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Cornell Student Articles on Topical Affairs

The Travelers Dilemma: See The World or Save The Environment

We’re a curious species. If there’s a small winding street or an untouched beach, most of us won’t hesitate to check it out. Our curiosity is mostly a positive human quality, as, without it, we wouldn’t have gotten to where we are today. And now that we’ve advanced to the point of trains, planes, and automobiles, discovering new areas of the world is as easy as blinking. When booking a ticket, whether it’s to stay in villas in Jamaica or backpack around Europe, most of us aren’t thinking twice about the environment. But our curiosity and need to explore aren’t without consequences. 

Aviation has a disproportionately large impact on our climate, more significant than expected. Back in 2017, compared to other modes of transportation, aviation equated for four to nine percent of climate impact – and it’s only growing. In 2017, there were over 4 billion passengers who traveled by plane, which set a new world record. With new lost-cost carriers joining the market, air traffic has increased tremendously, specifically in Asian, U.S., and European markets. Though this growth positively impacts states, it comes with enormous environmental challenges.

Contrails, long plumes of exhaust left in the sky by airplanes, only stay in the air for a couple of hours, yet have incredibly damaging effects on the environment. These trails consist of water droplets and ice, trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. The trapped heat increases the Earth’s temperature, which affects acidic levels in ocean water, and overall climate. Due to the increase of flying, researchers from the Institute of Atmospheric Physics (IAP) in Germany say the problem is going to triple by 2050.

“It is important to recognise the significant impact of non-CO2 emissions, such as contrail cirrus, on the climate and to take those effects into consideration,” stated Lisa Bock from the German Aerospace Centre at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics. 

All aircrafts emit contrails, and reducing CO2 levels isn’t going to be easy. Governments and the aviation industry are refraining from taking serious steps to reduce CO2 emissions. As Dr. Bock states, “there are still some uncertainties regarding the overall climate impact of contrails cirrus and, in particular, their impact on surface temperatures because contrail cirrus themselves and their effects on the surfaces are ongoing topics of research. But it’s clear they warm the atmosphere.”

And with this shred of uncertainty, states and companies are using it to buy themselves time and money, avoiding the topic and consequences of travel. However, the lack of initiative isn’t going unnoticed. Most travelers agree that reducing carbon emission should be at the top of all air carrier’s priorities; however, without affecting their ability to travel freely. And this is the challenge – how to fly freely and reduce our environmental footprint. 

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, recently set sail on a racing yacht heading to the United Nations climate talks. The yacht, Malizia II, is a 60-foot monohull, fitted with solar panels to power the yacht’s equipment. If Greta took a flight to New York, though quicker, it would have pumped around 1,000 kg of carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere. This is the climate activist’s first-time experience, “by doing this it also shows how impossible it is today to live sustainable. That, in order to travel with zero emissions, that we have to sail like this across the Atlantic Ocean.”

And she poses a compelling question about our societies. How can we change industries which are heavily rooted in wastefulness and pollution? Yes, people want to help the environment, but they’re confronted with constant challenges. Greta is right. No one is going to set sail on a solar-paneled yacht to offset their carbon footprint. Most of us spend our time searching for the cheapest flight possible before we head on holiday. And yes, fundamental change needs to come from industries such as air carriers, but the push needs to come from the people. 

Greta states, “some things are actually changing, like the mindsets of people. It’s not fast enough, but it’s something.” Though people are beginning to understand and side with environmental change, there’s strong opposition. State leaders like U.S. President Donald Trump or Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro fuel the notion that climate change doesn’t exist. However, with every natural disaster, every dying coral reef, and loss of life, people are waking up and start to see the drastic effects on our planet. 

It’s now the responsibility of industries to take a stand and focus on producing technology to combat carbon emissions. The Earth is on a tipping point, and climate catastrophe isn’t something we’re only going to see in movies; it’s coming to the real world. People want to travel the world and witness natural beauty, but they also understand they won’t be able to if we continue to carry on like this.

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