Environment - Image created by Dall-e

Crossing a boundary – 50 UN Countries

This year, I finally crossed the 50-country mark as a world traveler! 🎉

I have seen so many amazing places, met so many wonderful people, and learned so much about myself and the world. This blog is a space for me to share my thoughts on a topic that is very important to me and to many of you: the complexities of engaging with international travel, while also being mindful of the impact individuals make to climate change.

I love traveling and exploring new places, meeting new people, and learning about different ways of life. I think travel is a wonderful way to broaden our horizons, challenge our assumptions, and enrich our lives. But I also know that travel comes with a cost, not only financially but also environmentally. Air travel is one of the most carbon-intensive activities we, as individuals, can do, and it contributes to global warming and climate change. According to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), air transport accounted for 2.8% of global CO2 emissions in 2018¹, and it is projected to grow by 3-4% per year until 2050².

So how can we reconcile our love for travel with our concern for the planet?

First, for me it was important to start to understand where our emissions are coming from – and to do that I went to the UN. The UN not only acknowledges, but has been vocal on, the dire situation we are facing as a species. Unless urgent and radical actions are taken to reduce emissions and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) compared with preindustrial times – I should note here that the global consensus is that with existing technologies, 1.5 is no longer a possibility. Our chance to limit global warming to 1.5 passed in 2022.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been explicit in documenting that harmful carbon emissions from 2010-2019 have never been higher in human history and that greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere have reached record levels.

The report also provided data on the global averages and distribution of CO2 emissions by sector. This is where it gets more interesting for me as an individual – the nuance of the issue. The main sectors contributing to CO2 emissions are energy supply, industry, transport, buildings and agriculture.

When we break that down, the energy supply sector accounted for 35% of total CO2 emissions in 2019, followed by industry (24%), transport (16%) – but remember that air transport is only about 2.8% of that 16%, and only 8% of transport is passenger air transport), buildings (6%) and agriculture (4%). The distribution of CO2 emissions varies by region and country, depending on their level of development, population size, economic structure and energy mix.

The report from 2022 also highlighted the need for rapid and deep emissions reductions across all sectors of the global economy to achieve the 1.5-degree target. This would require a shift to low-carbon energy sources, such as renewables and nuclear, as well as increasing energy efficiency and electrification. In addition, some sectors may need to use carbon capture and storage technologies or negative emissions options, such as afforestation or bioenergy with carbon capture and storage. The report also stresses the importance of international cooperation and support for developing countries to implement mitigation actions and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Image created by Dall-e

I want to pause here to acknowledge that despite understanding that the majority of emissions are not generated at an individual level, as an individual, I am part of the problem and I have a responsibility to be part of the solution. I acknowledge that my lifestyle choices, have an impact on the environment and contribute to global warming. I also recognize that I benefit from the privileges and opportunities that come from living in a developed country, while many people in the world suffer from the effects of climate change that they did not cause.

Given this – How can we be responsible travelers who minimize our environmental impact while maximizing our cultural exchange?

Is offsetting an option?

I hear it all the time, “We can offset our emissions”. Offsetting means compensating for the greenhouse gases we emit by supporting projects that reduce or avoid emissions elsewhere. For example, we can donate to organizations that plant trees, protect forests, or invest in clean energy. There are many online platforms that help us calculate our carbon footprint and offer us options to offset it.

But, can we?

We have known since the early 2000’s that offsetting does not act to reduce our own emissions – and in fact can encourage us pollute more. It gives us a false sense of complacency and justifies our continued consumption of fossil fuels. Further, we know from projects and effort to verify and authenticate offsetting projects that they are not a reliable or transparent way to reduce emissions or absorb GHG. When efforts have been made to measure and verify the actual emission reductions achieved by the projects, many have had no impact, were claiming benefits from already existing impacts, or were actually net polluters due to land change and monoculture being classified as offsetting projects.

There may be issues of double counting, issues of leakage (where a carbon offset project displaces activities that create emissions outside the boundaries of the project.)
and additionality as well as concerns about permanence of the projects abound. Further, offsetting often has negative social and environmental impacts on the communities and ecosystems where the projects are located. In my work, our partners encounter offsetting projects which displace Indigenous Peoples from their land, violate their rights, and harm their livelihoods and cultures.

Monoculture crop - created by DALL-E

We need to understand that offsetting projects, especially those on the scale needed to be of interest to massive companies like aviation companies, often involve large-scale interventions in the lands and territories of Indigenous Peoples, such as planting monoculture plantations, building dams, or establishing protected areas. These projects may threaten the sovereignty, autonomy, and self-determination of Indigenous Peoples, as well as their customary rights to access and use their natural resources. Offsetting projects may also ignore or undermine the traditional knowledge, values, and practices of Indigenous Peoples that contribute to climate mitigation and adaptation. Furthermore, offsetting projects may exclude or marginalize Indigenous Peoples from meaningful participation and consultation in the design, implementation, and monitoring of the projects that affect them.

So while offsetting done right is certainly part of the solution – as it exists today, it must be very carefully navigated to ensure it is not actually causing more harm than good.

Ok, offsetting isn’t great, so what can I do?

I am, and, we can be, mindful of our consumption and behavior. We can choose eco-friendly accommodations, such as hotels that use renewable energy sources, recycle waste, and conserve water – that sign saying only leave your towel on the floor when you want it changed? That’s to save water and energy.

We can support local businesses and communities, such as restaurants that serve local food, shops that sell fair trade and handmade products, and tours that employ local guides and respect the culture and nature of the place. We can also avoid activities that harm the environment or the animals, such as riding elephants, swimming with dolphins, or visiting zoos or aquariums. And of course, we can always reduce our waste, reuse our bottles and bags, and recycle whenever possible.

Finally, we can be aware of the bigger picture. While individual actions matter, they are not enough to solve the climate crisis. We need systemic change at the global level, involving governments, corporations, and institutions. We need to hold them accountable for their actions and demand that they take urgent and ambitious measures to reduce their emissions and transition to a low-carbon economy. I do this, and I encourage you to as well, by signing petitions, joining protests, voting for leaders who care about the environment – and holding them accountable when they are in office, and supporting organizations that advocate for climate justice – and work to safeguard and verify initiatives to tackle our climate crisis.

Traveling is a privilege and a responsibility. We can see the beauty and diversity of this world, but we also have the duty to protect it for ourselves and for future generations. By engaging with international travel in a conscious and respectful way, we can enjoy its benefits while minimizing its harms – but we cannot kid ourselves – it does come with harms.

Thanks for reading.







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