2019 was defined by travel for me. Working as the social media coordinator for Semester at Sea’s spring voyage took me to 10 different countries across 22,000 nautical miles. Following that, Sam and I spent one month traveling central Europe in preparation for our relocation to Germany in August, which meant we flew across the Atlantic Ocean twice. And to end our year of travel, we spent 3 weeks on an Antarctic cruise followed by another 2 weeks of travel within South America.
That is approximately 23,000 miles flown and 25,000 nautical miles cruised.
All of that transportation requires a lot of fossil fuel…which means a lot of CO2 emissions. While 2019 was deeply fulfilling and rewarding for me personally, I cannot deny the massive carbon footprint that looms in my wake. By both circumstance and choice, I have consumed an enormous amount of carbon this year.
Based on measurements I made using a few different carbon footprint calculators (here, here and here), my travels in 2019 have emitted approximately 103 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere — 92 tons from the cruising and 11 tons from the cross-ocean flights. Scientists have found that for every ton of C02 emitted, 3 square meters of ice melts.
That means that I have single handedly melted 3,326 square feet of ice this year. I melted a large single-family-home-sized chunk of ice from Antarctica, the beautiful white continent I just fell in love with. I am not ok with that.
I am passionate about sustainability and environmental preservation, which stands in the direct opposition to many of my choices. Long-haul international travel is one of the most environmentally taxing activities an individual can do, especially if done using an airplane or cruise ship. Travel is always a choice, always a luxury, which inherently makes it more grandiose than other sources of C02 emissions, like driving to work or eating red meat.
I have tried to balance the cognitive dissonance of these two passions for a long time, but the roar of that duality is drowning out most of my other thoughts, to the point that I can no longer ignore my personal responsibility in the climate crisis.
I know that my individual contributions to climate change are a drop in the ocean of responsibility that falls at the feet of industry, governments and corporations; but I cannot deny that I have guilt about my impact. I feel ashamed that so many people are doing so much more to reduce their carbon footprint than I am, especially when considering that my carbon footprint is already so much larger than theirs. I am a person of action, not inaction, which compels me to do something to compensate for my choices, even if motivated by negative emotions like guilt or shame.
All of this is to say that both I am choosing to carbon offset my 2019 travels.
I will be offsetting my travels with a youth-led and local-people-led tree-planting project in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, as trees are one of the most effective carbon sinks in the world. This project has found that each tree planted will absorb 500kg of C02 over its life, which means that I am responsible for 206 trees as an offset for my 2019 travels. Sam was inspired to do the same bringing our combined total to 412 trees; but something about this didn’t feel like enough to me. The continent of Australia is literally on fire because of climate change, and all I can do is buy 412 trees? We decided to double our tree purchase to account for our 2018 travels, which in total means that Sam and I will be purchasing 824 trees.
The pretentious nature of all of this equivocating about how to make a luxurious activity, like travel, more sustainable is not lost on me. My wealth puts me in the global elite, my lifestyle is unattainable for a vast majority of people, and I embody what white privilege looks like. The admission of this only enhances my personal motivation to make better choices that lessen the negative impacts I inflict on black and brown people globally, who will bear the largest burden as climate change progresses. I understand that carbon offsetting is a band-aid on a self-created problem, and in order to truly live my values, I have to also modify my behavior.
In addition to carbon offsetting, I am changing my travel decision-making in 2020. I am learning to take increased joy in the beauty of my immediate surroundings. I am cultivating an internal feeling of curiosity and exploration that I can apply to other experiences outside of travel. I am doing my best to be as present as possible during my travels so that the dopamine rush I experience lingers longer.
Is it enough? Of course not. It will never be enough but that can’t be an excuse not to do more.
One of the (many) benefits of relocating to Europe is the accessibility of more sustainable forms of transportation — namely trains and intercity buses. Sam and I have made a commitment to take a majority of our trips in Europe via rail, instead of air or car (we don’t own one anyway), even if it comes at a higher cost. We have set our standard as 6 hours distance one way, so if the trip via train is 6 hours or less from Köln, then we will choose rail over air (or car).
We will also prioritize visiting places within that 6 hour radius over others. We have mapped out a circumference surrounding Köln on a map and we are choosing trips within that circle. While there are many places in eastern Europe that I am anxious to visit, we are going to prioritize western Europe at this time since it is more accessible to us.
Finally, we are aiming to buy only 2 long-haul flights (6+ hours flight time) in 2020, which we will also be carbon offsetting at the end of the year. Our goal is to have one flight back to the US to visit family and one flight for a vacation. Considering that I took a combined 6 long haul flights and 24 short haul flights in 2018 and 2019, that is a pretty significant reduction.
With all of these changes in my travel habits, I hope to reduce my travel-related carbon footprint by 50%.
Through this process, I know that I will learn valuable lessons about sustainable travel and environmental decision-making. I don’t see these changes as a loss; in fact, I am really excited about modifying my behavior and discovering new modes of exploration—I think I will grow to love traveling by train instead of plane and will develop new ways to enjoy traveling.