Travel writers – scourge of the planet?

On Friday 24 May, a record number of flights took to the skies over the UK – more than 9,000 planes in the air in 24 hours (the same day, incidentally, that schoolchildren around the world staged their latest climate strike).

That won’t be the last record broken. But it might be the one that forces you to have a serious conversation with yourself as a traveller or, like me, a travel writer.

Your travel trips – your experiences and adventures – come at a cost to the planet. We should all be flying less, not more. It shouldn’t be easy and cheap to go on short-haul city breaks with budget airlines. Expanding airline routes and building new airports is madness, when the world is hurtling towards potentially irrevocable climate change. Our personal carbon footprints are already huge and disastrous, without adding even more fossil-fuelled trips into the mix, especially so that travel writers can write about them for the entertainment of others, who will then be inspired to go on even more of their own carbon-hungry travels.

How much travel is conducive to a healthy, happy planet?

We all make our own peace – or not – with this problem, and not just travel writers. It’s a question for everyone. How much travel – especially air travel – is conducive to a healthy, happy planet?

But as travel writers, we do have a responsibility for the content we produce, the encouragement we give, the inspiration we provide.

Where you draw the line is up to you – perhaps you only travel by train, or limit yourself to one flight a year, or off-set your travel-carbon, or concentrate on travel in your home country. There are plenty of ways to be an ethical traveller, and lots of opportunities to explore the world without always jumping on the next plane. Are you going to think about those things before you book your next trip?

When considering this, I conducted an uncomfortable experiment. My book – ‘Takoradi to the stars (via Huddersfield)’ – contains travel tales about 24 different worldwide destinations. People tell me it’s inspiring; one reviewer said that “it won’t be long before I’m digging out my passport to experience it all for myself”. Another said that it gives them “itchy feet to get out there and explore new places”. This is all really gratifying, of course – it’s why I travel and why I write, to inspire readers like that.

But then I put all those destinations into a carbon footprint calculator, which revealed that my travels for the content of the book – by plane and car – account for almost 54 tonnes of CO2. To put that in context, the average individual’s carbon footprint in the UK currently runs at around 9 tonnes a year, amassed by simply living a life based on burning carbon. And to put that in context, if we want to keep global warming to under 2℃ by the year 2100 – which most scientists now agree is a level that would still be severely disabling for the planet – then we all need to reduce our personal carbon footprint from 9 tonnes a year to more like 1.5 tonnes per year.

54 tonnes – enormous, calculable damage

One a half tonnes a year, to help save the planet. And I just racked up 54 to write a book (plus the 9 I use anyway going to the supermarket, drinking Spanish wine, buying clothes, driving to the cinema, heating and lighting the house, and writing on this Apple Mac). Fifty-four tonnes. That’s enormous, calculable damage to the planet caused because I am a travel writer – and, because I am a travel writer, it’s even worse because if I’m any good at it I may also be inspiring others to add their own carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

I could off-set my travel-carbon – I haven’t, but I could – by using one of the websites that calculates your travel emissions and then invests in climate projects around the world. It would cost me around £,1,200 to off-set the travel required to visit the places that I wrote about in my book. It’s a lot of money, which is why I haven’t done it. But it starts to get close to the true cost of travel and it’s a cost I’ve ignored for years.

I don’t have an answer and, even more disappointingly, I haven’t yet changed my travel plans. I’ve flown three return trips since Christmas and have two more booked for the summer. I’d love to have the time and money just to travel by train – and I could reach pretty much everywhere I still want to go by train, from Mongolia to Africa – but, like everyone else my age, I’ve grown up accustomed to getting places quickly on cheap flights. I’ve grown up used to trashing the planet.

Trashing the planet

So, traveller, travel writer – every time you get on a plane, and encourage someone else to get on a plane, you are ruining the planet. Question is, where’s your line? What does it look like? When are you going to draw it?

Wherever and whenever it is, there’s no escaping the conversation – and it will doubtless become a more acute conversation in the coming years, as the world wakes up to the damage that is done in the name of travel.


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Image: Planet Fitness, Mile Mozart, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

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