Saving threatened habitats worldwide

Assessing the environmental impact of travel is more complex than it might seem

12 January, 2015 - 17:16 -- John Burton

World Land Trust (WLT) is occasionally asked whether the Trust offsets the carbon emissions associated with staff travel so we have recently added the query and a response to the frequently asked questions section of WLT website.

While we aim to keep overseas travel to a minimum, aiming to communication with our partners via email and telephone calls, air travel is sometimes an unavoidable activity for WLT staff. Because of the global reach of the Trust’s work and requirements by some of our funders it means that staff are required to visit projects in order to monitor them.

WLT’s mission is to preserve habitat, and forest habitat in particular. Thanks to WLT’s work over more than 25 years, vast quantities of carbon have been sequestered, far in excess of the emissions produced from carrying out its work. Furthermore, all WLT funds are spent on conservation so if we offset the flights we would have to take money earmarked for one conservation activity and transfer it to another. That seems self-defeating, so we do not do it.

Leaving aside WLT’s approach to travel related carbon emissions, the broader question of offsetting the environmental impact of transport it is nothing like as simple as it seems.

For example, not all rail travel is carbon efficient, but people tend to assume it is. Modern trains are very big and very heavy, and the infrastructure they require uses vast quantities of concrete (every tonne of cement produces a tonne of CO2). Consequently many of the trains I travel on may well use more carbon per mile than many aircraft (the latter being increasingly efficient, and increasingly full to capacity).

WLT maintains a very close relationship with our operational partner in the Netherlands, IUCN National Committee of the Netherlands (IUCN NL) and we share many of the same project partners. I meet with IUCN NL staff two or three times a year and when I travel to the Netherlands I now go by boat-train. This is not simply because I am concerned about my carbon footprint but because it is usually more relaxing (no interminable queues and security checks) and I have a good night’s sleep in a proper bed on the ferry. It’s a lot cheaper, and only marginally longer time wise; and the extra time can be used productively instead of standing in queues.

But this is only the tip of the melting iceberg. Even a full train, or bus, may not be carbon efficient, because a large proportion of the people travelling are making unnecessary journeys. Transport companies have to make a profit (to keep their shareholders happy). So, in order to ensure the buses and trains are full all the time, and maximising profit, transport companies  sell heavily discounted tickets, which encourages travel for travel’s sake.

Apart from the fact that you probably need a university degree to understand the fare combinations (I heard recently on the radio that there are something like 400 different rail fare combinations available in the UK), it seems wrong to claim that public transport always has a lower carbon footprint than a private car. If a car is being used for an essential journey (to and from work, for example) and there are two or three people in it, the car journey may have a smaller carbon footprint than other forms of public transport. 

In reality so many arguments about the environment are muddied by political and social agendas. We are told there is an accommodation crisis in the UK, and we need to build more houses, and to build them in the green belt. This inevitably means further destruction of the natural environment. But there is not a housing crisis: there is a human population crisis with far too many people in the country. And this is not to do with immigration. This is to do with breeding. We also hear time and again that economic growth is the answer to our problems.

The facts are: we are losing the natural environment (and in the UK the semi-natural environment) at an unsustainable rate and mass extinctions are now inevitable. Balancing carbon footprints to save the environment is meaningless without a commitment to slow down and reverse human population growth. As for economic growth, let’s be honest about it. If growth continues, it will lead eventually to total environmental collapse which in turn will trigger an economic catastrophe. Not a path than any sensible person would recommend.

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