Emma Thompson in overalls was as much a sight to behold as was the fact that she traveled 5,456 miles from Los Angeles to London to take part in the Extinction Rebellion protest last month. Many called out Thompson as a hypocrite since her presence at the protest could have taken place virtually or even not at all given that the protest had amassed thousands of protestors with over 1,000 arrests in London. The fact that Thompson defended her carbon footprint (1.67 tonnes of CO2), something she plans to offset by planting trees, does not really resolve the contemporary problems we face of travel in an era where work and family necessitate long hauls for many.
All this begs several questions: Is it even possible to use transportation ethically today? And how might we have to change our cultural values and expectations in order to travel with the minimal carbon footprint?
Some cities have been experimenting with this question for decades. Sacramento, CA is about to launch a 260-vehicle fleet for its electric car-sharing program Gig Car Share and last month, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a comprehensive plan for the elimination of all CO2 emissions in transportation, housing and industry to be completed by 2050. Garcetti stated, “We will have zero days of unhealthy air quality by 2025.” Other cities like Canberra are luring drivers to the public transportation system by offering a free month of travel while Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, offers completely free and unlimited public transport.
The challenge in getting people out of their carbon-fueled vehicles is multi-dimensional. As has already been noted, a high percentage of millennials are uninterested in electric vehicles (EVs) and Germans are equally attached to their gas-guzzling vehicles. People like the speed of traditional vehicles as well as the ease of filling up without waiting for a battery charge. Many people are also put off by the price tag of electric vehicles which is offset by tax incentives within the EU and a €4,000 within Germany. Meanwhile, neighboring countries like the Netherlands and Norway are far better at converting out of fossil fuel automobiles.
In the US over the past decade, there have been unsuccessful car buy-back programs such as that of Hyundai and Tesla which helped to draw in new buyers to the hybrid and electronic car market. While there is no perfect solution as to how to get people to let go of their fossil-fueled automobiles, the buyback schemes coupled with economic incentives for the purchase of EVs is slowly resulting in the consumer changes within the automobile market.
Still, this does not answer to Emma Thompson’s need to travel for work, protest and family. How can we balance our social, personal and professional needs to be in x place when the carbon footprint for a trip halfway around the world hardly merits such travel?
A UK-based NGO, Tourism Concern asks this very question. On their website, they state: “We believe that consumers need to take a responsible attitude to flying. Fly less and switch to other forms of transport, particularly for shorter journeys. If flying long-haul, try to go to destinations in developing countries and to stay longer, so that your contribution to the host economy is greater.” Certainly, in the EU where people have anywhere between 20 and 25 days a year of annual leave, it would be an option to take these days all at once. However, this is highly unlikely to be a viable alternative to holiday travel given that most employers are unwilling to grant such large chunks of time to their employees so they might take their leave each year with regard for climate change.
Still, there are those who are lucky enough to have professions where it is not a problem for them to take off for six weeks a year. There are a host of online travel agencies which specialize in ecological holiday packages to include eco-friendly hotels. Holiday specialists like Green Loons and BestPrice Travel offer packages where the holiday-maker can understand the environmental impact of tourism while traveling to Mahahual, Mexico or can take a cruise down the Mekong River in Vietnam. Or, if you really want the down-to-earth holiday, there are many agencieswhich specialize in camping, glamping and clothing-optional holidays. Still, what’s the difference between taking an airplane to participate in eco-farming over older types of tourism, all which involve equal parts of jet fuel?
The answer to this question has inevitably been another series of questions beginning with “How can I offset my carbon footprint?” But this is not an honest approach to a problem that today needs more action by all of us over money superficially thrown at the problem. The real issue at root is that airline travel is highly damaging to the planet, no matter how many times you calculate your flight’s emissions or attempt to tally up a guilt tax.
Let’s start with some rules, beginning with no airline trips for stays of fewer than x number of days and no more than b number of flights per year. And when you do travel, pack light and avoid layovers since the takeoff of airplanes is what uses the most fuel. Take direct flights. Aside from this, much of the improvements to airline travel must come at the end of airplane design and the management. Some of the areas in need of improvement will depend on how work culture prioritizes these options: the manner in which planes are filled with fuel and humans, how much time planes spend on the tarmac, engine and seat design, the need to introduce electric wheels and mandatory forced retirement of planes over 25 years of age.
Technology has created an amazing choice of how we organize our urban travel with the fastest bus to work or the best deals for the most fuel-efficient airlines to use for our annual leave. Still, how we use this technology in the most ecologically ethical manner is still up for debate by many. The bottom line is that telecommuting for the purposes of work and refraining from airplane travel for short trips are two of many possible methods to cut down on carbon emissions. Until electric airplanes are infused into the commercial airline market, the only viable alternative to airplanes is earth-bound electric transport. As electric buses are being rolled out all over the planet, it might also be a better option to take an electric-powered trip for this year’s vacation.