The Gap Year Footprint
Do backpackers care about their influence on global warming?
On my gap year I trekked through the Himalayas, skydived and scubadived the coasts of Queensland, wrestled reef sharks while island-hopping in Fiji, worked on construction sites in Queenstown and Greyhounded my way across the Californian coastline. I had a truly epic time and would not trade it for the world.
I only stopped travelling to return to the UK and study Geography at the University of Exeter. But towards the end of my course I began to reflect on gap years; while the industry has boomed over the past 20 years, so has a concern about global warming. With so many people choosing to take advantage of gap years, is there an environmental cost to backpacking across the globe?
The backpacking footprint
Let’s talk about carbon footprints: the greenhouse effect occurs when emission of greenhouse gases traps heat within the atmosphere and consequently warms the planet’s climate. It’s been dramatically exacerbated by human activity over the past 200 years.
So where do gap year backpackers fit into this? Well, activities that emit greenhouse gases include the burning of fossil fuels for transport. In fact, 3.5% of the human-induced greenhouse effect results from aviation and, of this, 80% of is purely for tourism purposes.
The reason that aircraft are particularly significant is because their emissions are tremendous. I nervously calculated the carbon footprint of the 12 flights from my gap year and discovered that it came to 16.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide. This statistic only became scary when I found out that the average annual footprint of someone like me, a young chap from south-east England, is actually nearer 8.5 tonnes.
A further cause for concern is that aviation emissions include nitrous oxides - greenhouse gases with much greater warming potential than that of carbon dioxide alone. So, considering that the vast majority of gappers are like me and choose to fly to their destinations, is this a concern for gap year backpackers?
To answer such a question, I launched an online survey back in January of this year. I received over 250 responses from 16 different countries across the world, including many who had discovered it on gapyear.com. About 83% of respondents recognised the impact that their air travel had upon global climate, but only 3% had, like me, dared to find out how extensive that impact was by calculating the carbon footprint.
Would gap year backpackers consider altering their behaviour because of their carbon emissions? Interestingly, yes. A slight majority of 56% said that they were happy to do things to reduce their impact upon the environment. But what exactly would backpackers do?
Changing your ways
The most popular change would be to seek overland alternatives to flying. So, maintaining the same experience but sacrificing the speed at which the journey is completed. Okay, we might not all be Mark Beaumont and choose to pootle around the globe on a bicycle but forms of overland travel really can cut your emissions immensely.
Similarly, long-distance trains provide a fascinating cross-section of a region’s physical geography, and I cannot recall a journey on a Greyhound coach when I didn’t encounter a character whose story was worthy of a best-selling novel. So long as the travel is a little slower than flying it will have a smaller footprint. Crossing the seas and oceans may prove a little more challenging to lower the carbon footprint, but are no less exciting.
Another option that was commonly selected by those answering the survey was to offset the carbon via a carbon offset company. This option commits you to not changing your behaviour at all but incurs a financial cost to a company who promises to neutralise the effects of your emissions.
I’ve always been a little bit dubious about carbon offsetting as I have never been 100% convinced that money is the solution to unsustainable behaviour. Nonetheless, carbon offsetting is an option that a couple of gap year travel companies offer. Maybe displaying and addressing the carbon footprints of the packages they offer might make good business sense for them.
A third popular option was to take part in an environmental project whilst out there on the trip. This is something that I regret not getting involved in because there are lots of diverse, interesting projects out there and, if nothing else, it would look great on my CV.
Amusingly though, this option does nothing to actually address the carbon footprint issue whatsoever. It may have an indirect impact upon the global climate somewhere along the line, but such projects tend to focus purely on local environment issues. As a result, we have the debate about whether ecotourism is really ‘ecofriendly’ seeing as most projects require those involved to be flown in and out of the often remote locations. If nothing else though, at least this option would relieve backpackers of the guilt of travelling solely for their own benefit.
Staying the course
However, a considerable minority of survey respondents said they would not alter their behaviour. So what reasons were given? Many people were understandably very comfortable with their culture of air travel. Every week my inbox is inundated with offers reminding me how cheap and convenient flying is. Why would you turn down a means of making your life easier?
There was also an overwhelming belief that a gapper’s individual influence on the environment was insignificant. Is that true? Well, a gap year’s contribution to global warming is actually tiny compared to the aeromobility of the lifestyles of many regular business travellers. Is it fair to feel guilty about completing a one-off journey that many workers do on a regular basis?
These reasons come down to the fact that the gap year is, for most, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s not every year that I find myself able to visit 16 countries on four different continents. The prospect of such an experience for a lot of people far outweighs the negligible impact it might have upon the climate.
Do we care?
So, do gap year backpackers care about their influence on global warming? I believe they do, but at the same time they are not willing to jeopardise the opportunity that their gap year offers them. If such travellers were to become better educated about their carbon footprint I would definitely expect to see an expansion in the opportunities for overland travel, environmental projects and offsetting programmes within the gap year industry. Such expansion would surely enhance the gap year experience while not exacerbating climate change.
And actually, the gap year can itself act as an educative tool, as is demonstrated by one respondent who said: “Going to this massively amazing and huge country has given me great knowledge of climate change, and inspiration for life… Seeing the huge deforestation really hit home and has made me more vigilant in the long run.”
If I had not been on my gap year, would I be doing such environmental research today? Probably not. If I was able to start another gap year tomorrow but in a far more sustainable manner, would I?
Most definitely yes.
About the Author: Alex Lewis-Jones
Alex graduated from the University of Exeter after studying Geography with Environmental Management. His gap year back in 2009 saw him relishing a round the world trip that unlocked an unquenchable desire to explore. His studies since travelling opened his eyes to the environmental issues and consequences of backpacking. Following on from his undergraduate dissertation that investigated gap years and carbon footprints, his passion now is to discover how gap years and tourism can have an environmentally sustainable future in the 21st Century.
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