Can travel be environment-friendly?

Global warming never happened so now it’s called climate change. Politicians call for lower carbon gases emissions and a move away from fossil fuels while they travel the world over in planes. There are many confusing and contradicting stories, myths, facts and research about the environment and many of this is due to the vast vested interests that various companies have in the issue. One of the biggest industries to have an impact on the environment is travel.

In the air

People can travel by car, train, boat or plane but the latter remain the most popular and often the only option for long-distance travel. Those defending the airline industry, from travel agents to plane manufacturers, say that travelling by plane produces less carbon emission per person per kilometre than by car. There is no doubt about the efficiency of planes, able to cover vast distances by flying through the shortest routes in the air where there is little friction. Compare this to travelling by car, where friction between tyre and tarmac eventually wears away the rubber; roads need to be built at a very high cost and on average only 5 people fit in a car.

You can make the car more efficient per person by carrying more passengers, so the bus or coach is one level up the ‘green’ ladder. The plane takes it further by cramming in more and more people. Didn’t Ryanair want its passengers to stand up during the flight so that it can put more on board?

However, don’t take at face value what you see and hear. Planes require enormous amount of energy to take off. There is no other fuel at the moment, other than fossil fuels, that contain enough energy per kg to power a plane to the air. There is simply no other option. The figure often quoted to flatter plane travel is the carbon emission per person. This works only because there can be many more people in a plane compared to a car. However, irrespective of the number of people on board a plane, the aircraft will still take off and fly. As most aircraft do not fly at 100% capacity and there are many aircrafts flying at well below 50% capacity, the real figure for the emission per person is much much higher.

But let’s face it: we often don’t have a choice when flying. No one will take a coach from Europe to Asia. By the time you get there, it will be time to come back. The term necessary evil is quite fitting here.

What to do if you care for the environment?

The first step was to recognise that not all that is claimed about the environment is always correct.

Which one is better for the environment: drying your hands in the public toilets with tissues or the electric hand dryer? The electric dryer you might say. But what if the electricity is produced from burning fossil fuels? From nuclear reactors? There was also a carbon footprint involved in manufacturing the appliance. Are tissues any better? You need to grow the wood, cut it down, transport it to the factory, turn it into tissue paper that needs to be regularly replenished in the toilets all over the world. But at least growing the tree used up carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The only way to find out is by calculating the emissions from each process and comparing.

How about recycling newspapers? Is this really a kind gesture to the environment? How much energy is necessary in the recycling chain? During the transport? Wouldn’t it be simpler to replace the cut-down trees with young ones which will provide more newspapers? This is what is meant by managed forests. Here again, growing trees means taking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Will we really know if recycling paper is better than growing new trees?

Here is a poorly explained article by the Daily Mail on why reusable cotton bags are not better than plastic bags. Whether the research behind it is right or wrong, it pays to think about it before following the crowd and buying a not-so-environment-friendly cotton bag. Intensive agricultural techniques coupled with converting cotton pods into clean usable cotton fabric may leave a big carbon footprint behind. Add to it the bulky transportation of the bags from one end of the world where cotton is grown to another end of the world where cotton bags are used. Plastic bags may not degrade quickly but that may be its advantage – you can reuse it just like cotton bags and many people do so.

So next time you fly or feel guilty about some practice that you think is harmful to the environment, think again. Travel may not be as environment-friendly as some want you to believe, but there are also other issues that people conveniently gloss over.