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Pollution

The long-haul: when travel harms the environment

Travel by road and air is the cause of 90 percent of the climate change impact caused by transportation. A study from Norway discovered that the biggest travel culprits are middle-class Germans.

Globalization has made almost any area in the world a possible holiday destination. Journeys to far-off places have become quicker and more affordable. The tourism industry is booming and a world without tourism is hard to imagine. Yet besides creating employment and leisure opportunities, the increased use of transportation also leads to a greater impact on climate change.

A new study by the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, Norway (CICERO), shows that Germans are among the world's top travelers. They travel five times more than the average world citizen. And it's the better-off Germans who do the most damage. "The wealthiest top 10 percent of the German population is responsible for almost 20 percent of the total climate impact of travel," says the report.

The study points out that journeys by cars and aircraft cause up to 90 percent of the total impact of transportation on climate change. But according to CICERO, an airline passenger on a long-haul flight causes as much pollution as a motorist does in two months.

Far-reaching ecological impact

"The car is by far the favorite means of transport for Germans," says Dörthe Beyer, a lecturer in landscape management and nature conservation at the Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development. "Air travel is not far behind." Buses and trains come much farther down.

Pollution level rankings, which use CO2 emissions as an indicator, show similar patterns. The airplane ranks as polluter number one. "Cars and trains come a long way behind," says Beyer. Modern buses, she notes, are the climate-friendliest option.

The Carnival Triumph cruise ship is towed towards the port of Mobile, Alabama, February 14, 2013. The 893-foot (272 meter) vessel, notorious for reports of raw sewage from overflowing toilets, has been without propulsion and running on emergency generator power since Sunday, when an engine room fire left it adrift in the Gulf of Mexico. REUTERS/ Lyle Ratliff (UNITED STATES - Tags: SOCIETY HEALTH TRAVEL MARITIME TRANSPORT BUSINESS)

The cruise ship Carnival Triumph was notorious for reports of overflowing sewage.

Pollution on the seas

A recent study by the German conservation society NABU examined the ecological impact of cruise ships, which are increasingly popular among Germans. Figures from the German Travel Association show that the number of German cruise passengers rose by 11 percent between 2011 and 2012.

"We looked at ships which will be on the market by 2016 and ships that are already in use," Diegmar Oeliger, a transport expert at NABU, told DW. "Our results show that very few cruise lines invest in adequate exhaust systems." In terms of CO2 emissions, ships are relatively efficient. They however emit a large number of other pollutants since shipping is way behind the automobile industry when it comes to fitting filters.

Dörthe Beyer shares NABU's concerns. She believes that cruise ships are harmful to the environment even though they only make up 0.5 percent of marine travel.

Sustainable tourism as an alternative

The counter development to mass tourism began in the early 1980s. "Sustainable tourism" is supposed to promote environmentally friendly travel and, as a result, reduce tourism-related problems. Today, many travel operators, like the German rail operator Deutsche Bahn, advertise their climate-friendly offers. "Sustainable tourism isn't the same as boring eco-tourism," says Dörthe Beyer. In the last 15 to 20 years, this form of travel has gained public recognition. "There is a growing interest, but not from mainstream society."

Reisen mit dem Zug. #47163805 © Michael Schütze - Fotolia.com

Traveling by train or bus is a better alternative

"The climate-friendliest form of travel is probably hiking or cycling," says Oeliger from NABU, "while flying is probably the worst for the climate." That means one should certainly avoid long flights for short trips, such as a long weekend in New York. But if one has to fly, one could compensate for the damage one causes to the environment by paying an extra charge to an organization like Atmosfair. Its website allows one to work out how much CO2 one is producing and to pay a compensation charge which is used to support renewable energy or sustainability projects. It's a good way of easing one's conscience.

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