I have written already about how the pandemic should prompt a rethinking of air travel. This is most true in the business world. Sure, there’s something magical about meeting face to face, but in an age of pretty good videoconferencing, there isn’t magic enough to justify the extreme environmental costs of routine flight. But flying is so carbon intensive — your share of the emissions from a single round-trip trans-Atlantic flight are almost enough to wipe out the gains you might get from living car-free for a year — that it’s worth considering limiting leisure plane trips, too. Some people can afford to travel to Europe every year, maybe even several times a year. I’m not one for flight shaming, but that level of indulgence ought to earn some measure of social opprobrium.
Cruises present an even better target for radical reform, if not outright prohibition. The early days of the pandemic highlighted the cruise industry’s vulnerability to contagion, but getting disease under control should be just the first step for this most polluting of conveyances. According to one study, a midsize cruise ship can emit as much particulate as one million cars. One cruise company alone, Carnival, was responsible for 10 times as much sulfur oxide as that emitted by the roughly 260 million passenger cars on European roads in 2017, a 2019 analysis found.
This week I called Rick Steves, the travel writer and tour operator, to ask about the future of travel on a warming planet. For most of his life, he visited Europe at least once a year. Last summer was the first time in decades that he didn’t go, and he’s staying home again this year.
Steves told me that time at home has given him a new perspective on travel — both its liberating psychic possibilities and its heavy costs.
“I’ve gained an appreciation for the fragility of the environment and the importance of people and nations to not be afraid of each other but work together,” he told me. Like the battle against climate change, fighting the pandemic required coordination among politicians, scientists, regulators and businesses around the world. That kind of coordination is fostered by the trust and empathy gained by global travel, Steves said. The rub is that travel itself is worsening the crisis — and because the industry’s impact has been so loosely policed by the world’s governments, it has little incentive to make difficult changes to its operations.
To mitigate the environmental cost of his European travel business, Steves has turned to carbon offsets. For each of the 30,000 or so passengers the company takes to Europe in an ordinary year, the company contributes $30 for environmental initiatives meant to curb the costs of climate change. Many airlines now offer passengers the chance to pay for emissions offsets.
But because all these programs are voluntary, their impact seems limited. And at the moment, there is little political incentive to impose new regulations on struggling travel companies.