Most major corporate, academic and other networking events have been cancelled because of the risks of spreading the coronavirus while travelling or at the events themselves. This flurry of cancellations has even spawned a literally titled website: https://www.isitcanceledyet.com/. But the changes in behaviour now being forced upon us might benefit the planet in the long term as we find and get used to other ways of holding meetings.
The COVID-19 pandemic is driving the development of these alternatives to physical travel and meetings much more strongly than climate change had to date. With many countries closing their borders, limiting domestic travel and imposing restrictions on large gatherings, few conferences are likely to proceed in the coming months of 2020.
If you’re a traveller who cares about reducing your carbon footprint, are some airlines better to fly with than others?
Several of the world’s major airlines have announced plans to become “carbon neutral”, while others are trialling new aviation fuels. But are any of their climate initiatives making much difference?
Those were the questions we set out to answer a year ago, by analysing what the world’s largest 58 airlines – which fly 70% of the total available seat-kilometres – are doing to live up to their promises to cut their climate impact.
The good news? Some airlines are taking positive steps. The bad news? When you compare what’s being done against the continued growth in emissions, even the best airlines are not doing anywhere near enough.
More efficient flights still drive up emissions
Our research found three-quarters of the world’s biggest airlines showed improvements in carbon efficiency – measured as carbon dioxide per available seat. But that’s not the same as cutting emissions overall.
One good example was the Spanish flag carrier Iberia, which reduced emissions per seat by about 6% in 2017, but increased absolute emissions by 7%.
For 2018, compared with 2017, the collective impact of all the climate measures being undertaken by the 58 biggest airlines amounted to an improvement of 1%. This falls short of the industry’s goal of achieving a 1.5% increase in efficiency. And the improvements were more than wiped out by the industry’s overall 5.2% annual increase in emissions.
This challenge is even clearer when you look slightly further back. Industry figures show global airlines produced 733 million tonnes of CO₂ emissions in 2014. Falling fares and more people around wanting to fly saw airline emissions rise 23% in just five years.
What are the airlines doing?
Airlines reported climate initiatives across 22 areas, with the most common involving fleet renewal, engine efficiency, weight reductions and flight path optimisation. Examples in our paper include:
Singapore Airlines modified the Trent 900 engines on their A380 aircraft, saving 26,326 tonnes of CO₂ (equivalent to 0.24% of the airline’s annual emissions);
KLM’s efforts to reduce weight on board led to a CO₂ reduction of 13,500 tonnes (0.05% of KLM’s emissions).
Etihad reports savings of 17,000 tonnes of CO₂ due to flight plan improvements (0.16% of its emissions).
Nineteen of the 58 large airlines I examined invest in alternative fuels. But the scale of their research and development programs, and use of alternative fuels, remains tiny.
As an example, for Earth Day 2018 Air Canada announced a 160-tonne emissions saving from blending 230,000 litres of “biojet” fuel into 22 domestic flights. How much fuel was that? Not even enough to fill the more than 300,000-litre capacity of just one A380 plane.
About half of the major airlines engage in carbon offsetting, but only 13 provide information on measurable impacts. Theses include Air New Zealand, with its FlyNeutral program to help restore native forest in New Zealand.
That lack of detail means the integrity of many offset schemes is questionable. And even if properly managed, offsets still avoid the fact that we can’t make deep carbon cuts if we keep flying at current rates.
Our research shows major airlines’ climate efforts are achieving nowhere near enough. To decrease aviation emissions, three major changes are urgently needed.
All airlines need to implement all measures across the 22 categories covered in our report to reap any possible gain in efficiency.
Far more research is needed to develop alternative aviation fuels that genuinely cut emissions. Given what we’ve seen so far, these are unlikely to be biofuels. E-fuels – liquid fuels derived from carbon dioxide and hydrogen – may provide such a solution, but there are challenges ahead, including high costs.
Governments can – and some European countries do – impose carbon taxes and then invest into lower carbon alternatives. They can also provide incentives to develop new fuels and alternative infrastructure, such as rail or electric planes for shorter trips.
How you can make a difference
Our research paper was released late last year, at a World Travel and Tourism Council event linked to the Madrid climate summit. Activist Greta Thunberg famously sailed around the world to be there, rather than flying.
Higher-income travellers from around the world have had a disproportionately large impact in driving up aviation emissions.
This means that all of us who are privileged enough to fly, for work or pleasure, have a role to play too, by:
In the years since selfie sticks went global, it has become clear that the mobile phone has changed the way we travel.
The ubiquity of social media means tourists can now produce content on the move for their networked audiences to view in close to real time.
Where once we shared slideshows post trip and saved prints and postcards as keepsakes, we now share holiday images and selfies from the road, sea or air — expanding the “tourist gaze” from the traveller to include remote audiences back home.
Travelling has gone from a solitary quest to a “social occasion”. As such, gazing is becoming inseparably linked with photography. Taking photos has become habitual, rendering the camera as a way of seeing and experiencing new places.
Travellers take selfies that present both locations and people in aesthetically pleasing and positive ways.
Indeed, the “instagrammability” of a destination is a key motivation for younger people to travel there – even if filters and mirrors have been used to create a less than realistic image.
This transforms the relationship between travellers and their social networks in three important ways: between tourists and destination hosts; between fellow tourists; and lastly, between tourists and those that stay home.
The urge to share travel imagery is not without risk. An Australian couple were released from detention in Iran in October, following their arrest for ostensibly flying a drone without a permit.
Other tourists earned derision for scrambling to post selfies at Uluru before it was closed to climbers.
Meanwhile, there is a sad story behind the newly popular travelgram destination Rainbow Mountain in the Peruvian Andes. It has reportedly only recently emerged due to climate change melting its once snowy peaks.
Testing the effects
To understand the way social media photography impacts travelling, we undertook an exploratory study of overnight visitors at zoological accommodation in lavish surrounds.
We divided 12 participants into two groups. One group was directed to abstain from posting on social media but were still able to take photos. The second group had no restrictions on sharing photos. Though the numbers were small, we gathered qualitative information about engagement and attitudes.
Participants were invited to book at Jamala Wildlife Lodge in Canberra. The visit was funded by the researchers — Jamala Wildlife Lodge did not sponsor the research and the interviewees’ stay at the Lodge was a standard visit. We then conducted interviews immediately after their departure from the zoo, critically exploring the full experience of their stay.
The study confirmed that the desire to share travel pictures in close to real time is strongly scripted into the role of the tourist; altering the way travellers engage with sites they are visiting, but also their sense of urgency to communicate this with remote audiences.
Pics or it didn’t happen
Participants Mandy and Amy were among those instructed to refrain from posting pictures to social media while at the zoo. They described having to refrain from social media use as a disappointment, even though it seemed to further their engagement.
Interviewer: Did you look at your social media throughout your stay or did you refrain?
Mandy: A bit yeah. But even then, probably not reading it as much as I often would. I don’t think I commented on anything yeah.
Amy: Even today when we put something up [after staying at the Zoo] about the things we’d done today and only a few people had liked it, there was that little bit of disappointment that ‘Oh more people haven’t liked my post.’ Where we didn’t have that for the previous 24 hours [because of the experiment] … because nobody knew about it.
The desire for social media recognition resumed after leaving the zoo. For Michelle, posting after the experience presented new concerns:
Interviewer: How did you feel about not being able to post?
Michelle: Spanner in the works! For me personally not being able to post was a negative experience because I wanted to show people what we’re doing, when we’re doing it.
And I also feel, like a couple of people knew we were going to the zoo, right, and knew that we couldn’t use social media. So, when I eventually post it, they’re going to go, ‘She’s been hanging on to those and now she’s posting them and that’s just a bit weird.’ Like, to post it after the event. Everyone normally posts it in real time.
Later, Michelle commented that withholding content from posting to social media also diminished a part of the experience itself:
I sort of feel like if we don’t share the photos it’s like a tree fell down in the forest and no one heard it, like, we’ve had this amazing experience and if I don’t share them, then no one’s going to know that we had this experience, you know, apart from us.
Digital photography and social media transform the relationship between the travelling self and its audience, as individuals have an expanded — and potentially diversified — audience.
The perfect digital postcard now incorporates the self centrestage. As one participant suggested:
Shannon: It almost feels like it’s kind of an expected behaviour when you are doing something touristy … We’ve actually had tour guides before … kind of a bit disappointed if you don’t take a photograph.
The purpose of photography has shifted from a memory aid to a way of sharing experience in the moment. There is tension now between the need to capture tourist experiences for digital sharing and individual engagement in the tourist activity. Decrying the desire to use photography as a way of communicating experience will not constructively address this tension.
To ensure tourism sustainability, and engagement with their target market, tourism providers need to explore better ways to manage travellers’ face-to-face and digital engagement.
Digital engagements have become a defining part of travel, and organisations should be encouraged to promote online sharing of experiences — phone charging stations and photo competitions were two suggestions offered by our interviewees.
In contrast, device-free days or activities could be another way to encourage face-to-face engagement and prompt tourists to be more considered with their online sharing.
Before I explain, I should come clean. I am writing this on the train from Christchurch to Kaikoura, where I will give a talk about my recent book #NoFly: walking the talk on climate change. I have some skin in this game.
Taking a train around New Zealand is no mean feat. In the North Island, the train between Auckland and Wellington runs only every second day. If you get off at a stop along the way, you have to wait another two days to continue your journey. You can catch a bus, but you’ll spend that bus journey fantasising about the possibility of an overnight train service.
So why do it? A good deal of global carbon emissions come from industrial processes or electricity generation under the control of governments and corporations, rather than individual citizens. For many of us, a decision not to fly might be the most significant reduction in emissions we can make as individuals.
As Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has shown, refusing to fly also sends a powerful signal to others, by showing that you are willing to change your own behaviour. Politicians and corporate sales departments will take note if we start acting together.
Because any carbon dioxide you emit stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, it doesn’t matter much whether you release it from the exhaust pipe of your car at sea level or from a jet engine several kilometres high. Per passenger, a flight from Auckland to Wellington will put a similar amount of carbon dioxide into the air as driving solo in your car. Catching the train will cut your carbon emissions seven-fold.
When aircraft burn jet fuel, however, they also emit short-lived gases like nitrogen oxides, which can react with other gases in the air within a day of being released. When nitrogen oxides are released at altitude they can react with oxygen to put more ozone into the air, but can also remove methane.
Ozone and methane are both greenhouse gases, so this chain of chemical reactions can lead to both heating and cooling effects. Unfortunately the net result when these processes are added together is to drive more warming.
Depending on the atmospheric conditions, aircraft can also create contrails: clouds of tiny ice crystals. The science is not as clear cut on how contrails influence the climate, but some studies suggest they could have an effect as significant as the carbon dioxide released during a flight.
Offsetting, by planting trees or restoring natural wildlands, will take carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere. But we would have to do this on a massive scale to feed our appetite for flight.
Emissions from international air travel are not included in the Paris Agreement, although the United Nations has been working on the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), which may begin to deal with these. Initially, the scheme will be voluntary. Airlines flying routes between countries that join the scheme will have to offset any emissions above 2020 levels from January 2021.
Emissions from flying stand to triple by 2050 if demand for air travel continues to grow. Even if air travel became carbon neutral through the use of biofuels or electric planes, the effects from contrails and interactions with clouds mean that flying may never be climate neutral.
With no easy fixes on the horizon, many people are thinking hard about their need to fly. This is why I took a year off air travel (alongside my colleague Quentin Atkinson) in 2018.
Infrastructure projects are typically planned 20 or more years ahead. This makes it more important than ever that we start to adopt a disruptive lens in planning. It’s time to start accounting for electric aviation if we are to capitalise on its potential economic and environmental benefits.
A scan of global electric aircraft development suggests rapid advancements are likely over the coming decade. By 2022, nine-seat planes could be doing short-haul (500-1,000km) flights. Before 2030, small-to-medium 150-seat planes could be flying up to 500 kilometres. Short-range (100–250 km) VTOL aircraft could also become viable in the 2020s.
If these breakthroughs occur, we could see small, commercial, electric aircraft operating on some of Australia’s busiest air routes, including Sydney-Melbourne or Brisbane, as well as opening up new, cost-effective travel routes to and from regional Australia.
Why go electric?
In addition to new export opportunities, as shown by MagniX, electric aviation could greatly reduce the financial and environmental costs of air transport in Australia.
Short-haul electric aircraft are particularly compelling given the inherent energy efficiency, simplicity and longevity of the battery-powered motor and drivetrain. No alternative fuel sources can deliver the same level of savings.
With conventional planes, a high-passenger, high-frequency model comes with a limiting environmental cost of burning fuel. Smaller electric aircraft can avoid the fuel costs and emissions resulting from high-frequency service models. This can lead to increased competition between airlines and between airports, further lowering costs.
While benefiting smaller airports, electric aircraft could also improve the efficiency of some larger constrained airports.
For example, Australia’s largest airport, Sydney Airport, is efficient in both operations and costs. However, due to noise and pollution, physical and regulatory constraints – mainly aircraft movement caps and a curfew – can lead to congestion. With a significant number of sub-1,000km flights originating from Sydney, low-noise, zero-emission, electric aircraft could overcome some of these constraints, increasing airport efficiency and lowering costs.
The increased availability of short-haul, affordable air travel could actively compete with other transport services, including high-speed rail (HSR). Alternatively, if the planning of HSR projects takes account of electric aviation, these services could improve connectivity at regional rail hubs. This could strengthen the business cases for HSR projects by reducing the number of stops and travel times, and increasing overall network coverage.
If properly planned, electric aviation could complement existing freight services, including road, sea and air services. This would reduce the overall cost of transporting high-value goods.
Plan now for the coming disruption
Electric aircraft could significantly disrupt short-haul air transport within the next decade. How quickly will this technology affect conventional infrastructure? It is difficult to say given the many unknown factors. The uncertainties include step-change technologies, such as solid-state batteries, that could radically
accelerate the uptake and capabilities of electric aircraft.
What we do know today is that Australia is already struggling with disruptive technological changes in energy, telecommunications and even other transport segments. These challenges highlight the need to start taking account of disruptive technology when planning infrastructure. Where we see billions of dollars being invested in technological transformation, we need to assume disruption is coming.
With electric aircraft we have some time to prepare, so let’s not fall behind the eight ball again – as has happened with electric cars – and start to plan ahead.
Australians took more than 3.5 million trips to Asia in the past year. Indonesia (especially Bali), Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore and Cambodia are the most popular destinations in the region. This is especially the case for young Australian travellers, who are attracted by low prices, the range of activities, and the easy-going lifestyle.
However, all international travel involves risks. You may have an accident or illness that lands you in hospital; you may even need to be repatriated to Australia. So it’s important to take out appropriate insurance for your trip.
Some Australians still naively believe their government will bail them out if they become sick or are injured and aren’t covered by travel insurance.
But while Australian diplomatic legations can provide details of local doctors and hospitals in an emergency, they won’t pay for medical or psychiatric services or medications.
Check the fine print
Some insurance claims run to hundreds of thousands of dollars, especially if the person requires extensive treatment in an intensive care unit.
Most reputable travel insurance companies offer substantial medical coverage.
They generally provide unlimited cover for any illness or accident experienced overseas. This includes covering the costs of treatment, hospitalisation, medication, surgery and, if necessary, evacuation or repatriation.
Some cheaper policies may require travellers to pay an excess on their premium for unlimited medical coverage.
Travellers are covered for tropical diseases such as Malaria, Zika and other conditions which can be contracted while travelling.
Many adventurous travellers engage in high risk activities but these are not necessarily covered by travel insurance policies. Travellers who plan to ski, bungee jump, mountaineer, abseil, trek or engage in other risky activities, should choose your insurance cover carefully.
This Choice guide is a good place to start. It explains traps and exclusions that may apply to insurance cover for loss, injury or illness.
Few travel insurance companies will cover policy-holders for treatment related to pre-existing medical conditions, including pregnancy or heart attacks at any age.
Travellers who need medical treatment from injuries incurred while intoxicated by drugs or alcohol may also have their claims rejected.
Australians who are injured in a motorbike accident abroad may find their claims rejected if they don’t have a motorbike licence in Australia and especially if they aren’t wearing a helmet (even if it isn’t required in the country they’re riding in).
Insurance companies’ definition of a senior can range from age 50 to over 80, but in many cases premiums will rise from age 75.
Some travel insurance companies have more stringent fitness requirements and require more medical documentation for senior travellers, especially those who have previously had a heart attack.
Reading the fine print of an insurance policy or obtaining expert advice is one of the least glamorous aspects of travel planning but it’s an essential part of minimising risk for your trip.
Every other year, retired couple Jorg and Jan journey some 5,000 kilometres in their campervan from Port Fairy in southeastern Australia to Broome in the far northwest for a change of lifestyle and scenery. There they catch up with other couples from across the nation, who often converge on the beach for communal dinners. Jorg and Jan’s break lasts several weeks.
They are two of tens of thousands of retired adults travelling independently across the continent at any given time in search of adventure, warmer weather and camaraderie after a lifetime of hard work. These part-time nomadic adventurers, or grey nomads, have recast the image of Australia’s ageing population. Rather than being inert and conservative, or in need of care, these older Australians are champions of a radical type of urbanism: dwellings are mobile, infrastructure is portable or pluggable, social networks are sprawled, and adherents are on the move daily or weekly.
Grey nomad is a term used to describe Australians over 55 years old who travel for an extended time – from weeks to months – and cover more than 300 kilometres in a day across semi-arid and coastal Australia. The term was popularised following the 1997 Australian documentary Grey Nomads, which captured the phenomenon of older travellers who made their homes wherever they parked.
What is the scale of grey nomadism?
Travellers, including grey nomads, contribute to a “roaming economy”: decentralised dwelling results in decentralised spending. The Western Australian government estimated in its Caravan and Camping Visitor Snapshot 2016 report that 1.54 million domestic visitors spent time in caravans or camping, contributing more than A$1 billion to the state economy.
According to the Campervan & Motorhome Club of Australia, RV drivers spend an average of $770 per week. And their value to a remote place extends beyond economic capital to human capital. Grey nomads often provide labour (such as gardening, house-sitting or their pre-retirement professional skills) in exchange for a place to park or for extra income.
But while many nomads go off-grid, carrying their solar panels and generators, others are just looking for free reserves to park in. Beyond the site and its amenities – such as power, water, showers or flushing toilets – qualities such as “authenticity” are important to nomads, as highlighted by Mandy Pickering. Sites should feel remote rather than urban.
Will future generations be as fortunate?
The rise of the grey nomad over the past half-century has been made possible through the ability of ageing Australians to fund this retirement lifestyle. They might sell their houses (some may simply benefit from having secure accommodation), withdraw their superannuation or receive government benefits. Nomadism is a reward after a lifetime entangled in an economic and social system that keeps the individual tied to a stable workplace and place to live.
For future generations, the outlook in terms of grey nomadism being a viable retirement lifestyle is not especially bright. Home ownership is sliding out of reach for many younger people. And many are enmeshed in the gig economy, meaning they are not receiving employer superannuation contributions.
Future generations may be so much in debt or living in such straitened circumstances that they cannot retire to a life of leisurely travel.
While grey nomadism might not be a sustainable model in the future, the lifestyle demonstrates how future generations of nomads – not necessarily grey – can live cheaply while populating regional centres for weeks or months, bringing economic and human capital to these remote places. These nomads will be able to work on their laptops in the public libraries, cafes, share houses and co-working spaces of country towns, accessing work remotely through cloud-based telecommunications.
They might not come in campervans but be dropped off in driverless vehicles; vacant campsites might become sites for small cabins. Or, as these nomads will be looking for temporary accommodation, spare rooms or entire houses might be made available. To find these dwellings, they might use apps that bring great efficiency to managing housing occupancy, enabling the “sharing” (renting) of unoccupied space for days, weeks or months.
Are regional towns ready to embrace these “emerging nomads” who are attracted by affordable living costs, network coverage, fast internet speeds, great weather, temporary housing options and unique regional identities, as the grey nomads were before them?
Grey nomads are recognised as a group that requires distributed infrastructures. They demonstrate a capacity for domesticity and urbanity without boundaries. The grey nomads are the precursor to a new generation that might not only want to travel, but need to in an economic environment that is not static or stable. And that will mean they can no longer afford to stay in one place.
This article was co-authored by Amelia Borg, a director of Sibling Architecture and a Masters of Business student at the University of Melbourne.
The Conversation is co-publishing articles with Future West (Australian Urbanism), produced by the University of Western Australia’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts. These articles look towards the future of urbanism, taking Perth and Western Australia as its reference point, with the latest series focusing on the regions. You can read other articles here.