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Where are you going for spring break?

By Sustainability Office on March 11, 2015

By Rachel Hangley ’15 (Environmental Geography Major and Spanish Minor from East Falmouth, MA)

Look at any eHarmony, Match.com, or Tinder profile and likely you will see “Travel” under the person’s interests and hobbies section. Nearly everyone loves to travel — whether it be to study abroad, experience new cultures, cross something off a bucket list, or just escape from the frigid tundra that is Hamilton, NY. However, humanity’s amazing ability to fly halfway around the world in half a day does have some downfalls. People rarely take into consideration the massive impact their exciting jaunts have on the climate and the world that they are exploring. The desire to see and visit the four corners of the earth has created a system that is destroying that very planet. Surely there must be some solution to this worldwide dilemma?

The aviation industry emits 705 million tons of carbon dioxide every year. This number is estimated to increase by 70% by 2020, and by 300-700% by 2050, even if fuel efficiency improve by 2% per year. The average American generates 19 tons of CO2 each year, and a quick trip to Europe or the West Coast can eat up one tenth of that annual amount. Consider a Colgate student who lives in California and goes home for Thanksgiving, winter break, heads to the tropics for spring break, and then goes home again for the summer. That is one hefty carbon footprint. However, who can blame that student for wanting to attend an institution such as Colgate, and wanting to have the typical college experience of studying abroad and going somewhere fun for spring break? Even still, if everyone had this lifestyle, the planet’s resources would be drained before we know it.

I don’t think the answer is to cut back on traveling, which I too consider to be one of my favorite activities. So what are some possible solutions that travellers can take to counter this challenge?

Some have suggested a carbon or fuel tax as most effective way to internalize the environmental externalities of flying. Others see biofuels as the best option to directly impact the source of emissions. Carbon offsets is another option that gives the responsibility directly to the consumer, and which Colgate students could take on themselves. A statement made by Connie Hedegaard, the European commissioner for climate action, echoes the sentiments of many climate-conscious travellers: “We believe that those of us who can afford to pay for an air ticket can also afford to pay for the pollution from their travel.”

Another option is carbon offsets, which Colgate University has adopted to counteract many of the emissions that it cannot presently cut through infrastructural or behavioral changes. To put this in context, a roundtrip flight from Syracuse to Cancun, Mexico emits approximately .84 tons of CO2 per person, according to this handy Carbon Footprint Calculator. In order to offset that amount of carbon, one can spend $14.06 to plant native trees in Kenya, or just $12.44 to support Clean Development Mechanism projects verified by UN standards. Surely, as Connie Hedegaard said, if someone can afford a $600 flight then an extra $13 isn’t too much to ask (especially for a Colgate student, #13). Students could also offset their air travel by contributing to the Colgate Forest in Patagonia.

There is no doubt that people will continue to travel and see the world, as they should. Travelling promotes open-mindedness, acceptance, and appreciation for the world around us. However, if that world is deteriorating because of that travel, shouldn’t those travellers feel the need, and take responsibility, to preserve that which they are exploring?

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