If Seeing the World Helps Ruin It, Should We Stay Home?


The glaciers are melting, the coral reefs are dying, Miami Beach is slowly going under.

Quick, says a voice in your head, go see them before they disappear! You are evil, says another voice. For you are hastening their destruction.

To a lot of people who like to travel, these are morally bewildering times. Something that seemed like pure escape and adventure has become double-edged, harmful, the epitome of selfish consumption. Going someplace far away, we now know, is the biggest single action a private citizen can take to worsen climate change. One seat on a flight from New York to Los Angeles effectively adds months worth of human-generated carbon emissions to the atmosphere.

And yet we fly more and more.

The number of airline passengers worldwide has more than doubled since 2003, and unlike with some other pollution sources, there’s not a ton that can be done right now to make flying significantly greener — electrified jets are not coming to an airport near you anytime soon.

Still, we wonder: How much is that one vacation really hurting anyone, or anything?

It is hard to think about climate change in relation to our own behavior. We are small, our effects are microscopically incremental and we mean no harm. The effects of climate change are inconceivably enormous and awful — and for the most part still unrealized. You can’t see the face of the unnamed future person whose coastal village you will have helped submerge.

But it turns out there are ways to quantify your impact on the planet, at least roughly. In 2016, two climatologists published a paper in the prestigious journal Science showing a direct relationship between carbon emissions and the melting of Arctic sea ice.

“Some of the particulate counts were comparable to or worse than a bad day in some of the world’s most polluted cities like Beijing and Santiago,” said Kendra Ulrich of Stand.earth, the advocacy group that commissioned the study.

But nothing is that simple in practice. Carbon-offset people talk about concerns with things called additionality, leakage and permanence.

Additionality: How do you know the utility would not have built the wind farm but for the money you gave them?

Permanence: How do you know the timber company that planted those trees won’t just cut them down in a few years?

Leakage: How do you know the landowner you just paid not to cut down an acre of rain forest won’t use the money to buy a different acre and clear that?

While certifying organizations go to great lengths to verify carbon offset projects, verification has limits.

“Whether someone would have planted trees anyway, or taken some other action like building a housing development, is ultimately unknowable and something you have to construct,” said Peter Miller, a policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council and a board member of the Climate Action Reserve, the country’s biggest carbon offset registry. “It’s an endless debate.”

Some carbon offsets are surer bets than others. “With methane capture,” Mr. Miller said, “once you capture that methane and you burn it — you’re done. It’s not in the atmosphere, it’s not going in the atmosphere. You’ve got a credit that’s achieved and you’ve avoided those emissions forever.”

But actually this summer, we’re going to Greece, with a stopover in Paris. Carbon footprint of plane tickets: 10.6 metric tons, enough to melt a small-apartment-sized piece of the Arctic.



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