According to NASA, 97% of climate scientists agree global warming is happening and is caused by humans. Yet according to a 1998 Pew Research Center Survey, only 59% of Americans think climate change is a major problem. Compare that to 86% in South Korea and 83% in France. So not only has the United States been the leading cause of the problem, we are now the leading culprit in the denial.
Yet scientists are quite clearly telling us climate change is real, that world governments are not doing enough to stop a catastrophe, and that there will be major repercussions that will negatively affect you and, more especially, your children and grandchildren. It is a moral imperative for each of us to take action. (If you are not yet worried about the problem, continue reading below for a summary.)
Our Impact as a Travel Company
As a travel company, it is not pleasant to think of how we at Zephyr United contribute to global warming via carbon emissions.
On the one hand, we have had a virtual office (i.e. no commuting) since 2002. We are proud of that. It is significant.
On the other, not only do we regularly fly around the world but our tours and conferences encourage other people to fly around the world too. There is no getting around the reality that our business contributes to global climate change. Granted, people will take vacations and attend conferences either with us or with someone else. And it is not our job to solve the world’s climate change problem by closing our business. But at Zephyr United our collective conscious no longer will allow us to ignore this issue and not do more to combat global climate change.
Our Climate Change Pledge
Education: We already provide interesting and valuable cultural and historical talks on all our tours. Starting in 2021, we will commit to providing at least one educational session on the environment on all our tours. (We will also provide at least one talk on diversity and equality, in keeping with our Equality Plan.
Staff Trips: Our staff took an average of 43 airplane trips each year from 2017 through 2019. It was much less in 2020 due to the pandemic. This is really not too high given the number of tours and conferences we run, as many of our tour guides are locally based. Nevertheless, we will reduce our staff air travel by 20% to no more than 34 trips per year by 2022. We will do this by planning tours and conferences back to back, by using local guides when possible, and by eliminating our company in-person annual meetings if necessary.
Tour Participant Flights: We will encourage our tour participants to reduce their annual flights by scheduling longer trips of greater meaning, while taking fewer overall. Hopefully, our travelers will join us on some of our back-to-back trips or simply extend their vacations before and after our tours. But we certainly understand people will make their own travel decisions, meaning sometimes they might choose not to travel with us if they reduce their number of trips.
Conference Attendee Flights: The number of attendees at our conferences is much higher than the number of travelers on our tours. We will attempt to reduce the flights taken by attendees of our conferences by marketing two of them (the Wine Marketing & Tourism Conference and the Beer Marketing & Tourism Conference) primarily to those within driving distance. We will experiment with this in 2021 and make additional changes if it is successful.
For a primer on climate change and the impact of travel, read on.
The Climate Change Problem
The world was alerted to the problem of climate change via the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, published over 30 years ago in 1990. World leaders have known about this problem far longer; President Lyndon Johnson was briefed on climate change in 1965. Yet energy-related global CO2 emissions (which make up about 65% of greenhouse gasses) were 20.5 gigatons when that first IPCC report was published and grew to 33.3 gigatons in 2019 (source: International Energy Agency). So we as a people are simply not dealing with the problem our scientists tell us we have.
Here are a few of the consequences scientists tell us our children and grandchildren will experience in their lifetimes:
- Rising sea levels: This is the one you have heard about, although chances are you don’t know the extent of what is coming. In the US, much of Florida, the Louisiana coast, and eventually the eastern seaboard are all at risk of disappearing.
- Extreme weather events: Killer tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and heat waves that kill hundreds of thousands of people will be the norm. (The 2003 heat wave in Europe caused an estimated 70,000 deaths – source European Environment Agency.)
- Disease outbreaks: COVID-19 was not caused by climate change but other pandemics will be, as changing temperatures make it possible for tropical parasites to travel to new geographies.
- Fires: Humongous wildfires will devastate forests, cause massive damage, and require huge sums to fight. The California wildfires of 2020 burned 4.3 million acres and the state is verging on spending a billion dollars a year in firefighting. (Source: Cal Fire)
- Droughts: Much of the southern US and much of the middle belt of the globe will have a scarcity of water, very likely making some cities uninhabitable unless water is trucked in.
- Food shortages: Drought and temperature increases will cause vast swathes of agricultural land to be non-productive, making lack of food very likely the most dire consequence of all.
- Massive refugee migrations: Due to all of the above, we can expect massive refugee migrations from countries more affected by climate change to those less affected.
- Increased geopolitical conflict: Climate-caused war will become the leading cause of conflict as countries attempt to keep their citizens alive and compete for scare water and food resources.
- Extinctions: Humans are already causing extinctions at a vastly increased rate. That is not even the big worry, which is that global warming at some point will create a 6th (we have had five already) Great Extinction that will wipe out nearly all species on earth, including potentially humans.
If you think this list is extreme, it is not really your fault. You just haven’t yet been exposed to the best guesses of scientists and other thinkers. Scientists don’t talk about this because they have enough difficulty just getting people to believe in science. Politicians don’t talk about this because it doesn’t get them elected. If you want to educate yourself, read The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells.
Climate Change Solutions
We are on an irreversible (in our lifetimes) path of climate change, so there really is no solution. All of the above will happen and is happening; it is really only a question of to what degree, which depends on us.
- Renewable Energies: This is critical and we need to be moving wholesale away from carbon-based energy (oil and gas) into renewables.
- Carbon Offsets: Carbon offsets are voluntary contributions by businesses or individuals in which the money goes to a project that helps reduce the carbon emissions problem. On an industrial basis, they could be very helpful if we have limits on carbon emissions that businesses can pay to have someone else achieve (cap and trade). On a consumer basis, paying money to plant a tree to reduce your carbon footprint sounds nice but is not meaningful in terms of climate change.
- Carbon Capture and Sequestration: Scientists tell us we need to essentially eliminate carbon emissions and remove carbon already in the atmosphere to avoid disaster. A Swiss company called ClimeWorks is actually capturing carbon from our atmosphere and sequestering it back in the earth. However, the amount currently captured is so small as to be meaningless. More important is carbon capture directly at the point of emission by scrubbing exhaust from power plants and factories.
- Geo Engineering: Another form of what is called “geo engineering” is to create artificial means of reflecting sunlight back into space. This could be done by launching tens of millions of tiny mirrors into orbit around earth; by increasing the reflexivity of clouds or even algae; or by creating a layer of pollutants in our atmosphere. The twin problems of geo engineering are a) they do not solve all problems of climate change and b) once we start geo engineering the earth, we might never be able to stop.
- Reduced Emissions: In the end, reducing our greenhouse emissions is the most important step and needs to happen now. As we wait for world governments to take action, individual citizens can contribute by purchasing an electric car, installing solar panels on your home, reducing your electrical consumption, and … traveling less.
The Impact of Travel
While the impact of the travel industry on global greenhouse gas emissions is not huge, ranging from 2% to 8% of total emissions depending on what you calculate as part of “travel”, your personal travel very likely impacts your personal carbon footprint to a great degree.
- Cars: A typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. (Source: EPA) Naturally, this depends on the amount you drive and the type of car.
- Airplanes: According to carbonfund.org, a reasonable estimate of emissions due to air travel is .2 kg of carbon per passenger mile. So for a tourist who take four vacations by air with a total of 30,000 miles (NY to London is 3,451 miles one way), that amounts to 6.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.
Of course, most of our driving in cars is not for vacation. If we just look at one 2,000 mile car trip in a car that gets 25 miles per gallon, our carbon output is 1,567 pounds. For a 8,000 mile roundtrip flight, the carbon emissions are 3,520 pounds plus any emissions you accrue while you are driving on vacation. If you fly on vacation with a travel mate, double that impact. (You don’t double your impact by driving together.) So you can see that each vacation you take by air has quite an impact.
Reducing the Negatives of Air Travel
There has not been much public discussion about reducing the climate change impact of air travel. But it boils down to three aspects:
- Sustainable Aviation Fuel: Instead of using carbon-based fuels, we could use other options such as plant-based fuels or hydrogen. None of these are carbon zero. All will take huge investment.
- Increased Efficiencies: Airlines and manufacturers could change airplane design, routes, and schedules to decrease emissions.
- Reduced Demand: In the end, reduced demand would have the most immediate effect and this is really the only area you can play a personal role.
Global climate change is the problem of our lives and one in which we will hand most of the negative impacts to our children and grandchildren. It is likely an existential problem for the human race. World governments are the organizations who need to combat climate change; they are currently failing to do so adequately. Private businesses and individuals can help by reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions and these actions will help spur governments as well. For travelers, that pretty much means taking fewer, more meaningful trips by air. Even for travel companies like ours.