How can we explore the planet and still protect it? It is a paradox for many in the mountaineering community that our love for the mountains, exploration and nature can also contribute to the damage being done to our finely balanced, and therefore fragile, environment. Mairéad Brown breaks down the carbon cost of journeys from London out to several key climbing and trekking destinations abroad and offers alternative modern climate conscious solutions.
Mairéad Brown works for Small World Consulting as Assistant to Professor Mike Berners-Lee
Five years ago, I was ski touring above the arctic circle at the beginning of March. I had to take my skis off and walk some sections because of a lack of snow: in Winter, in the Arctic. This experience was a significant factor in me resolving to learn more about the climate crisis and what actions I might take to reduce my own contribution to it.
I am writing this article from a cabin in the mountains of northern Sweden. Instead of taking two flights each way (London to Stockholm, then Stockholm to Ostersund), we chose to fly only to Stockholm, then drive for nine hours to reach the Jamtland region. It would be tempting to feel smug at having saved the carbon emissions of an extra return flight, but I still released roughly 622kg of CO2e (Carbon Dioxide Equivalent, essentially the global warming potential of all greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere to be here – the equivalent of owning two cats for an entire year or eating 195 quarter pounder cheeseburgers.
Whilst ski touring in this area, I have marveled along with the locals at how unseasonably warm it is and how concerning that there is such little snow compared to ‘normal’. We all agree, however, that there is no ‘normal’ when it comes to climate anymore. ‘The seasons are shifting’, I am told, ‘everything is later. We can have very little snow in March, then a massive dump of it in May’. It’s almost impossible to predict, which makes booking trips in advance a risk. I tend to leave it to the last minute these days - knowing that I am part of the problem…and that I can also be part of the solution.
The last thing I would want to advocate is never to travel. Some of the most memorable and formative moments of my life have been in the mountains: watching the sunrise from the top of Mount Fuji, sipping tea under prayer flags at Annapurna Basecamp, skiing above the clouds on Kebnekaise, succumbing to e-coli food poisoning just a few hours from summiting Kilimanjaro, experiencing the ‘whoompf’ of a slope threatening to fail in the Canadian Rockies. These moments shape us, and they often make us feel more alive and connected to nature than at any other time.
Yet unless we live in the area we are exploring, the way in which we got there has had an environmental impact. Our freedom to explore comes with a responsibility not to damage the very nature which has drawn us in and for this reason, we all need to take account of our own carbon footprint.
I work for Mike Berners-Lee, author of ‘There Is No Planet B’ and ‘How Bad Are Bananas?' The Carbon Footprint of Everything’. As well as being an expert on carbon footprints, Mike is also the founder and director of Small World Consulting, which exists as a response to the climate and ecological emergency. Part of our work is to calculate carbon emissions and give advice on how they can be reduced, so when the BMC got in touch, we were thrilled to do some digging.
The Carbon Cost of Flying
We have crunched the numbers on some popular flight routes to climbing and trekking destinations, but as always, estimates of CO2e are not an exact science – these are only intended to be rough guidelines and are based on various assumptions. Firstly, we assume that the plane is averagely full and that each passenger is of average weight with average luggage, travelling economy class. All figures are per passenger, per return flight.
London to Kathmandu, one of the key destinations as an entry point for a stint climbing or trekking in the Himalayas, comes in at 3178kg CO2e – that’s the equivalent of a year’s food shopping for the average UK meat eater; a year and four months of a vegetarian shopping basket; or 2,270 10-inch Margherita pizzas. It’s a significant carbon cost, so if you feel you have to fly long haul: fly economy, go for as long as you can and make sure you have a really good time when you get there.
Try to cut emissions in other areas of your life to bring yourself in the range of a 5-tonne lifestyle (the average UK citizen currently has about a 13-tonne lifestyle, when you include the emissions embodied in everything we buy and do). The notion that you can ‘offset’ your flight doesn’t hold water as all the environmentally responsible nature-based carbon removal schemes (such as planting the right trees in the right places all over the world) are already needed without any leisure flights. As Mike says, “There is no substitute for cutting our carbon footprints”.
For shorter trips, the carbon emissions are of course lower, but still high. A return flight from London to Geneva, popular entry point into the Alps, is 259kg CO2e – that’s the same carbon charge as six and a half years’ worth of enthusiastic banana eating (2355 bananas). If you were to undertake the 10.5 hour drive instead, it would depend entirely on the mode of transport and number of passengers as to whether you were improving things. If there are four of you in an electric car, the CO2e would plummet to about a fifth at just 55kg per person. However, if it was one person in an SUV going at 90mph, it would be nearly six times worse than the plane, at 1,545kg. For low-carbon road travel, use buses or have multiple passengers in your vehicle, avoid accelerating sharply and slamming on the brakes (good for passenger harmony as well as protecting the environment) and drive a smaller car rather than a huge SUV.
Flying from London to Alicante, the gateway city to sport climbing on the Spanish coast, and back releases about 500kg of CO2e into the atmosphere – the equivalent of keeping a goldfish for twenty years, (if you could get one to last that long). The return ferry across the channel is only 16kg CO2e (a mere eight months of goldfish care), but whether your overall journey to Alicante would be more or less carbon-emitting would depend entirely on your mode of road transport. Driving in a petrol car by yourself and taking the ferry would actually come out as 1176kg CO2e and so would be much worse than flying. If you’re taking a ferry, use public transport or have at least two of you in the car.
How easy is it to go to Europe by public transport?
There really is no excuse for a flight within the UK unless it is a medical emergency, or you would otherwise be driving a car by yourself for a very long distance. A return flight from London to Inverness comes in at 244kg CO2e (the same as 188 bottles of wine). The train, on the other hand, is more than half that at only 116kg. If you were to drive a car, alone and at an inefficient 36 MPG the journey would be a whopping 530kg CO2e. However, if you drive carefully, you could probably halve the footprint, and if you travel with two people in the car you could halve it again. So driving is still a preferable option to flying so long as you drive carefully and have two or more people in the car with you. If you have a full car of 4-5 people then it can even be better than getting the train.
So, the general carbon-aware suggestions around transport to the mountains are:
1. Make getting there part of the journey and take a ferry, train or bus. Long distance road trips can also be lots of fun and give you a much better sense of the country you are visiting. Soak up the scenery on the way. Consider making stops at other mountain destinations on your way to cut up the journey.
2. Consider flying part of the way and then driving (if more than two of you) or taking the train, rather than taking a connecting flight within the same country: the further you fly, the larger the footprint.
3. If you feel you have to fly, make your flights count: go for longer, but less often, and do things you really couldn’t do at home
Europe by Train
Seat61 has a plethora of information, ready-planned for you to make your train journeys to Europe plain sailing. We fully recommend checking out the routes available and booking in advance to get the best deals on cheaper tickets.
PLAN YOUR TRAVEL: Use public transport routes to plan your low-impact travels
Map taken from Seat61.com
More carbon reducing pointers
Aside from transport, there are things we can all do on a daily basis to limit our carbon emissions. Here are a few pointers:
Food is about a quarter of the average UK person’s carbon footprint. Eating less meat and dairy, especially less beef and lamb, can drastically reduce it. When you do eat meat, try to ensure it is locally sourced and mainly grass fed. Why not try going vegan one day a week and vegetarian three days a week? Eat everything you buy – love leftovers and freeze things before they go off. Avoid air-freighted food and try to reduce packaging. As a general rule, eat locally and seasonally as much as possible.
Kit is an essential part of mountaineering. Ask yourself, ‘What gear do I buy? Does it last a long time and can it be repaired? Does the manufacturer treat its workers well?’. Inequality is inextricably linked to the climate crisis and our purchasing power matters – are we contributing to the positive change we want to see in the world, or are we propping up systems of exploitation?
Where do you source your information from about the climate crisis and do you talk about it with friends and family? Have you noticed changes in the mountains over the last decade or two? If so, do you raise awareness of it?
Before you give any politician your vote, check what their position is on the climate crisis. If they are not fully informed and working to find solutions, then they do not deserve your vote.
Avalanche risk is set to increase with unstable temperatures. Photo: Mairéad Brown.
What if we don’t care about our carbon footprint? Well, we are already seeing glaciers in stark retreat and the risk of avalanche is increasing year on year due to the fluctuating temperatures. If we do not cut our emissions and leave fossil fuels in the ground the mountains will become more hazardous places to be, with local communities badly affected by the change we all helped to create. Part of being mountain-smart now includes being carbon-aware.
All the carbon numbers here are best estimates and subject to considerable uncertainty. Many more carbon footprint estimates, along with explanations of how they are arrived at, can be found in Mike Berners-Lee’s book “How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything”
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