The person I am today is the direct result of the places and people I have encountered. Learning from others and sharing in their unique cultures, bestows perspective, and blossoms empathy.
But, it also causes enormous environmental harm.
I am a globe trotter. But as a child, my family could never afford to travel. I was born in 1992. And like many millennials, I came of age during the Great Recession.
My family was not wealthy. We were by all definitions considered low-income, and without a hefty financial aid package from Carleton College, I couldn’t afford further education.
Both my parents immigrated to the US. Their stories entrenched in world travel. My mother was born on the island of Bohol in the Philippines. She met my father- born in Copenhagen, Denmark- in Hong Kong. They married and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where my two brothers and I were born.
After a series of bad luck, the Dot.Com bust, then the Great Recession, we were unable to travel. But we always heard the fascinating stories of our parents’ lives before we were born.
The day I boarded a flight for Minneapolis, travel, exploration, and meeting others, became my obsession. The slight tingle on your neck, the butterflies shivering in your stomach, and the extra gulp it takes to swallow the anxious excitement of being in a new place, is my drug.
Temporarily, that is on hold. The global pandemic keeps all our desires at bay. But, it keeps our carbon emissions at bay as well.
In 2018, Nature published an eye-opening article on the environmental impact of travel. It was disheartening to learn something as enriching as visiting new places and meeting new people has a detrimental effect on the environment.
I knew flying from Seattle to Manila had a massive impact, but I rationalized the pros- the experiences- and denied the effects.
Many countries, organizations, and people recognize the impact humans have on the environment, and travel is an extension.
Global travel accounts for 8% of the world’s carbon emissions, mostly attributed to airfare.
One transatlantic trip costs the environment 986kg of CO2 per passenger. A round trip commute from Seattle to Bellevue (20 miles round-trip) uses about 8.91kg. For mpg reference, I drive a 2015 Honda Civic.
I’ll commute 111 times before equaling the CO2 emitted flying from New York to London.
Imagine being surrounding by a cloud of smoke, equalling your carbon footprint.
How far does it extend?
Could you see through it?
How far did everyone travel to your family gathering?
What is the magnitude of their plumes?
How does your office, full of frequent business travels, look?
How do your communities feel?
Could you breathe healthy air?
Global travel had increased by 4% every year since 2009.
But in March, travel came to a standstill.
The largest country of travelers- the US- stopped all non-essential travel, bringing related carbon emissions to near zero overnight. In travel alone, the US emits 1,060 MtCO2e per year. For perspective, that’s commuting from Seattle to Bellevue 119,000 times, round trip.
Which means commuting five times a week, 52 weeks a year, for 458 years. Assuming you did not stay home for the holidays.
Stop for a second and consider the carbon footprint of your commute.
It’s temporarily mitigated, but many of us will return to offices, shops, and restaurants.
Next, consider the carbon footprint of your work travel, conferences, client meetings, or events.
Now, think about everyone else.
How many people in the office or at the event also traveled to get there?
Looking at your impact and equating it to your community is like watching a glass bubble shatter. You’ll start seeing those plumes of smoke engulfed around everyone.
The recent drops in CO2 and N2O levels at airports are irrefutable. There is tangible evidence of travel’s impact on the environment- and the economy too.
I’m a passionate environmentalist and a passionate economist. I’m never at odds with these two philosophies. I find them forever intertwined in a delicate dance around society’s well-being. It’s a balance between the environment, economy, and public health.
I want to explore the impact of the travel industry on the environment, but more importantly, how we can mitigate emissions and waste in the future.
The answer is not ending world travel. It is not adopting an isolationist attitude. If so, all the progress we’ve made understanding one another would erode.
The answer is not ending world travel. If so, the global economy would flounder, and countries dependent on tourism would collapse.
The answer is figuring out how we can travel better.
The world is more accepting of others than ever before, and its because we can meet each other and walk in each other’s shoes.
Neglecting that connection would only drive the world further apart. But the environment needs our love and care too. And she needs us to pay more attention to her well-being, even if it is slightly less convenient for us.
I’ll be writing essays exploring the balance between the environment, economy, and public health. My goal is to understand how the world’s travel ameliorates understanding and enriches the world economy but at a steep cost. I hope to identify how travel and tourism have contributed to climate change and how we can travel more consciously in the future.