At the end of the Lonely Planet presentation last night, a quiet woman in the audience posed a question about green travel.
The Wheelers said something along the lines of supporting responsible travel, took one more question, and then signed books.
Which is a shame, because I wanted to ask something big.
"How do you reconcile promoting recreational air travel with being green?"
There isn't an answer to this question, but I like to hear what people say, because I am still forming my own views.
Plane travel is regarded as the devil of CO2 offenders, but it isn't really an issue with much awareness yet in the US. So let's look at a few facts.
-How bad is flying for the environment? Undeniably bad. A round-trip flight to Australia burns up a half-year's carbon footprint for an average person. That's a lotta C02.
-What's the worst kind of flying? It depends. Long-haul flights go higher and longer than short-haul flights, which means they emit contrails, or vapors that contribute even more to global warming. Not good. Short-haul flights don't put out anywhere near the same amount of CO2, plus a lot of these are on budget airlines with new fleets. These planes are more energy-efficient than old planes. But most business travelers are more likely to take many short trips a year than many long trips. And lower prices, while great for the consumer, encourage people to fly short-haul rather than go by ground transport.
-How does flying stack up against other emitters? Flying is the worst form of transportation when it comes to CO2 emissions. But driving is only a little better. And many of the people up in arms about flying think nothing of driving to work every day, or of cranking up the air conditioning, and eating beef products (cows are a tremendous source of C02 emissions).
-The skies are getting crowded as the aviation industry grows. More flights=more CO2.
-Can you just pay your carbon tax to one of those groups that plants trees, and fly wherever you want? Paying a small fee to offset your guilt doesn't actually take away from what is happening--your ticket to ride is damaging the atmosphere. It is perhaps better than nothing.
Okay, fine. Flying is bad. And I prefer taking local buses anyway. I'd rather take a ship any day than a plane, but this isn't usually realistic. Transatlantic ships are only scheduled a few times a year, and are wildly expensive. One way on a ship is about three times the cost of a round-trip Transatlantic flight.
Let's look at my upcoming trip to Cairo. I'd have to spend about $1,200 to get from New York to Southampton, and then I'd still have to find my way to Egypt. There's no ferry. I could get to Tunisia, but could not cross Libya. I could go the long way around, but it would take weeks and cost a fortune in visas and hotels. But I have an office to get to promptly, and taking three weeks and $4,000 to travel there and back is unrealistic.
Supposing we all quit flying tomorrow and just used Skype to hold conferences, and took the train to the beach for our holidays.
Then what about all the countries that depend on tourist dollars? What about world peace being achieved through grassroots interactions? What about the teenager in Cambodia who has learned eight languages to speak to tourists?
What's the answer?
There is no single answer. It's a conundrum. My compromise is to drive infrequently, switch my energy supplier to wind and solar power, go by surface transport if at all feasible, and indulge in few cow products.
Maybe if I'm serious, I'll turn off my computer more often...