Home Future Decarbonizing my professional travel | Bryan Alexander

Decarbonizing my professional travel | Bryan Alexander


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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