Alternatives to Flying
Travel by Land or by Sea

Whatever your travel agent may say, it is possible to go almost anywhere on a train, a bus or a boat. Remember, that however remote it may seem to you, to somebody it is home and they have to get about from town to town -so where there is a will there is a way. Don't be put off by expensive train fares in Western Europe or North America. Almost everywhere else, they are much cheaper. Also don't worry if you can't find a way to book your tickets in advance. However, it is critical to get most visas you will need before you set off.

Yes, it takes some time, but you can experience so much on the way. Only by travelling long distances overland can you really get to know the geography of the world and appreciate its natural and cultural diversity. Airports, tourist resorts, and big cities, are now much the same anywhere in the world, but on a long journey by train or bus you pass many odd little towns and villages, cross high mountain passes, lush forests, vast deserts and great rivers, and meet many interesting people along the route. (For example, read about our experiences of "life on the Climate Train) .

It's easy to get hold of information for travelling within one region, for example you can get train timetables covering the whole of Western Europe from the DeutscheBahn website (More such links soon). However it's not so easy to investigate options for longer journeys, because travel agents always assume you want to fly. I would like to develop an extensive website on this topic, covering the following topics:

  • Suggested routes across continents, with approximate times and costs, focussing especially on routes across key obstacles such as border crossings, mountain passes etc. For example: Europe-Siberia-China-Japan, Europe-Middle East-India-Australia, North-South Africa, North-South America, etc.
    (for more about Europe-Siberia-China-Japan, try the "schedule", "map", and "life on the journey" chapters of the Climate Train Report.
  • Overcoming awkward visa regulations etc..
    (for example, read about "Bureaucratic Barriers to Sustainable Travel" in the Climate Train Report)
  • Various options for crossing the oceans.
  • Useful cultural and language information
  • Ecological impact of various means of travelling.
    (for example, read the "Ecobalance of the Climate Train")
  • Links to other useful websites
However, to develop such a site I need help. Please let me know if you are interested. Also, please suggest useful web links.
The Climate Train
The "Climate Train" was a journey by train, boat and bicycle from Europe across Siberia and China to the UN Climate Convention (COP3) in Kyoto in autumn 1997. We travelled this way to minimise the greenhouse gas emissions from our journey. Altogether 36 environmental scientists and activists from 14 different countries participated, and we held many workshops and discussions en-route as we travelled. We also arranged conferences and meetings with many local scientists and environmentalists in Moscow, Novosibirsk and Beijing. News of our journey reached millions around the world through television and newspapers, and thus helped to raise awareness of the problem of air travel and global warming. The full Report of the Climate Train is now available online!
A printed version with 64 full-colour pages including over 125 photos and diagrams is available from "Scientists for Global Responsibility".

Telepresence, Videoconferencing
Many people fly not because they want to visit a distant place, but to attend conferences, or meet specific people -business contacts, friends and relatives. The journey itself is often time-consuming, expensive, and inconvenient. Many such journeys could be replaced by using modern telecommunications: videoconferencing, telepresence etc., or even just more efficient use of email and the web.

Did you know that it now costs only about 60 to buy a little camera which enables your computer to be used for videoconferencing? It works over a normal telephone line, and you will only be paying local phonecall rates.

Institutions can now set up sophisticated videoconferences where many people can meet from around the world, talking together and also sharing resources such as a virtual whiteboard, or a computer spreadsheet or presentation.

Many conferences consist mainly of individual presentations, for which people often fly thousands of miles just to say some basic points while projecting a dozen overheads onto a screen. Such presentations could easily be stored now on one CD-ROM -including speech and video, interactive text, charts, graphics and photographs. Instead of travelling yourself, you could just put the CD-ROM in the post, and perhaps make a live video-link to the conference to answer any questions arising from the presentation. (Note: you can now buy a CD-writer for about 150, and a blank CD costs about 1. Think how much money it saves, compared to all the flights, taxis, hotels, etc.)

But what about informal discussions at conferences? See "frequently asked questions"

Sometimes people have to travel in order to cast their vote in a parliament, conference, forum etc.. In the future it should be possible to participate and vote instead using the internet -this is known as teledemocracy. This also offers scope for much wider participation in decision making and a less heirachical structure in organisations, i.e. individuals can send their own ideas, rather than their representatives. This topic is discussed further in the "ideas for a global climate referendum" web page.

Dilemmas of a Sustainable Lifestyle

In just one long-haul flight, you can use up your sustainable budget of greenhouse gas emissions for several years (for more explanation and a calculation for your proposed journey, click here). So people who are really concerned about the future of the planet, should try to avoid flying as much as possible. Yet if we do not fly to meetings and conferences, or visit other places and cultures, perhaps we miss potential contacts and experiences, and consequently have less influence in human society. If the people who care most about the environment stay at home, those who do not care will have a free reign to run the world. There is no simple answer to this dilemma -you have to weigh up each case on its own merits. I hope that this web page will help people to make a better-informed decision.

The biggest obstacles to overcome, are the assumptions of other friends and colleagues, simply due to ignorance of the problem. Bosses at work will not allow enough time to travel overland to a conference, and administrators will complain about complicated expenses claims or insist that you always take the cheapest flight. Then they will assume that you didn't fly to the conference, not because you are concerned about the environmental impacts, but because you can't spare the time or the money, you weren't invited, or you simply can't be bothered. Friends and relatives won't understand why you don't want to go on holiday with them any more. So you may find yourself losing out compared to others who are less scrupulous than yourself. But, what is the point of being a jet-setting celebrity or a high-flying executive, if, when you eventually come back down to earth, you find you don't have an inhabitable planet to live on? Due to unpredictable biogeochemical feedback climate processes, the stakes really are that high.

However, as more people become aware of the problem and change their lifestyle accordingly, these obstacles will get smaller. For example, just a dozen years ago, it was much more difficult for vegetarians to find tasty, nutritious food when travelling, and they often felt awkward when visiting friends. Now there are many vegetarians, and life is much easier -both practically and socially. The same will apply for people who decide on principle not to fly -as there are more and more of us, so it will get easier. Practical needs will be met, such as passenger ships across oceans, or straightforward transit visas, prices of different modes of transport will adjust to take account of their environmental costs, and people's expectations and work patterns will change. Remember, only fifty years ago, there were no commercial airlines, yet europeans still managed to run vast empires around the world. Now, we have global telecommunications (see above), it should be much easier to influence the world without flying.

What about holidays? A change, they say, is as good as a rest. People travel on holiday, not just to lie on the beach, but to get away from home and experience different scenery and culture. In the past, it was not necessary to travel far to see something different -people were satisfied with a trip to the seaside, to the hills, to their neighbouring country or city. But unfortunately, through the processes of globalisation, places become more and more alike. Wherever we go in the world, we see the same chainstores, hotels, villas, vehicles on the road, hear the same music and background noises, eat the same fast food. Consequently people feel the need to travel further and further, to more and more remote and exotic locations, to satisfy that need for a change, and soon those "unspoilt" locations are swamped by airports, hotels and golf courses. Apparently even Mount Everest is now strewn with rubbish left by tourists.

So we have to take a different attitude to holidays, to learn again to travel slowly, on a train, a bicycle, a horse, a sailing boat, a canoe, or even on our own two feet, enjoying the discovery of odd little places that the travel agents don't know about. With a good map and a bit of initiative you don't need to go so far to find such surprises.

Nevertheless it is particularly frustrating that, due to the bias in the taxation system (see cheap flights), people who travel overland often pay more than those who fly. It can also be frustrating to hear friends tell tales of bargain holidays in the sun, of weekend breaks in distant cities, of so-called "ecotourism" trips in mountains or jungles. If you do not fly, it is not possible to visit such places so frequently.

However, it is possible to see the world (I myself have flown on only one plane in the last ten years, yet during that time I have visited China twice, Japan, many parts of Russia, and 20 countries in Europe). Moreover, by travelling more slowly, you can get a much richer experience when you do make a long journey. To really experience other cultures and lifestyles, you need to get to know local people and live and work somewhere for at least a month or two. When you do this, an overland journey that takes just a few days or even weeks does not seem so long.

Remember -the environmental impact of air travel is is still a new problem, which most people have never even considered (even those that diligently take the train to the airport). So whether you fly or not, the critical thing at this stage is to take every opportunity to explain and discuss these issues.

I hope this web site contributes to that process. Since you have read this far, you have presumably found it interesting, yet I didn't have to fly anywhere to bring these thoughts to you. Please let me know what you think.