An article in the German paper Spiegel in 2014 discussed an unpublished survey that revealed that Green Party voters were the most culpable of using airplanes. Whether these findings are not deemed official or hard evidence, it does not seem too far off. These days it is not only business people indulging in weekly short-haul flights. If you look at the advertisements and magazines of budget airlines, you can see that their targets are everyday people, from students to adventure-seeking travellers to hard-working holiday seekers. You don’t need much money anymore to fly, only an urge for adventures and anything ‘new’ and ‘real’ and preferably cheap. Most of us in highly industrialised countries live in a fast-paced, throwaway society, searching constantly for the latest fix and fad. There are hundreds of destinations for all types of travellers to pick within two clicks, whether that is indulging in cheap alcohol in hen and stag parties or the age-new dilemma of who is a tourist and who is a traveller. But who has more time to fly than the student who travels for educational and volunteering purposes? Is it not more exciting to volunteer to a far-flown region with no official Wifi and people from all over the world than volunteer in your local neighbourhood where homeless and drunk people don’t even remember your name? There are several workshops, seminars and conferences on climate change and sustainability but it was perfectly fine to fly to these meetings - until recently. Until flight-shaming became a movement, until Greta Thunberg came into the foreground of news, a young climate activist who refuses to fly and lives on a vegan diet. I have to say, I also used to take planes as well and I participated in the volunteering problem. But if one is truly concerned about climate change, one needs to live an example and set their own individual, selfish desires aside. If I get upset about people who still use planes whilst preaching about pollution, waste and plastic, I know that it would be hypocritical and selfish if I continued using airplanes.
One needs to be constantly reminded of the impact of flying: As an example, an average passenger car emits around 4600 kg of carbon dioxide per year. A round-trip from Germany to the United States emits almost 1000 kg. A round-trip from Barcelona to Berlin emits 220 kg. The World Economic Forum recently published a chart of the CO2 emissions of countries. The United States and China are responsible for more than 40% of the world's CO2 emissions. Considering that many of our goods are nowadays produced in China, we are also contributing to this. However, a look at the CO2 emissions per capita places Qatar, Trinidad & Tobago, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates at the top 4.
A report from the European Parliament published that 30% of the EU’s total CO2 emissions come from transport (including food, goods and commodities). Cars are responsible for almost 60% of emissions in the EU, whereas aviation accounts for 13%, and trains for 0.5%.
What can the individual do when it comes to travelling? One important fact is: Travel less by car and plane and use more public transport, trains and buses. If you do have to fly, think again: Do you really need to fly? There are initiatives such as Flight Free and ways to offset your carbon footprint. That means for each flight you take you pay an extra amount of money which support carbon offset projects.
Just stopping flying is only a small part of the solution. There are of course many other important factors that have not been discussed. But on an online platform of European cultural exchange, we should also address the ways volunteering programs can support environmentally conscious ways of travel. EU-funded projects such as Erasmus+ and ESC projects should look into strengthening ties locally or within neighbouring European countries where people can easily travel to the meeting point with trains or shared cars/buses instead of flying. Does it make sense if a Spanish participant flies to a 3-day seminar to Hungary? Probably not, so travel costs should, in my opinion, not even get reimbursed unless that participant chooses in a more environmentally friendly way. In-country training seminars should discourage participants from flying within the country. I mention this because I have seen it happening. There are initiatives where people get a discount if they came via shared, land transport. I would strongly encourage these incentives. Big-scale projects like Erasmus+ and ESC can really have an impact on reducing CO2 emissions on a global scale if they actively demand of people to use trains and buses, and only use airplanes as a last resort.
Greta Thunberg is an inspiring role model of the new generation. Whereas my generation X generally complains about the austerity and hopelessness (of a lack of ‘qualified’ jobs, or jobs at all, no ownership of property, high rent) of their situation, we are contributing to the problems that accelerate the climate catastrophes through our current lifestyles and consumption (travel, shopping, production of plastic, electronic waste, gadgets, clothing, energy consumption, all of which is linked to the mistreatment of animals and human labour). Greta chooses not to fly and takes the train or public transport everywhere and has persuaded her family to stop flying and eating meat. Here is finally a public person who is talking the talk and walking the walk. We need more of her.