To Travel or Not to Travel

The chilly wind created by the speed of the boat whipped through the coat, sweater, and longsleeve shirt I wore, interrupting my thoughts on the impact my trip had on my carbon footprint. Only two other tourists stayed on the upper deck as the boat wound its way through a fjord in western Norway, near Bergen. The sun caught the top of every small wave, creating an expanse of shimmering water between evergreen-coated mountains. We were heading toward Mostraumen Strait on a popular tourist cruise in the Hordaland region.

From the tourist cruise to Mostraumen Strait.

The fjord was a deep and narrow body of water. Norway’s fjords formed during the last ice age over 10,000 years ago. Glaciers carved U-shaped valleys in coastal areas that were later filled with water as sea levels rose. The same process created fjords around the world in places such as Alaska, New Zealand, and Patagonia. 

Norway has one of the longest coastlines in the world at 58,133 kilometers, which has influenced Norwegian culture. Many of Bergen’s biggest tourist attractions are defined by their relationship with the sea. Some of the highlights of my time in Bergen were visiting the Norway Fisheries Museum, where I learned about the history of Norway’s hefty cod fishing industry, and hiking up to spectacular views over the fjords. Many tourists know of Bergen, Norway’s second largest city, as the gateway to the fjords and visit it specifically to see them, myself included.  

View from a hiking trail.

This summer, I was one of the millions of visitors Norway receives each year when I spent six days exploring Bergen and its surrounding fjords. A thought I was never able to fully escape during the course of my vacation touring Norway’s gorgeous, glacially-shaped landscape was whether the choices that led to me standing on the upper level of a ferry boat admiring the scenery were contributing to the destruction of modern-day glaciers that act on current landscapes.

On the way to Mostraumen Strait.

Retracing the steps that brought me to that boat reveals a long trail of emissions; one transatlantic flight into Paris, another quick flight into Bergen, a train into the city from the airport, and the boat ride itself are among the resource-consuming means of transport I used to reach the fjords.

The downside to travel is obvious: flights are among the most carbon-intensive activities an individual can possibly undertake. A 2016 study showed that about 3 square meters of Arctic sea ice area are lost for every metric ton of CO2 emissions. A flight from New York to Los Angeles, for example, results in the loss of 32 square feet of sea ice. Another study shows that the average American’s emissions will cause the deaths of two people in the future. 

But there are benefits to travel. Visiting new places has been shown to increase creativity and foster a stronger sense of self, while reducing stress and feelings of depression. Spending time abroad pushes people to leave their comfort zones and fosters a greater appreciation for the world outside of the familiar.

View over Byfjorden, Bergen.

One path away from the conundrum created by the conflicting pros and cons of travel is the purchase of carbon offsets. Carbon offsets aim to compensate for the emissions released over the course of, for instance, air travel by reducing an equivalent or greater amount of emissions elsewhere. Offsets can take the form of forestry projects or energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. To successfully counter emissions, offsets need to meet three criteria. They must have additionality—they need to be an action that would not have taken place if the money had not been received from the offset. They cannot have leakage—they must result in a net reduction of emissions. Lastly, they cannot be undone in the future—they must be permanent.

Some airlines like Qantas, KLM, and Austrian Airlines have programs in place to allow passengers to pay to offset their emissions. Third-parties like Gold Standard also exist to offset past emissions or to offset emissions created when flying with companies without such programs. Such programs place the culpability and responsibility to act on the passenger rather than the company that is producing the emissions and allows airlines to avoid implementing concrete emission-reduction measures.

The inconsistency of individual action led to the development of another approach: the UN Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) is designed to hold airlines accountable by requiring that they offset emissions from international flights that emit over 2020 levels of emissions. CORISA, which comes into effect in 2021, contains many loopholes, though, and is voluntary for its first six years, leading some experts to doubt its efficacy.

A small boat on one of the fjords around Bergen.

Carbon offsets seem like an imperfect way to temporarily address the emissions created by air travel. For the kind of travel that brings us to the places that make life worth living like going on a visit to family and friends or for essential business travel, investing in offsets is better than doing nothing. When offsets become a justification for extra journeys that would not have been undertaken without a belief in the remedying powers of offsets, their benefits are outweighed by the harm inflicted by greater quantities of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere and by the uncertainty of their efficacy.

Travelling, whether it is long or short distance, for business or pleasure, whether it is by plane, train or automobile, is part of the way we live. It fosters connections between people both by forging new links and allowing us to maintain ties to the past. If we were to give up travel in an increasingly globalized world, we would be giving up big and small life experiences that cannot be had by staying in one place. 

If the planes, trains, and boats I took to reach the fjords were powered by biofuels or renewable energy there would be far fewer emissions from my travels: the development of cleaner transportation would allow us to continue exploring new places without the ecological impact of today’s carbon intensive travel. Norway has become a leader in testing electric planes and predicts that by 2025 electric passenger flights could become a reality. Two-seater, all-electric planes are currently being used to train pilots by a Norweigian aviation firm. Until a large-scale shift becomes possible, Norway is imposing biofuel requirements on airlines operating within its borders to cut down on emissions. These initiatives demonstrate that there are options out there that may allow us to continue reaping the benefits of travel while minimizing the harm it inflicts on the people and places we are drawn to visit.

All images were taken by Elza Bouhassira. You can find her on Instagram here.

On Carbon, AGU President Robin Bell Walks the Walk

Robin Bell is a renowned geophysicist, the natural science which concerns itself with the physical processes and properties of the Earth. She has accumulated many accolades for her discoveries in Antarctica and Greenland, which include sub-glacial lakes, rivers that flow uphill, and a volcano beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet.

Bell is the current president of the American Geophsyical Union. The AGU is an international organization, which includes 62,000 scientists from 144 countries, making her the de facto top earth scientist in the world. The sensitive polar regions Bell studies are warming quickly, a symptom of climate change wrought by emissions from mankind’s activities. She is acutely aware of her personal contributions to the problem; her fuel-intensive polar research and a demanding travel schedule.

For many Americans, even those convinced of the science, climate change is a problem requiring collective action and thus excuse themselves from making personal sacrifices to reduce their personal emissions. Some say individual efforts to curb climate change, like eating less meat or cutting down on their air travel, are largely symbolic and too small to make any meaningful impact. It is notable, however, that the world’s leading earth scientist is not allowing collective inaction to absolve her of personal responsibility.

A Profile of Robin Bell

Robin Bell leads the AGU the same way she lives her personal life, by example (Source: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory).

 

It is a frigid winter day at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory on the Hudson River. Ice and salt still crystallize the pavement from the last storm, so Bell drove her silver Prius to work. I follow the sound of laughter on the first floor of the Oceanography building and run into Bell at the end of the hall. She offers me loose tea and invites her dog, Nara, a fluffy white Samoyed, to join us in her office overlooking the river.

Bell lives ten miles from the research center where she has worked to advance polar science over the past 35 years. According to Bell, the fossil fuel that supplements her hybrid vehicle will be her largest personal carbon expenditure until her flight to Asia later this year. In better weather, she cycles, or rides her electric bicycle.

Bell talked me through the weeks of her 2018 carbon emissions, which she tracked and charted as a line graph on her computer. She lamented the flight to Mexico that caused the line to spike and noted where it leveled out during carbon-negligible weeks where Bell and her husband, environmental law professor Karl Coplan, were sailing. “Nine tons. I’m still below average, but boy this year I’m going to blow it through the roof with travel.”

Bell’s role as the head of the AGU demands her presence at engagements in countries far from her home base in New York. But she will plan her trips with the precision of a military movement, combining multiple trans-Pacific trips to fulfill her presidential duties and to visit her daughter in California, into one condensed itinerary.

Her presidency, which began in 2019, comes as international community wrestles with how to quickly decarbonize the world economy. Staving off the worst effects of climate change requires immediate global-scale reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The United States, the world’s largest per capita emitter, has sidelined itself from participating in the global effort, handicapped by its own recalcitrance.

Amid the political paralysis in America, debate has emerged among environmentalists and green-leaning citizens between individual versus collective action to curb emissions.

 “I just want to set an example. If I am telling people this is an issue, I should be acting like it’s an issue.” – Robin Bell

 

In a December 2017 essay, David Roberts, a prominent climate and energy journalist for Vox, wrote “Go forth and be green. You will be happier and healthier. But do not mistake it for a solution to climate change. Only collective action and collective ingenuity can save us.”

Roberts’ view exposes a sentiment that is ubiquitous, even among many who study or write about earth science: that change is necessary on a scale far greater than could possibly be affected by any personal sacrifice, so why bother?

Roberts continued the thought in a recent Twitter thread: “Climate change is not an “environmental problem.” It’s far deeper than that. Solutions require basic changes in technology, law, and infrastructure, none of which is affected by individual behavior…Personal asceticism is largely irrelevant.”

The world’s top earth scientist disagrees.

“If we do not start acting like we care about our planet future’s then we can never move toward being a sustainable species,” Bell told me. “We cannot simply blame others and wait for some policy solution.  All actions matter. Engaging all the strategies from individual action to carbon sequestration is essential to keep our planet, our home habitable.”

Living life in a manner that comports with her field of study is essential for Bell:  “I just want to set an example,” she said. “If I am telling people this is an issue, I should be acting like it’s an issue.”

Bell usually stops by the farmer’s market on her way to the office. Buying from her local growers is an act of community for her. Bell and Coplan also belong to a community-supported agriculture group, whereby members purchase a share of the harvest of local farms to distribute the risk of farming.

Bell and Coplan have adopted a similar strategy for home energy supply, buying into community solar power. “It’s kind of like a CSA for solar,” Bell said. For Bell and Coplan, it is a work-around strategy, since their home is in the woods and shaded much of the day by tall trees. “We haven’t been willing to cut all the down trees that keep our house cool to get better solar.”

Bell and her dog, Nara (Source: Karl Coplan).

The pair ascribes to a Mediterranean diet; a mostly plant-based approach to food. They keep a garden, too. Bell primarily does the perennials and tends the bees, while Coplan oversees the annuals. Coplan also maintains a sustainable living blog and is the author of the forthcoming book “Live Sustainably Now: A Carbon-Sustainable Vision of the American Dream.” Last fall The Hill ran an op ed where Coplan urged Americans to make fundamental lifestyle changes, “there is no argument for inaction…collective action starts with individual action.”

Their shared passion is sailing, a wind-powered hobby. Bell and Coplan constructed a boat together while they were students at Middlebury College in Vermont. With their two children, they have completed multiple transAtlantic voyages and have planned a circumnavigation of the globe. They also maintain a cabin upstate, completely off the grid, ski-in ski-out, with plug-ins to charge their vehicle. “It’s just like a boat,” Bell says. “The batteries are in the floor. It’s a composting toilet. Just a wood stove for heat.”

I asked Bell about the last time she used a plastic bag. Expecting a figure on the order of decades, she replied, “I still read the regular old paper and they come in plastic bags when they are hand-delivered to your house.” Bell is hyper-aware of her impact, but she is not ascetic in her lifestyle. Supporting print journalism, for Bell, is a concession which outweighs the plastic cost. “On my list of things to worry about, plastic bag use isn’t my highest. My carbon use is. I’m much more worried about that. People get worried about plastic straws and don’t have a bigger vision of what their impact is on the planet.”

On fellow earth science leaders, Bell said, “We should be showing that we are taking sustainability seriously. Very few people are being reflective. Maybe people have done something like dropped beef. Some of my favorite friends here, that’s what they’ve done. But they still fly to an island several times a year.”

Bell proudly points to the new AGU headquarters, the flagship building of science, as an example of what can be accomplished on a macro level. It is the first renovated net-zero building in Washington, DC. It uses rooftop solar, a green wall, auto-tinting glass, and a sewer heat exchange system to offset the energy it uses. “It’s showing what you can do as an individual. This is how we start to say what the future can look like and have it be a positive view.”