendly properties, try greenkeyglobal.com, greenhotelier.org and sa-venues.com.

WHAT ABOUT CRUISING?

Green cruising was at one stage a bit of an oxymoron with most megaships regarded as massive environmental polluters. A few lines have published improvements to their eco standards, including Royal Caribbean, Holland America-Solstice and Disney Cruise Lines.

Norwegian cruise operator Hurtigruten recently launched the world's first hybrid electric-powered expedition ship - the MS Roald Amundsen. It uses large banks of batteries to supplement the power in the main engines, which run on low sulphur marine gas oil, cutting its CO² emissions by 20%.

The MS Roald Amundsen, seen here in Alaska, is the world's first hybrid electric-powered expedition ship.
The MS Roald Amundsen, seen here in Alaska, is the world's first hybrid electric-powered expedition ship.
Image: global.hurtigruten.com

MSC Cruises, the only line with a South Africa-based cruise season, has various programmes to reduce its environmental footprint, including removing single-use plastics from its ships. The line is also equipping its fleet with exhaust gas cleaning systems and building four LNG-powered ships, which will reduce sulphur oxide emissions by 99% and nitrogen oxide emissions by up to 85%.

WHAT ELSE YOU CAN DO

  • Whether at home or abroad, our carbon footprint clock starts ticking from that first coffee, so seek out the best green options at your disposal. Support local artisans, buy vintage, include vegan food (because meat-farming is linked to emissions) and shop around for upcycled goods to close the loop on recyclable waste.
  • Exercise maximum consideration, especially in places where over-tourism is an issue, and consider visiting off-the-radar alternatives instead.
  • When it comes to the greenest cities internationally, look to Vancouver, Zurich, Oslo, Copenhagen, and Reykjavik and factor in next-to-neutral outdoor activities like hiking, cycling, swimming, paragliding etc.
  • Touring: Wherever you can, take two wheels instead of four - cycle, e-bike, Segway, or just walk.
  • Make an ecobrick: Travelling leaves plenty of waste in its wake. From the plastic wrapped around blankets and earphones on the plane to soap wrappers and shower caps in hotels. The hashtag du jour is #leavenotrace and EcoBricks will help you to do just that. They're 2l bottles that you stuff with small pieces plastic that can be used to build everything from seats to walls. See ecobricks.org.
  • Plan your trip with Ecosia, a new search engine that claims to donate 80% of its profits to reforestation initiatives in countries like Morocco and Burkino Faso.

    When you're trawling the web, every 45th search per capita gets a tree planted and according to the website, they've planted more than 69 million trees so far.

A screenshot of the Ecosia home page.
A screenshot of the Ecosia home page.
Image: Supplied

CHANGE IS IN THE AIR

The more people travel, the more opportunities we have to do good. If 4 billion travellers made a concerted effort to reduce their individual footprints it would make a world of difference.

"You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on your surroundings. You have to decide what kind of a difference you want to make". - Dr Jane Goodall.