Is travelling while environmentally conscious a contradiction?

The age of climate breakdown has raised an important question among environmentally conscious travellers: Is it possible to travel in a way that doesn’t completely contradict our efforts to live a low carbon lifestyle?

With Heathrow’s planned expansion being cancelled, and high profile climate campaigners like Greta Thunberg refusing to fly, the carbon cost of flying is being discussed frequently in the media, but just how bad is it and how do alternative modes compare? Unsurprisingly the plane is usually the most environmentally damaging option, both due to its high fuel consumption and the increased warming impact of emissions at cruising altitude, but it’s not always so simple. For example, planes use the most fuel during takeoff and taxiing around the airport, meaning the average fuel consumption per passenger mile decreases as flight length increases, up to a point. This can mean for medium distance trips, a full economy flight at full capacity might be better than say, a diesel train, or a car with one passenger. However, in general, a train or coach is the best option for long-distance travel, followed by a full car (if it’s electric it may even be more efficient than a train or bus). Given this information, should you still travel? And is flying to get there ever ok?

In answer to the first question, I would argue that the social and economic benefits of travelling make it valuable despite the carbon cost. Everyone should have the opportunity to travel, but that means we must do so in a sustainable way so that future generations can also have these experiences. The second question is more difficult. I never used to think about the environmental impact of my travel, and finding out just how bad flying was for the planet has made me reconsider if and how I should keep travelling.

However, living in Europe we are incredibly lucky to have access to an extensive network of trains and buses linking major cities and small towns. While many argue that the slower speed of these modes of transport makes them an impractical alternative for long-distance travel, there’s a potentially simple solution: night trains. Europe’s rail network already has quite a few regular night routes, including two here in the UK, but night services have been in decline for decades due to the rise of ludicrously priced budget airlines like EasyJet and Ryanair. However, very recently it seems night trains are making a comeback to cater to a new generation of environmentally conscious travellers. Austrian state-owned operator OBB reopened their Brussels-to-Vienna Nightjet route, meaning it’s now possible to get the train all the way from London to Vienna with just one change, and without leaving the ground. Germany’s DB has suggested reopening their Berlin-to-Paris route, and other operators like SJ in Sweden are planning to expand their night networks. These routes will be competing with long-distance coach operators like Flixbus, which could result in prices dropping quickly to become competitive with budget airlines. This also ignores the fact that, aside from the carbon benefits, the train has other benefits as a method of travelling. Many travellers prefer having the opportunity to break up a long journey and explore towns and cities they would never have seen if they chose to fly.

So, is travelling while environmentally conscious a contradiction? Not necessarily if you consider the impacts your choices have. Within Europe, choosing the train or bus over the plane can cut your carbon emissions by up to 90%. When travelling further afield you may still need to fly, but you can still take steps to reduce the number of flights you take. As travellers, it’s up to us to be as environmentally conscious as possible, but governments and businesses also need to be held accountable to provide real alternatives to flying. Tax frequent flyers, stop airport expansions, subsidise rail networks. There’s only so much you can do as an individual, so, aside from not flying, the best way you can reduce your impact is to lobby politicians for real change to bring transport policy in line with the climate crisis.

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Henry Webb