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  • Writer's pictureGunnar Garfors

How Travel Can Be Part of the Green Change

Kiribati is one of the countries at risk if sea levels increase.

And no, the title is not clickbait.

I have travelled to every country in the world twice, most recently to write the book “Elsewhere” (“Ingenstad“) about the world’s 20 least-visited countries, and it is fair to say that I fly more than most. This still isn’t about letting flying off the hook, but to look at the totality and to travel differently.

Let me explain.

Everyone understands that planes emit CO2 and other gases. That the pollution is released high in the sky is even likely to make it worse, and another reason why travel related emissions should not be ignored. To automatically only blame passengers, who actually already pay carbon taxes as a part of ticket prices, is however not the way to go. One reason is that society has developed in such a way that aviation is essential for much more than just to get Jack or Jill from A to B. We expect speedy deliveries of seafood, carparts, letters, parcels and flowers. And only air transport is fast enough to satisfy our demands.

Foodies expect fresh Norwegian fish, Japanese steaks and French truffles to be flown in regardless of whether they eat in Oslo, Dubai or New York. And if your car stops, you want it to be repaired asap. To reduce warehouse costs most spare parts are transported to the garage by plane – and truck. Not to forget the mail, which includes online purchases. It needs to arrive. Fast. Customers of today do not accept to be kept waiting for trains, ships or trucks. 20 percent of revenues on commercial passenger flights derive from freight. Which means that high-maintenance restaurant guests, car owners or recipents of parcels indirectly contribute to aviation emissions even if they have never taken a flight in their lives.

For arguments sake, let us say that we change our holiday travel patterns from travelling within the “western bubble” to rather exploring other cultures, people and places outside it. If we travel differently and use our trips to exhange knowledge and establish friendships with people who live where we go, then travel can be a part of the green change as opposed to a part of the problem. Increased mutual understanding, more friendships and more trade across borders and cultures can and will reduce risk for conflict and war. Which in turn will result in reduced military budgets, fewer military operations across the world and therefore a big decrease in both fear and the perceived need to maintain big forces with their significant emissions.

But first; How much do wars and military activity pollute? I ask the question since the world’s defense and military organizations have achieved an exception from emission statistics. And that is by no means because they do not pollute. They have however managed to convince the world that their emissions are military secrets, and that they therefore must be kept secret, and not given any attention. It is therefore impossible to know exactly how big these emissions are, but estimates show that the US Military alone is responsible for 5 percent of all pollution, according to Barry Sanders, author of “The Green Zone: The Environmental Cost of Militarism”. This includes all “regular activities” performed by American forces alone, but do note that emissions increase dramatically whenever a war is started or a conflict escalates. The US Military is the world’s biggest, and spends 37 percent of the defense budgets on the planet. That equals that of the next seven countries on the list (China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, UK, India, France and Japan)! World military spending is over 1.6 trillion USD per year (or put differently: 1.6 million million or 1,600,000,000,000).

As if the sheer spending isn’t bad enough, the US Military has a general excemption from all environmental measures and regulations that may be decided upon in the UN and other international forums. Not a bad position to be in for the world’s biggest environmental culprit. But let us also include defense related emissions from all other countries and they amount to 13.5 percent of the world’s carbon footprint! And take note that is a conservative estimate. Emissions related to military activities are very real, despite not official, and need to be included in the discussion too.

A reduction of 14 percent in defense activities will reduce the world’s carbon footprint with as much as the entire global aviation industry currently emits. But let me be realistic. There is currently big resistence to any reduction in military operations. NATO, with its de facto leader USA, would rather see that NATO members increase spending and buy more arms, something which will undoubtedly result in “enemies” following suit, and we have another vicious circle. Increased military spending comes with an exceptionally high cost to the climate, which will eliminate any emission decreases the world population manages to achieve through eating less meat, building in wood instead of in cement and steel and knitting our own clothes from wool instead of buying polyester. To maintain current military spending is in other words probably the most positive climate measure we can dream about in the short term.

Increased arms trade can in fact be catastrophic for the climate, especially since a hyper capitalist is in charge of the world’s biggest economy. Firstly, he sees an opportunity for his wealthy acquaintances and friends to increase arms export from the world’s biggest producer of weapons, by far: The USA already sells over 40 percent more than Russia in second place, and these two countries sell for more than all other countries combined. Secondly, Donald John Trump doesn’t believe that humans contribute to global warming.

A dangerous combination.

And let me be blunt: If we increase the world’s defense budgets, that are already to blame for 13.5 percent of the world’s pollution, instead of decreasing them, then the Paris Agreement doesn’t stand a chance, almost regardless of our actions. While more travel between cultures can potentially reduce the need for armed forces.

Peace and stability are way too important subjects to leave for politicians and business people alone. We need more “normal” people to contribute too, in the shape of open-minded tourists that seek unusual destinations.

So, please think outside the box – or outside the western bubble – before planning your next trip. And do engage with the people that live there too. That is an important way to make this a truly smaller, better and safer planet – with fewer military personell and less pollution.

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