Comparing Travel Carbon Footprints

How do you find out what your travel carbon footprint is? There are a lot of widely held views  built on hearsay and misinformation. The deeper I look, the more  complicated the story seems to get. One of my aims is to educate myself on travel environmental issues. Then to share my findings on this site and hopefully start a discussion for all involved to gain further enlightenment. This should end up as a regular feature on transport sustainability and eco-myths. The idea is to research and discuss information that will enable anyone with an interest, to discover how much of a carbon footprint a particular travel option would generate.
Statistics published by transport operators and environmental pressure groups tell totally different stories. But as the “X Files” slogan reminds us; “The Truth Is Out There”. These posts will attempt reveal that truth, or at the very least get a lot closer to the real story.

The airline industry comes in for a lot of flak from environmentalists, but in their favour their carbon footprints are widely available, even if they do just report emissions of carbon dioxide and fail to include oxides of nitrogen that also contribute to climate change. In addition the altitude at which the emissions occur, leads to a bigger impact on the climate than discharges at ground level. Flights even create artificial clouds that are visible to the naked eye. There are some transport operators that publish no figures whatsoever and then paint themselves as green due to the lack of evidence to the contrary. They may be innocent until proved guilty, but they certainly aren’t providing evidence of their real carbon footprint either.

When it comes to finding low carbon travel options, we don’t even have a complete map, let alone SatNav.

Fortunately information is available. “How Bad are Bananas: The Carbon Footprint of Everything” by Mike Berners-Lee, makes recommended reading for anyone wanting to know more about the subject. Unfortunately it is not comprehensive, so don’t expect to find ferries and cruise ships in the current edition.

High speed train
The lack of transparency of transport’s place in the carbon footprint league table is exploited heavily by travel PR / Advertising Departments. To take an example High Speed Rail is sold with a big “Environmentally Friendly” label attached. Few ask why, and take it for granted. They suspect that airlines have large carbon footprints, so automatically assume that rail must be a lot better. But using this criteria how long will it be for the airlines to apply the same label? When space tourist rocket flights to space start, I can imagine the slogan:

“Don’t take the rocket, go by jet it’s better for the environment”

perfectly true as a statement; but you get my point?

Perhaps it comes across as a little negative? Certainly anyone choosing a fast train instead of a flight is reducing their carbon footprint. I opt for rail before flying but am aware that the issue is way more complicated and there is always more that I can do in my travel and lifestyle choices. I know very well that taking a high speed train doesn’t make me greener than green.  Complacency can prevent us all from making our travel more sustainable.  But if High Speed Rail isn’t as green as some of the alternatives, what are they and do they make viable alternatives? I for one would like to see an energy label for transport options like those that come with electrical appliances or cars. All things to discuss in future articles.

Remembering the fallen

#FriFotos is the weekly photo sharing day on Twitter. On Friday November 11, the theme is “Fall”, but as is usual, it is open to interpretation. Fall is the term used for Autumn in North America. However, the eleventh of November is Armistice Day and a Public Holiday in much of Europe. It is a day when we remember the fallen. The fall that these soldiers made, is the one that will be foremost on my mind.
I intend to visit the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing, near the French / Belgian border not far from Messines. In the First World War, Winston Churchill spent some time in the trenches here after the failure of his Gallipoli campaign. Hitler also spent time nearby, at Messines, even painting the church in his spare time.Plougsteert Memorial
I will not be going there to remember Churchill or Hitler. I will be paying homage to my Great Uncle, the twin brother of my grandfather. My grandfather had volunteered for the British Army working with the horses. Uncle Ted was conscripted into the Royal Welch Fusiliers but was transferred into the South Wales Borderers as so many units had been decimated by the onslaught. The South Wales Borderers were the regiment famed for their defence of Rorke’s Drift in South Africa, immortalised in the film “Zulu”. It made finding out the location of his memorial difficult, as the family had been searching for him in the Royal Welsh Fulsiliers, until my brother’s research lead discovered the story of his last days and hours.
Plougsteert Lion
Uncle Ted was listed as missing presumed dead, on 11 April 1918. It was at the height of the Georgette Offensive in Flanders. German troops had overrun the Allied positions and were pouring through Northern France towards the Channel Ports. The situation was grave. This was the day Field Marshall Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary force gave his desperate order.

There is no other course open to us but to fight it out! Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our Homes and the Freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment.

Uncle Ted was last recorded by Estaires, in the Nord Department of France not far from Lille. They were under fire from mortars. After that date he was not heard from again. He was listed missing in action. His mother refusing to believe he was dead, left her front door unlocked each night in anticipation of his return until her dying day.Names on memorial
We don’t know if he lies in a Flanders Field, or is in a cemetery with a headstone marked with the words “Known unto God”. His name was carved on the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing in Belgium. The French already had a surplus of War Memorials and so King Albert 1 of Belgium offered to host the memorial originally planned for Lille.
Ploegsteert Memorial sits in The Royal Berkshire Cemetery Extension. British troops stationed at Ploegsteert, called it Plugstreet and this part of the line was known as Hyde Park Corner.
All I can do is pay my respects to my Great Uncle who fell in 1918, so that we can enjoy the freedom we take for granted today.

Daily photo: Val-Dieu, Belgium

The abbey of Val-Dieu was founded in 1216 by Cistercian monks. Surviving wars, floods and moral crises, it was temporarily dissolved by the French Revolution. Then in 1844 with the aid of the church and the last surviving monk, it was re-established and flourished again for another 150 years. The last monks departed in the spring of 2001, but were replaced by a thriving Christian community. It is now a place of pilgrimage for Christians and tourists alike. The Val-Dieu cheese and beer is still produced here.

Trail gazing

Have you ever stood on a railway station concourse and stared longingly at destinations on the Departures Board that were not printed on your tickets? Have you ever found yourself on the road somewhere and found that the you were travelling along one of the world’s more famous long distance routes and felt the urge to keep on going? Have you ever stood at the bottom of a valley and felt an irresistible pull towards the summit high up above? I suffer from all of these afflictions and then some.

Camino de Santiago waymarker
Camino de Santiago waymarker

Long distance footpaths can also be found there in the mix saying “Come on! I dare you to walk me and find out where I go through and end up”. My gaze is always arrested by the waymark stickers for the Camino de Santiago and get I exited just by seeing the white and red horizontal  bars signifying a GR (Grand Randonée – a European long distance trail). These markers are as valuable as SatNav for anyone hiking on these trails. Perhaps I’ll post again to explain how they’re used for navigation and how they vary across Europe. I’ll certainly post extracts from some of my hikes on these walking routes.

Waymarker on GR5
Waymarker on GR5

So when I’m out shopping in Brussels and come across a litter bin with a white and red bar painted on it, I stop and sometimes even take a photograph, but each time I’m wondering where the trail leads. In fact the one in this photograph is for GR126, which starts in Brussels, crosses GR12 in Grand Place then heads off south through Namur, Dinant and finishes at Membre-sur-Semois by the border of the French and Belgian Ardennes, where it joins GR16, which in turn has followed the River Semois from by Arlon in South East Belgium. This then rejoins GR12 on its way from Amsterdam to Paris via Brussels.

Grand randonée waymarker GR126
Grand randonée waymarker: GR126

It is amazing where two painted bars on a litter bin can lead.

Can Street Art improve a city?

Street art

Bonon spider, Brussels
Last week I visited the Ixelles Museum here in Brussels before their exhibition on Street Art closed and is replaced by a Dubuffet exhibition. Bonom was featured heavily, with insights into how he plans his pieces. The photo above shows a spider on a concrete building by Chapelle in Brussels. I think it adds an organic touch to an otherwise clinically cold concrete building.

The area around Chapelle Station is covered in Street Art and graffiti. I’m not sure that all of it has a positive effect. I can’t see much artistic expression in some of the tags in this next photo.
Street Art and graffiti, Chapelle, Brussels
The monster series of officially sanctioned Street Art appears to me to have been semi defaced by other taggers wanting to make their presence felt.
On my cycle trips around Brussels looking for pieces I often end up speaking to locals who have been at the receiving end of these artists / taggers. One I spoke to felt nothing but contempt for the artist who placed a monster on the side of his house. I could see his point as well.
Do you have any views on the subject?

What is a taste in luxury travel actually saying?

Why is it so many people aspire to fly in First Class, sleep in Five Star hotels (or even Seven Star hotels) and eat in Michelin Three Star restaurants? Don’t they know that it is very poor value for money? That you can sleep just as well in a £29 per night room as a £2900 per night room? That the carbon footprint of a seat in First Class is at least double that of one in Standard?
5 star hotel room

I don’t know whether anyone has researched the psychology of luxury travel, but studies undertaken for luxury brands, found that someone buying a handbag for $50,000 is saying ” I have so much money that I can afford to waste it”.  The message being “I am a winner” and if you mate with me, our offspring will have a great chance of promulgating our genes also. Or to sum it up in one word “Sex”.

It goes deep into the contemporary psyche. Role models are chosen for their looks and the brands and fashion ideals they endorse. Their values or contribution to making the world a better place seem to count for little.  School children not sporting the right logos, must either conform or be bullied. This is worse than the secret police in a Cold War Era Eastern European country, making life a misery for anyone not toeing the party line. Combine this with incessant  advertising from TV, film, computer games and even by stealth through their social media accounts and our youth don’t stand a chance. It is no wonder that many believe that being someone is a matter of having the right logos on their clothes, cars, hotel chain or airline.

But is travel like a Hermes handbag? Do extravagant purchases define us as someone successful? Is a tan in the middle of winter a status symbol to wear with pride? Does taking regular flights make you a member of the “Jet Set”?

In Europe since the 1950’s the cost of flying, encouraged by lenient taxation, nose-dived.   Spain was suddenly affordable and millions flocked there returning with a tan, donkeys wearing sombreros and other ornaments proudly displayed in the home to demonstrate that here is a person “well-travelled”. But then the Jones’ had to go on that trip to Florida and Disneyland! To keep up with them, a trip to the Maldives was a “must do”  for the following year, even if it meant getting into debt.  Does this explain why cruises to the Antarctic are now in vogue?

I’ve raised a lot of questions in this post. I don’t have answers to most of them. However, in a world of limited resources and Climate Change, it matters not only how much we travel, but how we travel. If a backpacker hiking for a year has a smaller ecological footprint  than someone flying 2,000 miles to stay at a Seven Star Hotel for a week, surely these questions are important?

If it really all does boil down to sex, why are our planetary life support systems getting screwed instead?

Daily Photo: The Sequence by Arne Quinze in winter

The Sequence by Arne Quinze

The Sequence
The art of Arne Quinze involves a lot of timber nailed together from an aerial platform. This piece is in the government quarter of Brussels. It is built above the street so that it is possible to cycle or even drive a car underneath. This photo was taken in December 2010 when Brussels had a good coating of fresh snow. Missing the snow right now.


A Scottish Magical Mystery

A Scottish Magical Mystery


Coach @ North Uist
Mystery coach, North Uist, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

You come across the strangest things while walking in the Outer Hebrides. You can walk all day and not meet another soul, but then, parked up in the middle of the croft is a coach; I immediately start wondering how it got there.

My theory is that a party of tourists from St Albans came to the islands one July and parked up in a grassy field for a picnic. Little did they know that it wasn’t to be their picnic, but that they would be eaten alive by the locals, in a plot lifted from a low budget horror movie. It is a known fact that the midges are at their most bloodthirsty in July. 😉

If you had to think up a story of how these coaches end up empty in the middle of nowhere, what would you come up with? I will not accept answers like: “The crofter saw the old coach on ebay for £4.99 and couldn’t resist it, so bought it and put it there until he thought of a use for it.” Does placing a coach in places like these benefit or degrade the environment?



Daily Photo: Newgrange, Ireland

Newgrange Passage tomb, Ireland

I was bowled over by the Newgrange site. Not just the rock carvings or the way the light illuminates the inner chamber on the winter solstice. No, I was impressed by the fact that even though it was older than Stonehenge at over 5000 years old, it was still weatherproof inside. Now think for a minute of the structures we build today. Will they keep out the Irish rain in 5000 years time?

Daily photo: Mont des Arts in the Brussels Summer Festival

Mont des Arts, Brussels

Mont des Arts
The Brussels Summer Festival is on this week, it closes with Stromae on Sunday night. Earlier this year I uploaded a guide to Belgian Music Festival. I have been busy enjoying some of my favourite Belgian groups and discovering some new ones, even missing #TogChat on Twitter to do so (well what would you do in my shoes?).
This year there is a new venue on Mont des Arts. The road has been closed in front of the equestrian statue of Albert 1 and a stage set up past the statue of Elizabeth. I am blessed that I can walk to the concerts from our apartment as it entails a very low carbon footprint and allows me to down some Belgain beers if I wish. This was the view as I returned home from watching Great Mountain Fire, last night.
The stage is in the background behind the avenue of trees on the right of the picture. For more photos from the Brussels Summer Festival, have a look at my Flickr Collection.

Not a breakfast cereal.