At WorkingAbroad, we are always striving to ensure that our volunteer projects are as sustainable, ethical and beneficial for our world as we possibly can. Whilst travelling overseas to volunteer at a WorkingAbroad project has many benefits for the planet, we recognise that many of our volunteers travel by plane to their destination – and that the environmental impact of air travel may be a make-or-break factor in halting climate change.
For this reason, we are proud to be supporting the ‘Slow Travel’ movement. The Slow Travel Movement has its roots in the Slow Food organisation, began by Carlo Petrini in 1986, which has since grown into a world-wide anti-consumerism movement. Carlo’s philosophy is that food should be sustainable and promote small local businesses that enable the nearby ecosystem to thrive. We believe that this approach can, and should, also be applied to travel.
Our philosophy is the concept of Snail Travel. We want to provide all the necessary information to make alternative forms of travel easy and affordable. Whether you wish to travel by train, ferry or coach, make sure to check out our Snail Travel Community Facebook Group and Snail Travel Instagram pages on social media to find all the links and info you need to make informed alternative travel plans, as well as a community of like-minded travellers to discuss them with.
In only fifty years, glaciers worldwide have lost 9 trillion tonnes of ice. It is predicted that the year 2030 marks a turning point for the planet in terms of irreversible and long-lasting climate change. The UN estimates that global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 must be at least 55% lower than 2017 levels, to ensure that the earth is not warmed more than 1.5°C. While it is all well and good to encourage recycling and plant-based diets, there remains an elephant in the room; the huge and ever-growing CO2 emissions of the aviation industry.
If aviation was a country, it would be the 7th largest emitter of CO2 in the world, just behind Germany. Aviation creates 12% of all transport-related emissions; yet when it is considered that only 5% of the global population has ever flown – and far less frequently than they have taken a car, bus or train – the environmental impact is palpable. Flying makes up a huge proportion of an individual’s carbon footprint. An economy-class return flight from London to New York produces the same amount of carbon as an individual living in Ghana for an entire year – or 11% of a UK resident’s emissions. And this is without considering the other greenhouse gasses emitted by aircraft – which could increase the effect of aircraft on global warming fourfold. What’s more, emissions from passenger flights are expected to see a huge increase in the coming decades. Global air traffic has ballooned by over 2 billion passengers from 2004-2018 and the International Air Transport Association predicts passenger numbers will double to 8.2 billion in 2037 With increased flights comes increased pollution. The International Civil Aviation Organization, a sub-agency of the United Nations, estimates that aviation emissions will grow by up to 300% by the year 2050, having consumed a quarter of the world’s remaining ‘carbon budget’ in the process.
In tackling this huge problem, the most effective course of action would be to liaise directly with the big airlines, and put in place intelligent action-plans to develop more environmentally efficient aircraft as quickly as possible. This is partially the reality – start-ups such as the Israeli company Eviation are working towards developing battery-powered electric passenger planes, and EasyJet has announced that it hopes to fly electric planes on some of its routes by 2027.
Unfortunately, these efforts are simply not enough to stem the tide of emissions. At the current rate of development and funding, electric planes will not be a widespread reality for two-to-three decades, and then only for short routes. The aviation industry needs to supply more immediate solutions in the meantime. In 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organization agreed that from 2020, any increase in CO2 emissions will need to be ‘offset’. In reality, the ‘Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme’ is both misleading and of limited usefulness. From the consumer’s end, only around 1% of passengers choose to spend a fraction more and ‘offset’ their journey. Until 2026, the option for airlines to take part is entirely voluntary – indeed, some of the most polluting countries haven’t signed up. The scheme does not cover domestic flights, which make up 40% of CO2 emissions; and most worryingly of all, a recent EU report has found that 85% of carbon offsetting schemes do not work. The 2017 study assessed projects under the Kyoto Protocol (UN)’s ‘Clean Development Mechanism’, comprising offset initiatives such as planting forests for airlines companies. They concluded that it is tremendously difficult to calculate how much CO2 is being offset; trees sometimes do not reach their average CO2 storage capacity until 35 years old, and many forests have been harvested illegally. For instance, EasyJet, Virgin Atlantic Airways and Australian Airlines have all paid for forests to be planted, that have later been cut down. Due to the unreliability of carbon offsetting, the EU will stop allowing offsets to be counted towards emissions reduction targets from 2021.
As the current industry-lead measures are sub-par, we need to actively contribute on an individual scale. Currently, the international shipping and aviation industries are the only sectors not included in the United Nations’ climate change action plans, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Climate Agreement. While the International Civil Aviation Organization has the ‘guideline’ of improving fuel efficiency by 1.5% per year going forward, only one airline, EasyJet, is meeting those targets so far. In contrast to car petrol, international aviation fuel is not taxed and is exempt from VAT – meaning we are missing out on around £10 billion of revenue in the UK, which could be used to fund the faster development of electric aircraft.
International governments are complicit in allowing industry giants to prioritise profits over halting climate change. They are not willing to sacrifice continuous economic growth to meet their environmental targets – and, moreover, their moral responsibilities. With this in mind, a grass-roots solution appears to be the only realistic option.
We at WorkingAbroad are championing the ‘Slow Travel’ movement, and would love to encourage our partners and volunteers to adopt its principles too. The idea of Slow Travel is to choose methods of transport with lower carbon footprints, at the expense of fast flights and incredibly low fares. The process is usually longer, via bus, boat or train, but it is to be enjoyed as an opportunity to interact with the environment and local communities on a deeper level. Slow Travel has gained traction in recent years, especially after its endorsement by Greta Thunberg, who has emphasised flygskam (flight-shame) by taking a sailboat across the Atlantic to America, producing zero carbon emissions. While this option is less realistic for the average traveller, her April 2019 tour of Europe via train was both highly influential and achievable; she saved about 400kg of CO2 by not flying, already a tenth of a Swede’s average annual carbon footprint.
Sweden has since seen a surge of interest in Slow Travel, demonstrating just how powerful grassroots movements can be in battling climate change; a recent survey by the World Wildlife Foundation found that nearly one in five Swedes had chosen to travel by train rather than plane for environmental reasons. We believe that Slow Travel – or Snail Travel – is achievable for most people looking to travel abroad and volunteer with us. See below for our step-by-step guide to travelling sustainably!
In 2007, the Guardian published a series titled ‘The Slow Traveller’, which followed writer Ed Gillespie as he travelled the whole world over 13 months without taking a single flight. From the Trans Siberian Express to a Mexico-bound cargo ship, Ed demonstrated that even before the boom of smartphones and instant connectivity, slow travel was not only practical, but enriching. Travelling by train is almost eleven times more fuel-efficient than flying. However, buses are even better; the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial strategy reports that a coach emits just 66% of the CO2 per passenger per kilometre than UK trains.
The same study found that foot passengers aboard ferries produced slightly less emissions than even coach travellers, although those bringing their cars aboard contributed similar CO2 to their flying counterparts. Even diesel and petrol cars were found to be more carbon efficient than flying.
Train travel is particularly easy around Europe. In a recent article, the BBC documented how a traveller making less than the median London wage was easily able to afford train travel for her trip to Croatia.
Not only is it straightforward to book trains directly to your destination, but it is also inexpensive to buy rail passes that allow you to travel freely across dozens of countries, for weeks or months at a time. Discounts are available for those under 28, or those travelling in larger groups, and tickets can be bought from outside the EU. See here: https://www.eurail.com/en/eurail-passes
Travel outside of Europe via train becomes a little more complicated, necessitating visas and forward planning. Routes tend to be less direct, but they are definitely memorable! See this article for various train-based routes from Europe to Asia: https://www.journalofnomads.com/travel-overland-europe-asia/#21_Traveling_from_Europe_to_Russia
All across the world, local bus routes can be found via provincial websites. If you are looking for a longer, potentially more comfortable – and yet still incredibly affordable – option, long-distance coach companies are for you. Industry leaders in Europe include Flixbus, Eurolines and Megabus. See here to compare prices across European bus companies: https://www.comparabus.com/en/bus-companies
Large scale luxury cruises have given nautical travel a bad environmental reputation. Industrial-scale vessels have the potential to be the most carbon-efficient method of transport of all, if you are willing to be a little more austere.
It is now possible for individual passengers to travel via freighters, such as one Will Vibert, who took a cargo ship from Hamburg to Nova Scotia in 2019 – creating only 5.3kg of CO2 in the process. Travelling this way is obviously a lengthy process, but the sheer scale of transport routes is remarkable; passengers can go from Canada to East Asia, to the Middle East and back again, this time via central America – or from any one of the world’s continents to any conceivable combination of the others. Numerous companies specialise in freighter travel, such as:
● Frachtschiff-Touristik Kapitän Zylmann GmbH
● Viajar en un barco mercante
● A la Carte Freighter Travel
● Maris Freighter Cruises
If you simply cannot do without your everyday luxuries, and are heading towards a much closer destination, maritime travel is still possible on barges. This travel option is obviously very location dependent, and is more akin to a traditional holiday, but it is testament to the fact that more reserved travellers need not backpack like their younger peers to support the Slow Travel movement. One example is: https://www.europeanwaterways.com/
Choose your airline carefully
It has been found that some airlines emit much more carbon dioxide than others. Some companies are more consistent at filling planes to full capacity, as well as flying newer, more efficient models of aircraft. A recent analysis found that EasyJet produced emissions per passenger kilometre that are less than half those of some of its competitors. Conversely, Air China, Korean Air, Singapore Airlines and Turkish Airlines were among the worst polluters per passenger.
Take only short-haul, direct flights
Taking off in an aircraft uses more fuel than cruising. For this reason, it means that a direct flight from A to B produces less carbon dioxide than two flights with a connection over the same distance. Short-haul flights use up less fuel than longer ones, for the obvious reason of their duration – but also because longer haul flights cruise at a higher altitude, and a higher altitude requires more fuel to reach. Consider travelling across land even towards faraway destinations, to which you would usually fly, such as Asia for a passenger from Europe; the two continents are reliably connected via train.
Travel less frequently
Each year, only half of the UK population gets on a plane. Indeed, only 15% of travellers make up 70% of all flights. And yet – avoiding only three UK-Mediterranean flights per year would save more emissions than living completely car-free, or becoming vegan. Rather than habitually taking one week summer holidays every year, consider whether you would find it more fulfilling to travel less frequently, but for two weeks or more – and enjoy the benefit of getting more deeply involved in the local way of life there.
Biking and Hiking
Once you arrive at your destination, transportation often does not stop there. In both cities and more rural locations alike, people often use trains, buses and cars to get from place to place. On this smaller scale, however, it becomes even easier to travel green; public bicycle hire schemes such as London’s ‘Boris Bikes’ are available across the globe, and in more idyllic locations, hiking offers an opportunity to take in the beautiful scenery. For the Isle of Wight, a local Slow Travel guide has been published, providing not just bus routes and ferry time tables but cycle routes and walks.
Contribute to an environmental project at your destination
While it cannot ‘cancel out’ transport emissions, choosing to travel to take part in sustainable projects protecting the environment means that you can better avoid large-scale consumerism and mass tourism at your destination. In conjunction with the need to take shorter-haul flights, projects in Europe, South East Asia, Africa and Latin America pair best with the ‘Slow Travel’ philosophy. South America is connected by large bus route networks; our projects in Africa are mostly accessible via jeep or bus; and Europe and Asia are easily navigable via train. See below for suggestions of our projects which we think fit best with Slow Travel!
● Costa Rica: We currently have four projects based in Costa Rica, Central America in; Playa Tortuga, the Nicoya Peninsula, Playa Rincon and Guanacaste Province. Each project provides volunteers immersive experiences in conservation and wildlife rescue and welfare. To incorporate the Slow Travel philosophy, we suggest working on each project one after the other, travelling by bus or boat between each one.
● Peru: We have some wonderful projects in Peru which work with conservation efforts in the Amazon and give volunteers the opportunity to live with the local communities. We also offer community projects in Cusco, which is the gateway to the rest of Peru and a good place to explore the country from by bus in a slow travel context.
● Europe: Projects in mainland Europe offer easy access to different countries via train, encouraging exploration and slow-sightseeing. These include: Spain, Italy and Portugal and offer experience in wildlife conservation.
● India: We currently offer a unique project at a bear and elephant sanctuary in the state of Uttar Pradesh, and it could not be easier to get to via slow travel. India is serviced by an extensive express and sleeper train network. Rather than the images you see in the media of densely crowded suburban trains, these options have all your necessary comforts, such as AC and reserved beds, and tickets can easily be booked online in advance.
● Thailand: Wildlife projects on offer in Thailand include both land and sea, such as our Coral Reef Conservation and Diving Project and Elephant Volunteer Project. Thailand and the neighbouring countries of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia are all easily navigable by bus; travellers can benefit from both local and ‘VIP’ buses, which offer greater security and more direct routes with fewer calling points.
● Nepal: In Nepal, we offer a Rural Community Volunteer Project, allowing volunteers to provide healthcare to, and live alongside, families in remote agricultural areas. Nepal may not be easily explored via train, but it is the ultimate Slow Travel destination in terms of hiking and trekking. Local guides are plentiful as well as invaluable, and really allow you to gain a deeper knowledge of the local wildlife and culture. They also play an important role in ensuring the safety of backpackers, although groups can trek unaccompanied with a permit.