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Last Updated on 23/12/2020
Updated: May 2020
Climate change is an important issue for any travel lover. With soaring temperatures, arctic fires and hottest summers on record, it’s now more crucial than ever to consider how travel is contributing to climate change – and to not gloss over some of the harder truths.
In this post about climate change and travel, I discuss record-breaking temperatures, carbon offsetting and whether the Swedish term ‘flygskam’ (flight shame) is really making a difference.
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Summer 2019 the Hottest on Record for Europe
I’m writing this on a sweltering 37-degree Celsius heat in the summer of 2019 here in the UK. It’s so hot that no one knows what to do with themselves.
Restaurant kitchens are closed and the London Underground is what can only be described as the seventh circle of hell. Sincere good luck to anyone who has to dive into that furnace at rush hour.
We as a country don’t do well in extreme weather conditions. It’s just not us. If we get submerged in snow, all hell breaks loose and if we get struck by a heatwave we stagger about gasping and pink. Last year’s heatwave caused a shortage of beer and it made headline news.
The Culprit is Climate Change
The UK is a temperate country and that’s what we’re used to. That’s what it should be and that’s why it’s worrying.
It’s not just the UK that’s been struck down by an unprecedented wave of heat. Across Europe, countries are reaching record temperatures. France reached a blistering 40.6 degrees Celsius today in Paris, beating the Netherlands at 39.3 C and joining Belgium at 40.2 C and Germany at 40.5 C.
Although previous heat records were broken, temperatures are expected to rise. This heatwave, which has already been linked to at least four deaths could very easily be set to claim more.
We all know who the culprit is; climate change. The thought is there as we stare worryingly out at the scorching sunlight and lie sweating in bed, twisted up in the covers and too hot to sleep.
It’s hard to ignore the threat of doom and gloom from scientists about the years to come. Yet there are still people out there who refuse to believe it and prefer to watch the world quite literally burn.
The Arctic is Burning
Something far more sinister is happening this week and it’s not to do with Europe’s skyrocketing temperatures. Far north in the Arctic Circle, a place we all associate with chillier temperatures, snow, ice and polar bears, great swathes of the land is on fire.
That’s right, the Arctic is on fire and the worst part is they’ve been raging since June.
Arctic fires are not uncommon between the months of May and October. Snow and ice melt away and forests dry up making them susceptible to fires. What is most alarming about these ones is the latitude, intensity and the length of time they’ve been burning for. It’s unprecedented.
In Alaska alone, the fires have destroyed 1.6 million acres of land. In Alberta, Canada, one fire is estimated to have been bigger than 300,000 football pitches. It’s not just land these fires are claiming, they’re also contributing enormously to the CO2 levels in the atmosphere.
In June, these fires emitted 50 megatonnes of carbon dioxide. To put that into perspective, that’s the equivalent of Sweden’s annual emissions.
Climate Change: A Taste of What’s to Come
These events are only the beginning of what’s to come. Scorching summers and wildfires will be the norm. Temperate climates will rival those of the Mediterranean coast if not further south and hotter countries could very well become uninhabitable.
The UN predicts that the planet will experience a ‘climate apartheid’ which will throw 120 million people into poverty by 2030. It will create a divide between the rich who can protect themselves from the effects of climate change and those who can’t.
Extreme weather, flooding and droughts could force millions of people to choose between starvation or migration while the wealthier communities will be able to pay to escape overheating, conflict and hunger.
Cruelly, while people in poverty are responsible for just a fraction of global emissions in comparison to the rich, they will be the most affected by the results.
Climate Change and Travel
So, where does this leave travel? The wanderlust community has reached a bit of a crossroads; travel and feel guilty knowing that your flights are adding to the levels of carbon emissions in the atmosphere?
Or stop and destroy your backpacking dreams forever for the sake of the planet? Neither sound ideal so perhaps it’s time to change how we travel to make our dreams more sustainable.
Although we know flights contribute to climate change, they’re easy and affordable when most modes of transport are not (UK trains and their insanely high ticket prices, for example).
Cheap flights give more people the chance to go abroad rather than reserving the experience for those with money only.
Read more about how to be a sustainable traveller here.
Is Offsetting Carbon Footprints the Answer?
How do we ensure that our trip isn’t costing the earth? It’s all about finding that balance. Some people recommend offsetting your carbon emissions as an additional expense to your flight ticket.
A handful of airlines including British Airways offer that option as part of the overall ticket price or you could donate directly to a charity.
However, it has been warned that offsetting your aviation emissions only appeases your guilt and distracts you from actually reducing them in the first place.
The tourism company Responsible Travel suggests that until aviation is decarbonised the only real option is to fly less and fly smarter.
It’s best to take fewer and longer holidays that involve a flight and opt to fly direct and in economy class.
If you’re staying closer to home, travel overland instead of taking domestic flights. It may make your journey a fair bit longer but seeing more of the country, landscape and people will guarantee a trip of a lifetime.
A Note on Flygskam
‘Flygskam’ is the Swedish term for ‘flight shame’ or guilt about the environmental impact of flying (not a Scandinavian lifestyle trend). It was first coined by the Olympic athlete Bjorn Ferry in 2018 and it became popular after Greta Thunberg’s mother Malena Ernman made a public commitment to stop flying.
Flygskam is becoming a bit of a global movement. More and more people have reduced the number of flights they take a year. In fact, a UBS survey found that one in five people had cut down on the number of flights they took over the past year because of concerns about the climate.
While I believe it’s counterproductive to make people feel shame or guilt about flying, cutting down on flights where possible is definitely a positive step.
The Effects of Climate Change on Travel is an Important Discussion
I’m aware that this post is doom and gloom next to typical travel blogger posts about gorgeous destinations, amazing experiences and fun-packed guides but I think climate change is an important discussion to have, particularly in the travel community.
Climate change is the most important challenge we will probably ever face and if you adore travelling as much as I do then it’s time to change how we do it for the sake of the planet.
It’s time to do everything in our power to protect the planet so that generations of travellers, backpackers, countries and cultures can enjoy it for centuries to come. If we’ve learnt anything about this boiling heatwave it’s that the time to act is now.
Want to discuss climate change and travel further? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!
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