There is a new phenomena in the green community. The term “eco-travel” is on everyone’s mind and tongue. The concept of reducing our carbon footprint seems to go against the idea of holiday travel. When we leave our local communities to see other parts of the world, we are helping foreign economies—surely a good thing. When we visit the serene beaches of Thailand, for instance, we are contributing to indigenous prosperity. We are, however, also using up natural resources in a less efficient way than the locals.
In order to accommodate Western tourists, and their dollars and euros, the Thai (for instance) are forced to build modernized hotels, methods of transportation, and tourist attractions that deplete their environment. Where before each person used a small allotment of water per day, now there are visitors that are using as much as they are accustomed to at home (i.e. 70,000 cubic ft. annually per capita in the United States). The same goes for electricity, natural gas, and oil. As tourists deplete these resources, one could argue, they are also paying a lot of money for the luxury. On the contrary, the appeal of destinations such as Thailand is their value in price. Essentially, Westerners can pay for the average wages and costs in the standards of the developing nation, while depleting resources at a rate that is foreign to the country. The consequence? Less people will have access to resources, as their price continues to rise.
While this spurt of pessimism may cause you to rethink the exciting Sahara adventure you have planned, there are alternatives. Eco-hotels, tours, and other travel options are springing up all over the world. You can now visit places like Machu Pichu in the Peruvian Andes with less concern about your carbon footprint. Family-owned tour operators provide a variety of tours through the rainforest, while maintaining the same amount of energy use as the locals. At the same time, hotels resort to re-using their water, recycling, and other green practices in order to provide accommodation that is both physically comfortable and ethical. A great resource for such travel, wherever it may be, is the online magazine Ecotravel, where you can browse a directory of eco-travel options based on your favored region.
This is, undoubtedly, a great step in the right direction for travel. There is, however, one serious problem: getting there. Jet fuel emitted from airplanes currently accounts for 12 percent of transit-related carbon emissions in the U.S. As bad enough as it is, airplane travel get far worse once one begins to analyze an airplane’s true impact on the environment.
A recent article found on the AlphaGalileo research news website talks about how researchers from London’s Imperial College have teamed with The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to study aircraft contrails. These are vapor trails that can be left behind by airplanes. Analogous to the way human breadth is condensed into a cloud on a cold day, contrails are the combination of hot humid air produced by a plane when mixed with the cold air of the atmosphere. These formations are able to trap warmth in the air, contributing to global warming at a fast rate. Researchers say that these effects are more lethal to the environment than the carbon emissions of the plane.
The way to combat these vapor formations? Since they are formed in cold temperature, the airplanes can fly closer to the Earth, at altitudes that are warmer. One proposition is to set altitude regulations that consider temperatures. For instance, an airplane can fly lower in the winter and higher in the summer. The problem with this theory is that more fuel is required to fly at a lower altitude. Disregarding the lesser of evils approach, airplane manufacturers must start looking towards airplane designs that are more fuel efficient at lower altitudes.
Recently, there has been some progress in this field. Boeing has introduced its 787 “Dreamliner.” The aircraft is a relative leap forward, as it is at once more fuel efficient, less noisy, and more comfortable for passengers. By using lightweight composite materials, Boeing was able to produce a lighter plane. They then incorporated new, more fuel efficient engines, and applied their best aerodynamics to reduce fuel use by 20 percent. Let us hope that aircraft companies keep striving in this fashion and that governments keep up. In order to utilize the 787 to its greenest potential, regulations have to be set to ensure that the aircraft does not produce vapor trails.