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: running your car on beer, sort of

The New Zealanders just found the perfect excuse to drink a few more beers in the bar. Beer brewer DB Breweries teamed up with bio-fuel producer Gull to produce what they claim to be the first commercial gasoline made from a beer by-product. They gave it the apt name Brewtrolium. It’s a mixture of 90% 98-octane gasoline and 10% bio-ethanol distilled from yeast left-overs. “We’re helping Kiwis save the world by doing what they enjoy best—drinking beer,” DB breweries spokesperson Sean O’Donnell told the NZ Herald.

Compatible with most modern cars that run on 98-gasoline, Brewtrolium is more sustainable than classic gasoline. The ethanol part is renewable — just keep drinking guys! — and DB Breweries claims a reduction in greenhouse gases with 8% because of a more efficient burning of the bio-fuel. When using 30 liters of Brewtrolium every week, it saves up to 250 kg of carbon dioxide a year in comparison with a traditional fuel. Until now, yeast left-overs were usually used for animal food or went to landfill.

DB Breweries teamed up with bio-fuel producer Gull to create the world's first fuel running on a beer by-product (photo: DB Export)

DB Breweries teamed up with bio-fuel producer Gull to create the world’s first fuel based on a beer by-product (photo: DB Export)

According to DB Breweries, everyone can now save the world by drinking beer. But is Brewtrolium really going to make a difference? The product in itself probably not. But the tendency of using left-overs for bio-fuel production is a good one, since until now often corn is used as base product. And corn can better be used to feed people than cars, right? That being said, it’s still way better to stop burning fuels altogether.


Digital Trends
DB Breweries


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: charge while you drive, it’s no sci-fi anymore

The electric vehicle market is still struggling to kick-off. It’s a bit the chicken-and-egg problem. Consumers are held back because of the lack of charging points, companies are not eager to invest in the infrastructure when there is no guarentee it will be used extensively. So that’s the moment governments should help out and that’s exactly what is happening in the UK.

As part of a master plan to get more eletric vehicles (EV’s) on the road, the UK government is investing in a charging network on all major roadways with chargers every 20 miles (32 kilometers). Later this year, a pilot project in wireless charging of electric vehicles will conclude a feasibility study of the technology commissioned by Highways England. If the results are economically viable, the technology will be build out further.

Wireless charging of electric vehicles could soon become reality in the UK (photo: Highways England)

Wireless charging of electric vehicles could soon become reality in the UK (photo: Highways England)

How does this wireless charging work? It’s basically the same technology as used to charge your electric toothbrush or wireless phone charging. Thanks to magnetic induction, an electric current can be induced to charge the vehicle’s batteries when it drives over elektromagnetic plates build into the road. The vehicle can charge its batteries while driving, no need for charging stops anymore. The installation of the elektromagnetic infrastructure is easier than the electrification of a road via overhead cables such as for trams.

The application of induction charging for EV’s is not new. In Gomi in South-Korea for example, two wireless-charged buses ply the train station and Dong-In line. Similar projects exist in Utrecht (the Netherlands) and Torino (Italy). But if the UK decides to build out the technology over its roadway network, we’re talking about a much bigger scale. Exciting times for electric vehicles — and their drivers– ahead!

fast coexists

Header photo by Mark Turnauckas


Photo of the week: first airport to go 100% solar

Last week Cochin International airport, the fourth busiest in India, inaugurated its 12 MegaWatt solar power plant near its cargo complex. This move makes them the first airport in the world to run fully on solar power. 46 150 panels spread over an area of around 26 football fields deliver enough energy to cover the airport’s energy demand. During the day surplus electricity is feeded in the national grid, at night the airport taps off what is needed — overall the production will be larger than consumption. The generated power would be enough to electrify around 10 000 households. When compared to a coal power plant, 300 000 metric tons of carbon dioxide will be saved during the next 25 years. That’s equivalent to planting 3 million trees or not driving 750 million miles.

This 12 MWp solar farm will produce enough electricty to make Cochin Airport grid neutral (photo: CIAL/REX Shutterstock)

This 12 MWp solar farm will produce enough electricty to make Cochin Airport grid neutral (photo: CIAL/REX Shutterstock)

The Airport Authority of India (AAI), which operates Cochin and 124 other airports in the country, is planning to build solar farms at about 30 of them. This would add up to 150 MegaWatt installed capacity when completed.

The airport may be the first to go 100% solar, it’s not the first one to go 100% renewable. For example, Baltra airport in the Galapagos Islands runs completely on solar and wind power and during the last rebuilding of the airport 80% of the previous infrastructure was recycled.

Cochin International Airport press release

Cover photo by Andrei Dimofte