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airplane-workersThis weekend I’ll be flew down to San Francisco for a business-related seminar. I’m disappointed to have missed out on the World Domination Summit shenanigans here in Portland, but the workshop I’m went to will hopefully help me learn how to spread my message more effectively.

Of course, going to the workshop meant traveling. And don’t get me wrong, I love San Francisco! Traveling, though…I have a love/hate relationship with travel.

I love the way that travel can open your mind to new ways of thinking.

I love that it gives you time away from “everyday” life. I hate that it takes so much time!

I love the sense of adventure that it brings, and the corresponding increase in curiosity and enjoyment in life. And I hate the way that it’s so easy to always select the “safe” option. The big hotels, the resorts, even abroad, the “vacation spots” are often really barely different than life at home, or at least, domestic vacation spots.

On this particular trip, it’s also a bit frustrating to be in a great city like SanFran, and yet not have any time to actually do anything there other than the workshop.

Most of all, though, I hate that travel usually comes at the cost of burning massive quantities of fossil fuels.

I’ll be flying there and back, and flying takes a lot of fuel. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

No, that’s not true. I know exactly how I feel about that. I don’t like it. I still fly places, though. Just, not a lot.

Sustainable Travel Alternatives

So, of the various forms of transportation, which is the “greenest?” That’s easy: Walking and cycling, of course! Back in 2004, I rode a bike across the country. It was a fantastic trip, and the best “vacation” I’ve ever had. But it took nine weeks of riding 80 miles a day. When you don’t have weeks or months to spare for traveling, you’ve got to use powered transportation. In the US, that means planes, trains, and automobiles–or go by bus!

Which one of those is the greenest? As usual, it’s complicated. It depends on how may people are traveling together, and the specifics of the type of plane, train, car, or bus involved.

For instance, a family of four on a diesel train is actually not as green as that same family traveling in a relatively efficient car. A single traveler or couple, though, would be better off on the train.

In fact, a single traveller or couple travelling more than 500 miles is usually better off flying coach (non-stop) than driving!

The big winner in all categories is undeniably buses. Buses, or “motor coaches” to those in the industry, are a carbon footprint slam-dunk. If your journey can be taken by bus in the amount of time that you have available, then that is the way to go.

And stop worrying about smelly, cramped, uncomfortable seats with no entertainment options other than the clinically insane passenger next to you. Today’s long-haul busses have many of the amenities that we expect on flights, including in-seat video screens, refreshments, and even wireless internet.And the seats can be more comfortable than airplane seats, too.

For a more detailed look into each option, check out this in-depth report from the Union of Concerned Scientists

Offsetting your carbon use

OK, so you know that buses are the best way to go, and that trains are usually better than planes. But what do you do if you absolutely don’t have the time to take either of those to get to where you need to go? What if you need to travel right now, as fast as possible, and the only seat available is in the uber-anti-green first class section?

Or what if you have to travel a lot by car, for business. Or you just feel bad about even the small amount that you travel?

Well, that’s where carbon offsets come into play.

Carbon offsets are certificates that you can buy that “offset” your use of fossil fuels by investing in alternative energy and carbon sequestration programs. Some folks denounce carbon offsets as the environmental equivalent of the “indulgences” of the early church. The thought is that offsets, like indulgences, allow you to feel like everything is OK, even though nothing has really changed.

And they’re right to be concerned. After all, if everyone bought offsets for every pound of carbon that they were responsible for putting into the air, then it would be easy for them to justify the continued use of fossil fuels.

Why limit my consumption if I can just offset it with a few extra dollars? Right?

If the companies selling those offsets didn’t invest in alternative energy or sequestration projects that actually work, then your use of fossil fuels hasn’t actually been offset, and the pounds or tons of CO2 that you put into the atmosphere is still up there, hanging around, increasing climate change.

If, on the other hand, the offset company does invest in worthwhile, effective technologies and programs, then the CO2 that you’re responsible for has been reduced. Probably not eliminated, but reduced. And the investment in alternative energy sources means that we’re one small step closer to having large-scale availability of cleaner energy.

Some carbon offsets are better than others, and some are downright counterproductive.

If carbon offsets appeal to you, here are a few options that are worth exploring.

Just remember, offsets don’t give you permission to go off flying around the world, greenhouse-gas-free. They just make things slightly less bad. The best ways to improve your impact? Choose to take more “staycations” at home, or at nearby, natural area attractions. When you choose to go farther away from home, find “volunteer vacations” in places where you can do good work improving environmental infrastructure or helping preserve endangered species. And, if you have to travel for business, explore the possibility of eliminating some of those trips by teleconferencing via Skype, Google Hangouts, or even a simple speakerphone call.

For me, I do most of my business remotely, including most workshops and seminars. Every once in a while, something comes up that requires a physical presence. So I travel. Sure, if everyone stayed close to home, we’d use less petroleum and put less CO2 into the atmosphere. But I believe we’d also severely limit intercultural understanding and human progress. As always, it comes down to balance.

What modes of transportation do you prefer? Hop on down to the comments sections and let me know how travel fits into your life.

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