Flightless Travel

Issue: 

It started with An Inconvenient Truth. After watching Al Gore’s documentary, we used a carbon calculator to figure out our emissions footprint. We answered some basic questions about our lifestyle, hit “calculate,” and were shocked to find that our emissions were much higher than the US average. Why was the software making us look so bad? After all, we don’t own a car, we eat mostly vegetarian, and compost religiously. A deeper look revealed the culprit: Air travel. A trip for two to New York and back had the climate impact of driving for six to eight months, while our annual family trip to India was the equivalent of driving for two years. Our air travel was killing us, totally undoing every other effort we were making to live sustainably. Forget the Hummer drivers — we were just as much to blame for climate change.

As Indians, and as Bengalis, the likely impacts of climate change looms large in our minds. Bangladesh and India are #1 and #2 on the list of countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts between now and 2040, per Maplecroft research. We wanted to learn first-hand from global activists and policymakers about impacts of and responses to climate change--but knowing the massive impact of aviation emissions (4.9% of the human impact on the climate comes from planes), couldn’t justify flying to these places to talk to people about climate change. Global warming is about numbers. If we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 90 percent by 2050, we can’t ignore the fast-growing aviation sector. If the global aviation industry were a country, it would be one of the half dozen biggest emitters in the world, yet it remains unregulated and largely unacknowledged in international policy discussions. On a personal level, having taken flying for granted for so long, we wondered what it might feel like to live without it. Could one realistically travel long distances any other way?

We spent the 2009-2010 year trying to find out, challenging ourselves to try to get around the world without setting foot in an airplane, while at the same time learning about global climate and transportation challenges from local activists around the world.

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