Category: Earth & climate

Analysis: a traveler’s footprint

If you’re only a bit like me, you love traveling. I love to explore new cities and cultures, meet new people, hear stories and challenge my view on the world. I believe traveling is one of the most effective and fun ways of self-enrichment. But what does our planet think about us flying/driving/sailing around? Now I got rid of the sand in my shoes, the backpack is stored away and I’m back at University, I thought it was the perfect time to present you the results of an experiment I undertook this summer. I wanted to find out what my travel footprint was and if I would be able to do better.

Living in the heart of Belgium, around 30 kilometers from the capital Brussels, I’ve always had the luxury of a broad range of options to go abroad. Brussels is a major international traffic hub, with a lot of international flights, high-speed train connections going in all wind directions and a lot of buses connecting cities all over Europe. Around 60 kilometers to the South, the airport of Chaleroi is the main hub for low-cost airlines — always tempting for the student with a small budget.

The idea to challenge myself to think more about the ecological impact of my journey arose from a discussion I had with one of the participants of a summer academy on sustainability I was attending in the beginning of August. Wasn’t it a bit ironic that a group of young people who are interested in sustainable living, came all the way to Istanbul, in most cases by plane? And many of us seemed to be fervent travellers. This got me thinking… what was my impact on the environment by attending this sustainability academy? And how could plan my travels in the future to limit that footprint?

So I did what you usually do when big life questions arise — I started googling. After half a day of searching the web, I ceased my attempt. Frustratingly enough, I didn’t find any satisfying calculator that could tell me how much greenhouse gases my trip had blewn into the atmosphere. The problem was this: or the available tools were too simple, or they were way too complicated. It was also difficult to track the data sources or to find out which assumptions were made to turn my input into the number the calculator spew out on the screen. My conclusion was clear: I would have to do the calculation myself.

After two days , mainly invested in digging for data on greenhouse gas emissions of different means of transport, I had a first version of the calculator ready in excel. Time for the test: how much did my trip from Belgium to Istanbul including local transport hurt the planet? The result was striking. I made an infographic to summarize the inputs and most important results.

Infographic of the travel footprint of my Istanbul trip

Infographic of the travel footprint of my Istanbul trip

It was quite shocking to learn that the transportation of this two-week trip alone took a bite of 20% out of my carbon budget. The carbon budget is what I can emit, according to the IPCC, to be on track for no more than 2°C global warming by 2100. I further found out that taking the taxi from the airport to the hotel was the most carbon intensive means of transportation, followed by the flight from Brussels to Istanbul. The difference is of course that I travelled around 4600 kilometers by plane and only 55 kilometers by taxi. The bus trips turned out to be the least carbon intensive way of moving around. But if Turkey would have had the same energy mix as France, the metro would have won that title — the carbon intensity of electricty is very low in France because of the nuclear power. During the research I made a graph of the carbon intensity per kilometer for some of the means of transport, which can serve has a first guiding tool in choosing your way of traveling.

Chart of greenhouse gas emissions of typical means of travel (based on data from DEFRA and LIPASTO)

Chart of greenhouse gas emissions of typical means of travel (based on data from DEFRA and LIPASTO)

The biggest lessons from playing around with the data were:

  • taking a taxi as a single passenger, or a car with only one person are most carbon intensive
  • taking a plane is devastating, since it is nearly as carbon intensive as being a single person in a car but you travel much longer distances
  • taking an electric train or metro is often a good idea, unless you are living in a country with a mainly coal-fired power generation (such as Poland)
  • taking a coach bus has a very low footprint

With this in mind, I started planning my next trip. I now wanted to travel with a minimal ecological footprint, but still fulfill the two remaining items on my bucket list for the summer of 2015: attending the Climate Launchpad competition in Amsterdam and doing a surf camp in France or Spain. To make things even more complicated, I had to remember my budget constraints. I used the Travel Carbon Footprint calculator to estimate the footprint of different ways to realize my plans. It was pretty clear that I had to avoid taking the plane. I finally choose to do everything by long-distance bus, because it had the lowest footprint, it was enormously cheap (especially because I was arranging everything last minute) and I didn’t have to worry about luggage restrictions. The final footprint is around 2,20% of my yearly carbon budget. If I would have chosen a less time-consuming alternative, e.g. taking the train to Amsterdam and a plane to the South of France, it was at least five times more carbon intensive. So for me it was worth the long hours on a bus.

If you are curious about your own travel footprint of last summer, I have good news for you. You can calculate your own footprint now as well, I made the first version of the calculator available for you on the Shift website! Be sure to first read the manual so you know what input is expected from you and what the results really mean. I plan to further upgrade the calculator in the future and keep the data up to date. You can always leave a suggestion for new functionalities as well, or leave a question.

And to assure you: I had an awesome time both in Amsterdam and during my surf trip in the South-West of France. For me, it was the proof that travelling and exploring can be cheap and good for the environment without compromising too much. I hope the calculator will help you choosing your transportation means during the planning of future trips! And don’t forget: transport often is a huge part of your travel footprint, but not the only one. Eat, shop, sleep and enjoy your destination without leaving traces…only good memories.


Photo of the week: Shell freezes Arctic exploration (pun intended)

The beginning of the week started with a major victory for environmentalists: fossil fuel company Shell announced it will freeze its Artcic drilling activities for “the forseeable future”. Shell itself blames the disappointing outcome from the explorations this summer in the Alaskan Arctic for the halt in its search for oil and gas in the basin. After three years of strong opposition, environmental groups applaud the decision and called it “an unmitigated defeat” for big oil.

After years of protest and public outrage, Shell put its Arctic explorations on a hold (photo: David Ryder/Getty Images)

Protest at one of Shell’s Arctic drilling rigs parked in Seattle bay. After years of public outrage, Shell put its Arctic explorations on a hold this week (photo: David Ryder/Getty Images)

For sure public opinion and rising concerns about Shell’s plans for Arctic oil and gas exploration played an important role. Critics said that it would endanger one of the last pristine areas on earth and that the operations in such harsh environments would just be too costly. Plus, when something goes wrong at a drilling site in the Arctic, it is very difficult to react fast to limit the damage. Even the former president of BP questioned Shell’s plans for Arctic drilling.

Despite Shell’s effort to portray itself as a progressive company in the climate change debate, it looks that they lost a lot of credit with their drilling plans for the Arctic. And not only their image got a serious blow; they spent more than 6 million euros so far on the hunt for fossil fuel in the region. That would have been enough to install around 1700 1MegaWatt wind turbines, 5.4 carbon capture and storage facilities or 46 000 years of heat for a eco-house, according to a calculation of the Guardian.

The Guardian


Photo of the week: the Sexy Plant

Each of us is carrying residues of pesticides in his or her body. More and more studies link immune system defficiencies, allergies and cancers with the chemicals which enter the human body via crops from non-organic agriculture. Students from the university of Valencia have now come up with an alternative, environmentally-friendly insect pest control method: the Sexy Plant.

Using controlled release of moth sex pheromones, the Sexy Plant causes mating disruption and avoid moth’s offspring. The team designed a genetic switch to turn on the release of pheromones after a solution of a copper-sulfate is sprayed on the plant. They also developed a biosafety module that prevents the plant to spread its genetic matter via pollen, which could eventually lead to an uncontrolled spread of the Sexy Plant itself which would endanger the original crop.

Two developers from the Sexy Plant team presenting their environmentally-friendly insect pest control method (photo: Sexy Plant)

Two developers from the Sexy Plant team presenting their environmentally-friendly insect pest control method (photo: Sexy Plant)

The Sexy Plant team claims that farmers can save up to 40% in insect pest control costs by planting the Sexy Plant between their crops. Plus, the pesticide free product can be sold for a better price. There is also a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, since pesticides have a carbon dioxide footprint of around 3kg per hectare which is avoided when using the Sexy Plant.


Sexy Plant project page


Photo of the week: Rabbit gut microbes to clean up steel production?

If ArcellorMittal's pilot project to turn CO into bio-ethanol turns out economiccaly viable, it will apply the technology in all its steel production plants, such as this one in Bremen (photo: JesterRaiin)

Steel is still the most important engineering material, with a yearly production of around 1,7 billion tonnes. Unfortunately, the process to produce steel starting from iron ore is heavily polluting the atmosphere. Both CO and CO2 are produced, with the first one often burned to produce CO2 as well. When you do the math, you find that for each ton of steel, roughly two tonnes of carbon dioxide are emitted. The contribution of the steel industry to the global CO2 emissions is estimated to be around 5%.

Reason enough to investigate the possibilty of reducing the footprint, thought bioengineering company LanzaTech. They developed the Clostridium microbe based on rabbit gut microbes, to capture carbon monoxide and converting it to ethanol.  “What we are talking about is turning an environmental liability into a financial opportunity,” said Jennifer Holmgren, chief executive of LanzaTech. The ethanol can be used to fuel cars and airplanes. ArcelorMittal, the world’s biggest steel producer, is about to start a pilot project in their production faciliy in Ghent, Belgium to test out the technology. When completed in 2018, the facility will produce up to 47 000 tonnes of ethanol. It’s estimated that for every ton of ethanol, carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by 2.3 tonnes. When the conversion process proves to be economiccaly viable, the company will roll out the technology in all her facilities over the world.

If ArcellorMittal's pilot project to turn CO into bio-ethanol turns out economiccaly viable, it will apply the technology in all its steel production plants, such as this one in Bremen (photo: JesterRaiin)

If ArcelorMittal’s pilot project to turn CO into bio-ethanol turns out to be economically viable, the company will apply the technology in all its steel production plants, such as this one in Bremen (photo: JesterRaiin)



The climate debate is gaining momentum – update

Obama and Merkel in discussion during the G7 top at Elmau castle in Germany (photo: REUTERS/Michael Kappeler/Pool)

Four months ago I wrote about how the climate movement finally seemed to have stirred broader action at political levels (if you didn’t read it or want to fresh it up, read this first). With another four months to go until the climate summit in Paris, it becomes clear it was not just a lonely sparkle. It was the beginning of a fire.



Photo of the week: tracing back shipping lanes… with CO2!

When you were asked to point the places with most carbon dioxide in the atmosphere on earth, you probably would think of China, Western Europe and the US coastlines. A mapping of carbon dioxide pollution matches very well with population density indeed. That’s not a big surprise, since mankind is a very large contributor to CO2 emissions. But something you maybe wouldn’t have tought about, is the shipping lanes used by hundreds of cargo ships carrying goods from oil over coal to bananas from one side of the globe to the other. This enormous ships burn what is called bunker oil, a sulfur rich fuel oil. At least 4% of the global greenhouse gas emissions are estimated to be emitted by shipping. Since the amount of goods shipped oversea is still on the rise, it’s definitely worth spending some more time and money improving ships’ efficiency and pollution.


A mapping of the carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere reveals cargo ships' routes (map: Kennedy Elliott)

A mapping of the carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere reveals cargo ships’ routes (map: Kennedy Elliott)