What's the Carbon Footprint of Love, and How Do We Reduce It?


Image credit: Rob Annis, used under Creative Commons license.

As my bio states, as a younger, idealistic activist in England, I once vowed never to fly again. Then I fell in love with an American, got married on a goat farm, did my part to contribute to population growth, and my carbon footprint has been shot to hell ever since. With my parents over visiting North Carolina, the subject of "love miles" has been on my mind again. Just what is the carbon footprint of love in a globalized world, and what can we do to reduce it? A Hypermobile World Brings Many Advantages
The fact is that many of us—in the wealthier segments of society at least—live in a hyper-mobile world. We take vacations abroad. We travel for business. And we visit family and friends overseas. In many ways this is a beautiful thing—as Matthew wrote in his excellent response to my post on whether telecommuting encourages travel, "so what? Travel is good".

From gaining perspective on other cultures, through building international friendships, to simply living life to the fullest, I have little doubt that travel has brought wonderful things to the world. And in my case it has brought me the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with, not to mention my beautiful daughter.

Long Distance Love Means Long Distance Travel
As more of us travel abroad, we are more likely to meet friends, lovers and future spouses in distant lands—further encouraging this trend as we move, and ask friends and family to come visit us in our new locales. Despite the wonderful experiences of seeing the world, there is of course a flip side to our ever-widening networks of family, friends and loved ones. Each time we get on a plane, our personal carbon emissions jump. And even driving long-distance for the holidays has its significant impact. So what can be done about it?

Will Low Carbon Travel Make the Problem Moot?
There are, of course, tantalizing promises of low carbon airships and fuel-efficient aviation. But, for the foreseeable future at least, it's likely that flying will continue to be an energy intensive and polluting activity for some time to come.

In his book Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning, George Monbiot talked about what he called "love miles":

When you form relationships with people of other nations, you accumulate love miles; the distance between your home and that of the people you love or the people they love. If your sister-in-law is getting married in Buenos Aires, it is both immoral to travel there - because of climate change - and immoral not to, because of the offense it causes. In that decision we find two valid moral codes in irreconcilable antagonism.

Perhaps the answer then, is to prioritise which emissions should be tackled first with minimal disruption—perhaps even enhancement—to our quality of life. What I have in my head goes something likes this:


  • We first tackle avoidable, even undesirable, travel for business and other reasons as a matter of urgency. We encourage video-conferencing, telecommuting and any other form of communication that can avoid unnecessary trips.

  • Next, we look at ways to encourage staycations and other forms of local travel as alternatives to jet setting holidays. (Holiday romances suddenly become a source of localization - not globalization.)

  • Then, we tackle short and senseless flights (the emissions are much higher per passenger mile in short-haul flights anyway), and we look at long-distance high speed rail for overland journeys where it is viable.

  • When we do have to fly, we look at ways to make the most of it. We stay longer when we do fly, we use video communication to fill the gaps in between, and we try to fly greener when we can.

  • And finally, we push like heck for the airline industry to live up to its ambitious (if a little dubious) goal of achieving zero emissions flights in the not too distant future.

Let's Not Give Up on Love
I should be clear that I am not for one minute suggesting we should give up travel or the benefits it has brought us, and I am certainly not suggesting that we give up on love. Besides being politically unfeasible, and downright depressing, it would seem like a highly hypocritical stance for a long-distance lover like me to take.

I do think we need to think about the impact our ways of life have on the world, and look for pragmatic, workable solutions to the problems we face. I also think we need to reconnect with the communities around us—I know of at least one friend who, having traveled the world and seen how much family means in other cultures—moved across country to once again be nearer to her relatives.

Love is a beautiful thing, no matter the distance it travels. But when it is over oceans and mountains, let's hope it takes the train whenever it can.

More on the Environmental Impact of Travel
Airline Industry Aims for Zero Emissions
Does Telecommuting Encourage Travel?
So What If Telecommuting Encourages Travel? Travel is Good
The Inconceivability of Immobility and the Stupidness of Sami

Tags: Air Travel | Ethical | Global Climate Change | Transportation | United States