Decarbonizing my professional travel

As I’ve been researching the climate crisis and how it might engage higher education, I’ve also tried to change my personal life in response to global warming. I’ve taken up bicycling, have started eating a vegan diet, and more, but I’m stymied by a bigger challenge: how to decarbonize my professional travel.

In this post I’ll share what I’m thinking, in my usual spirit of transparency. I would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.

I used to travel a *lot*, before COVID struck in early 2020. I would hit the road up to six times a month, heading to points domestic and international. My usual conveyance to these destinations for giving speeches, running workshops, and consulting was aircraft.  When we lived in Vermont I drove a lot, from New England to Pennsylvania and upstate New York, thanks to a paucity of transit options.  Once COVID hit I turned almost completely to virtual work. Now that in-person requests are starting to pick up, I’d like to figure out how to do less flying, as planes are the most energetic emitters of greenhouse gases.

Why would I do this?  As someone working in climate futures it’s simply ethical and non-hypocritical to practice what I preach.  More, I can learn from practice.

So how should we travel?

The American ideal is to drive like mad, especially with big and/or expensive cars/trucks. Next up is taking a jet plane, which people who don’t actually fly somehow consider to be glamorous. Both are CO2 emitting monsters.

For alternatives, science fiction admires airships, but commercial travel via blimp hasn’t returned for those yet. Riverine travel is appealing, yet very scarce, time consuming, and hard to find commercially. The best alternative to jet aircraft seems to be trains, so let me explore that a bit.

We live in northeastern Virginia and can therefore access the American Amtrak network pretty easily. One line runs through our town of Manassas, which plugs into the whole nation, ultimately:

Amtrak US map

However, a quick glance shows big chunks of the United States not directly served by this rail line.  I’ll get to that in a moment.

Right now I can hit a number of stations within a business day’s train ride. They are a handful of US locations, basically a band along the central eastern coast, Boston to Richmond. I’m happy to do that when that’s where clients want me to be:

Amtrak US map -stations with a day's travel
Beyond that group, there’s a second region of train-able destinations which are more difficult to reach. From New Orleans to Chicago, train trips from my home do exist. But they take a very long time, especially when switching lines is involved.  For example, Washington DC to New Orleans takes about 26 hours (and probably longer).

Amtrak US map two days

This presents me (and other would-be travelers) with a problem. We can buy a simple train seat and save money, but also have to endure increasing discomfort and even pain, especially if we have any health issues, including those associated with aging. Another option is to buy either a “sleepette” or sleeping compartment, which is charming and less painful, but which can cost a lot more, even more than air travel along the same route.

Beyond those green boxes above you can see destinations which take three or more days. Fares are correspondingly higher.  You can also see many areas which Amtrak doesn’t visit.  I could still take the train to the nearest station and then drive from there (rental car or Uber etc.), which adds to the trip’s emissions.

One potential good thing about train travel is the ability to get work done on the trip. Electrical outlets are widespread.  The trains provide WiFi… but signal strength varies from moderate to zero in my experience.  At best, the experience is like an uncomfortable hotel room/office.  At worst it’s enforced downtime.  Which I might require, although it’s hard to afford.

All of the above covers travel within the United States. I also travel internationally, and that looks likely to remain the province of jet aircraft. (I *can* train to Montreal, and that seems to be the only non-US train possibility.) Going by ship has some appeal, but the timescale for the shortest trip is huge.

So where does that leave my professional travel decarbonization effort?

I put together a working list of options.  It’s a sort of simple, linear flowchart:

  1. Take a train when the site is within a day’s travel from my home.
  2. Offer virtual work for clients elsewhere.
  3. If 1+2 don’t appeal to a client, and the location is close to some Amtrak station, try to arrange for multiple gigs in the same geographical area. This isn’t easy, but might work out in some situations and will reduce costs per engagement.
  4. If 1-3 don’t succeed, then present a climate crisis travel budget item to clients.  The fee will be higher than it has been historically.  It will either reflect a sleeping car/sleepette for the long train ride or a combination plane ticket plus donation to a climate crisis group.  (I am resisting carbon offsets now, as they all too often don’t seem to work.)
  5. If the location isn’t train-able, offer the plane fare + donation fee for #3.
  6. If 1-5 isn’t acceptable, I reject the professional engagement as inappropriate in the age of climate crisis.

An additional step: measuring and publishing the CO2 emitted by my professional travel.

I hope that one side effect of negotiating with a client along these lines will inspire them to think more about the climate crisis.

Looking ahead, as I do, the difficulty in making such decarbonization happen suggests plenty of entrepreneurial opportunities.  There’s got to be growing demand for climate conscious air and water travel alternatives. I, for one, would love to take a WiFi-equipped blimp to another city, or ride a comfortable boat or ship.

Will electric options start to work?  For example, would riding an electric bus be better in terms of emissions than taking a plane? When can we see a hybrid jet?

I had hopes that the Biden administration would expand train coverage across the United States. I even dreamed Americans would realize high speed trains existed.  Alas, those ideas seem to be deferred. Perhaps Hyperloop rides will be the next option to actually appear.

What do you all think? Anyone else have travel decarbonization ideas?

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30 Responses to Decarbonizing my professional travel

  1. George Lorenzo says:

    Many years ago as a student journalist I wrote a review of Megatrends by Nasbit. If I remember correctly, he predicted that society would break up into like-minded, self-contained communities that had less need or desire for traveling outside the confines of its walls. The only answer seems to be less travel.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      I was just thinking of that book, coincidentally. Maybe I should look into it.

      Like-minded communities – I can see it. But networked digitally.

  2. George Lorenzo says:

    In addition, with so much division seemingly increasing, will society find it more enjoyable to simply stay in their so-to-speak walled communities (less traveling)?

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Perhaps as we age up?

      Again, the digital option counts for a lot. (Ever read “The Machine Stops”?)

  3. Lisa says:

    Train travel in the west can be problematic. Twice we’ve booked the California Zephyr, from Denver to Salt Lake City and Denver to San Francisco. Both times the trains were canceled at the last minute, and we drove instead.
    A third trip from Denver to Glenwood Springs, CO, was delayed for hours while we waited for freight trains in front of us (I’ve read that the freight lines own these stretches of tracks and don’t give passenger trains priority). En route, at yet another delay, our passenger train was rear-ended in the mountains by another freight train that didn’t realize there was a traffic jam ahead. Everyone was OK, but it was frightening.

    • George Lorenzo says:

      Indeed, traveling can be such a damn hassle. I did it for many years and don’t miss it. However, I’d take one of those blimps that Bryan suggests.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Wow, Lisa. Those sound like very bad experiences, esp. the crash!

      • Lisa says:

        Yes, I decided I will only take a long train trip in the US if I have a lot of time and no urgent destination or time. And pack a lot of patience and sense of humor. 🙂

  4. Firstly, I greatly respect your willingness to walk the walk. It’s all too rare.

    I was struck by this: “I am resisting carbon offsets now, as they all too often don’t seem to work.”

    I’d be interested to learn more about this. I’ll admit the thought is very appealing to just check the box to pay a little extra for a bunch of trees to be planted, and be good to go, but I realize if a thing sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Are they better than nothing, or are they just BS?

  5. Tanja Eise says:

    I truly appreciate the thought that went into this, Bryan. I want us all to think like this and travel only when mission-critical and be contemplative if the cost to the climate.

  6. Alan Levine says:

    I respect your style, Bear! When I lived in Arizona I did many work trips by train. It was a welcome relief to the stress and urgency of airports (magnified much worse now by covid), But the thing is you have to be prepared with slack for the delays and hiccups, so do not plan on precise times.

    For going from to LA (and points south), it worked great as an overnight trip three times, especially for boarding at the quaint station in Winslow at the fantastic La Posada. I did also 2 cross country jaunts for work in Ohio, then PA, and on to Vermont to visit you! I remember a quaint station near end of the line (Castleton?) where the station manager greeted me with a cup of tea. Here is a photo album of a 3 week trip

    You won’t find wifi on trains west of Chicago, and its spotty even when available elsewhere. I always traveled with a 4G hotspot, but there’s a lot of no network zone out west. It just means being prepared to work offline (or just close the lid and read/write).

    I also have the ability to sleep anywhere, so never had to get a sleeper car. The regular seats have more recline than airlines.

    Meals are okay in dining cars, but being cheap I lived a lot on Amtrak hotdogs, not the best for a vegan, but hey, maybe they have broccoli chips now.

    I just found it a refreshing/relaxing way to travel, again IF you do not depend on a precise timetable. And you see an interesting back alley view of the country

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Sleep: I can do it anywhere, since I usually don’t have enough.
      Vegan food: this is a problem, so I can pack appropriate foods. It helps that space isn’t as much a premium as it is on planes.

      Relaxation and slack: that all sounds lovely. Truly. It makes me fantasize about reading *for days*. And maybe getting enough sleep.
      But my schedule won’t permit it now.

  7. George Lorenzo says:

    Once took Amtrak’s Lakeshore Limited from Buffalo to Chicago – it was the absolute worst travel experience on my life.

  8. My approach is pretty straightforward. If it’s in the Windsor-Quebec City corridor, I take the train (I chose to live within an easy walk of a train station). If it’s near but off the corridor, I drive (in a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle). Beyond that, I fly.

    My main issue with all this is not having carbon-neutral options. In Ontario, eg., most (97%) electricity comes from non-carbon sources, but elsewhere (eg., Moncton, where I used to live) too much comes from coal and oil. Trains are still diesel, which is an outrage. And there are still no non-carbon aircraft.

    Most carbon pollution (and hence global warming) is caused by large corporations and the wealthy. They have shown no evidence of caring about the problem. I am willing to do my share but it’s far more important at this juncture to change their behaviour through legislation and taxation.

    We should never talk about what we’re doing about climate change without mentioning this fact. That *does* create a personal cost, but that’s where the true work of addressing climate change lies for individuals.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Thank you for the sketch of your options, Stephen. Can you train into the US?

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      As for your second point…
      This is a very familiar argument. It’s one that’s discussed in climate literature and one I hear a lot. In particular I’ve heard academics arguing that higher education shouldn’t change in response to the climate crisis, because energies spent in that transformation would be better spent pushing giant corporations and the rich, as you say, along with governments: more bang per buck.

      The large scale transformation is the central issue. Yet I persist in redesigning my own life for several reasons:
      1) To avoid charges of hypocrisy – to walk the talk.
      2) To encourage others, to whatever degree that might actually work in practice.
      3) To learn through practice. This means a lot to me.

  9. Jeremy Stanton says:

    Very interesting to see your thought process, thank you for sharing that. When I lived in NYC and found myself stuck in traffic on a $100 cab ride from JFK back to Manhattan, I often thought a JFK-to-Central Park shuttle blimp would be incredibly successful.

    That travel is so entangled with most of our economic activity is a huge issue with respect to climate and energy futures. As George mentions, re-localized economic and livelihood-making activity will likely be the way of the future, not just to reduce carbon emissions, but the rising energy-cost-of-energy (ECoE) will slowly push most long-distance energy-intensive forms of travel back to the luxury end of the market (think early train service in England and Europe, early airlines, and steamships). Trains will probably fill the gap in the meantime as air travel becomes less economically viable, though it’s unfortunate the US lacks the organizational capability to have the trains run on time. I suppose we should beware of presidential candidates promising to fix this.

    Your comment about entrepreneurial opportunities reminds me of a headline from a few months ago — there’s a company now shipping specialty coffee beans via sailboat from Columbia to the US and Europe to lower their carbon emissions. The coffee retails for $62 per kilo in England… definitely a luxury item.

    Perhaps passenger sailboats on the east and west coasts would fill some gaps in the low-carbon traveling future.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      So many good thoughts, Jeremy.

      I would love a NYC area commuter blimp service.

      Luxury items: perhaps such will follow the historical curve of technologies starting as elite commodities, then gradually dropping in price.

      Sailboats on the coasts: indeed. Let’s go further and see more on the Great Lakes and major rivers.

  10. It looks like Amtrak service to Montreal is still not operational, having been canceled two years ago.

  11. Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe says:

    *Some* trains have wi-fi. I regularly use Amtrak to go to Chicago. Some trains have, others do not. Just a heads-up if you start training to the Midwest.

    Where do buses fall into this scheme?

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