Travel and Climate Change
At the end of 2020, the Alpine Club Environment Panel finalised its recommendations on travel in light of the climate crisis. The below outlines the club's position at time of publication (February 2021) and we hope that it proves a valuable resource for both club members and the wider mountaineering community. The club is indebted to Ed Douglas for his leadership in the drafting of these recommendations.
Porito Merino Glacier | Photo: Luca Galuzzi
Alpinists know as well as anyone the impact climate change is having in the mountains. It’s a familiar litany: glaciers are disappearing; routes are falling down.
These notes are intended to encourage and help Alpine Club members in reducing their carbon footprint from travel. While travel is simply one part of a complicated jigsaw, it is the part of the problem where we have most impact as mountaineers. But cutting carbon from all aspects of our lives is the aspiration of most European governments. For reference, the carbon footprint for the average EU citizen is 8.4 tonnes per year.
Before we get into the detail, the Alpine Club proposes a three-step program for mitigating your impact.
1. Reflect on how you travel: the means and frequency.
2. Reduce the amount you fly.
3. Offset when you travel.
How We Travel
The biggest concern for alpinists is aviation. In 2018, the sector accounted for 2.5% of carbon emissions. That might not sound a lot but if we reclassified flying as a nation it would sit in sixth place for carbon emissions, between Japan and Germany. Non-carbon effects like contrails and other emissions boost the warming impact of flying to almost 5%.
Assessing the carbon footprint of different forms of transport is a complicated business. It’s easy to find contradictory values from different sources. For example, according to the European Environment Agency, air travel generates 285g of CO2 per passenger mile and rail just 14g, or 5% of air travel. Yet the rail company Eurostar says that taking their trains emits 90% less carbon than flying: a 10% differential.
These discrepancies often come down to what’s included in the calculation and how it’s assessed. Building rail infrastructure has a higher carbon cost than that for aviation. Rail emissions also depend on the occupancy of trains. Tourists tend to choose cheaper fares, which almost by definition are on trains where there are more empty seats. And train emissions vary depending on how they’re powered: electricity from nuclear power stations in France, say, or diesel in the UK.
Despite all these provisos, rail remains a far greener form of travel than flying and to a lesser extent driving, where fuel type, vehicle size and occupancy can also impact emissions. Of course, the projected widespread introduction of electric cars will change this picture again.
The website EcoPassenger offers a detailed breakdown of the environmental impact of travel, not just in terms of carbon emissions but other factors like particulates. (There are more useful carbon calculators for offsetting, see below.) According to EcoPassenger, the carbon emissions for a one-way journey from London to Geneva are 20kg by train, 73kg in a medium-class car and 200.7kg by aircraft. (The car figure anticipates you’re sharing the car with one other passenger. The aviation figure includes all the climate impacts of flying.)
One obvious conclusion to all this is to fly less or not at all.
The hurdles to doing that are price and convenience. In general, taking the train is more expensive and takes longer. Thanks to fierce competition and low taxes, flying in Europe in particular is incredibly cheap. (Aviation fuel is untaxed, whereas fuel or power for trains is not.) Booking three months ahead can reduce the price differential between air and rail. The travel site Seat61 is a useful tool for planning. Cheap ‘OuiGo’ TGV tickets are available here and at trainline.com.
Driving takes time as well but is more convenient and door-to-door. But while the car option has a far lower carbon footprint than flying, it’s important to consider the difference in other emissions, everything from nitrogen oxides to brake pad particulates. The Alpine Club’s Member’s Facebook Group offers the opportunity to arrange car sharing to further reduce emissions.
Mitigating the carbon cost of your flights or car journeys by paying into offset schemes is a contentious subject. Some campaigners say they enable a hydrocarbon industry that is too damaging to survive. Offsets are like medieval indulgences, they say, absolving inveterate travellers of their responsibilities. Others argue with justification that many schemes are of doubtful value and under-regulated. Some schemes run by low-cost airlines have been exposed as worthless. Others take it much more seriously, with easyJet committing to offset all its flights.
There is academic peer-reviewed evidence that properly accredited schemes do have value. So for those who continue to visit long-haul destinations like the Andes or Himalaya and want to mitigate their impact, offsetting is an option.
There are a number of ways to do this. Here are three organisations offering certified offset schemes with useful carbon calculators.
- MyClimate is a Swiss offsetting non-profit with a market-oriented approach that allows the user to calculate their offset charge not just for travel but also at home and then choose individual projects to mitigate those impacts. It’s easy to use. They offer an offset charge for a return flight to Geneva from London from £9.
- Climate Care is an Oxford-based company which does similar things to myclimate.org and offers advice on cutting energy consumption and reducing your carbon footprint.
- Atmosfair is a German site for airline travel, which offers a diverse menu including seat classes and aircraft types, plus a full justification of projects supported. Like Ecopassenger.org it also accounts for non-fuel damage such as contrail formation and ozone layer damage.
The schemes these organisations fund are certified but often far away. You may feel that if you’re going to take the offsetting route, then you want more control over where your money goes and that it can do more than simply offset your carbon footprint.
Although the UK is one of the most nature-deprived countries in the world, there have been recent conservation success stories that could be another route to offset your carbon footprint. While these schemes aren’t always certified, because the calculations involved are often too difficult, they have the extra advantage of improving biodiversity as well as locking up carbon.
One example of the latter is peatland restoration. The vast majority of the UK’s peat bogs are being degraded at immense cost in carbon emissions, equivalent to all the carbon of all the flights that leave Heathrow every year. Moors for the Future is just one organisation that is helping reverse that loss by restoring peat bogs in the Pennines and restoring biodiversity at the same time. The British Mountaineering Council’s innovative Climate Project is one way to support peat bog restoration. You can use the carbon cost calculator at MyClimate.org to calculate your impacts and offset by sponsoring the planting of sphagnum moss.
Another potential scheme is the Scottish afforestation project Trees for Life that is dedicated to re-wilding the Scottish Highlands and whose offsetting scheme is accredited by the Woodland Carbon Code. Like peatland restoration, this project has the advantage of improving biodiversity as well as sequestering carbon.
Climbing in the era of climate change requires proper consideration. One of the guiding principles of alpinism is to do more with less. We also aim to leave mountains as we found them. Minimising the climate impacts of mountaineering will surely become routine.