A contribution by Ana Catarina Pintassilgo,
student in BSc in Economics
at Nova School of Business and Economics (Lisbon),
on exchange at ESSCA in 2018.

Traveling is one of the most enriching experiences a person can have and it’s getting more and more usual. The airline industry is becoming more competitive, and so are their prices. Low-cost airlines offer such low prices, that have made flying affordable for everyone. Some flights can cost less than 10 euros.

Airplanes: fast and now affordable. Is it the best way to travel? (Source: Pexels)

When planning a trip, there are many costs to take into consideration, such as the transport and accommodation. However, does anyone consider the cost for the environment?

Recently, I made my first travel by airplane, when I came to France. Since then, I have been traveling more, both inside France and to its neighbour countries, always by bus or train. Every time I bought one of this travel tickets, I started to notice something. When booking a trip, all the companies asked if I wanted to pay a compensation fee for my CO2 emissions. Just for my 2 hours flight from Lisbon to Paris, I was responsible for 296 kg of CO2, for which I could pay 7 euros if I wanted to offset my carbon footprint.

I did some research and found out that the maximum amount of CO2 a person should produce to mitigate climate change is 2 000 kg CO2 per year. While the amount of CO2 a citizen from the European Union produces each year, on average, is 9 100 kg. A figure that largely exceeds the recommendations.

If I had done the same travel by train, the emissions would have been of 7.3kg of CO2, 40 times less! Of course, the travel time between an airplane and a train is not comparable but, we can make the same comparison between a train and a car.

A trip from Nantes to Lyon, for instance, can produce 60 kg of CO2 less when done by train, compared to the car emissions in the same trajectory. Not to mention the much higher passenger capacity that public transports benefit from.

CO2 emissions from airplane, car and train, within the same trajectory, available at SNCF

Coming back to the compensation fee, I wonder if anyone pays this fee and if it actually covers the damages done.

Since October 2013, under Grenelle II legislation, all transport operators travelling from or to a French location, are obliged to inform the passengers of their carbon emissions. Companies started to offer this voluntary package option, that might help consumers make conscious choices.

This fee has a reduced cost, with bus travels’ compensation being less than 1 euro, most of the times (like FlixBus). Travel companies don’t keep the money, it goes to carbon offset projects, where it can have different uses. It can be used for planting trees, preventing deforestation, providing technology to produce renewable energy or helping local communities rebuilding biodiversity (usually in developing countries). The accuracy of these projects are usually verified by carbon offset standards, such as the Quality Assurance Standard.

We might not be able to do zero emissions with our travels, but we can try to neutralize our carbon emissions.

However, as stated by Geoffrey Heal, Professor of Social Enterprise at Columbia Business School, « If everybody did it all the time, it would help. The problem is that very few people do it, and don’t do it all the time ». Some airlines have reported that about only 10% of passengers buy carbon offset compensations. What makes me conclude that this fee is not THE solution, after all. However, it is still better than ignore the situation and not do anything.

We can also rethink our means of transportation, when planning a trip. As I stated before, different transports have different emissions.

When doing long distance travels and travelling by airplane seems to be the only reasonable option, the choice of the flight can also avoid a higher footprint. First class seats are responsible for higher carbon emissions. By occupying more space, they increase the fuel spent per passenger. The duration of the flight influences, as well, the relatively carbon consumption. According to Greentripper, a carbon offset project: “A plane burns a lot of fuel taking off (and landing). When it is in the air it uses much less per km. Therefore, short flights or indirect flights are extra polluting per km. That means that for long flights, the average emissions are less per km”. Some airlines are also more efficient in their fuel use than others. If we are willing to spend some time researching the most environmentally friendly companies, we can reduce our carbon footprint.

Yes, no travel option is carbon-free. But we should always look up for the alternative that makes less damage in the environment.

However, instead of fixing the damage done, wouldn’t it make more sense to avoid the damage? Should we be travelling less? The low travel costs and the airline miles (the ones we can accumulate for every flight done and later use to buy air tickets), are huge incentives for us to travel, simply because we can and not because we need to.

I consider travelling an important life experience. We have the opportunity to know new cultures and ways of living. But the means to do it, such as the transport option, should always represent conscious choices.

Our ecological footprint should be part of our travel check list.

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