More Value, Less Impact: Traveling on a Carbon Budget

CREDIT: Miti via Unsplash (CC0/2.0)

No-one makes us travel. We do it to expand our horizons, see a bit of the world, and maybe even snap some pictures along the way. It’s an enjoyable, enriching way to spend hard-earned time off.

Best of all, it’s accessible! in one of the greater miracles of the modern age, I could hop on a plane tonight, land in Reykjavík tomorrow, and return home within the week for the low, low price of $639. Not chump change, but for hotsprings, geysers, and a chance at seeing the northern lights? What’s not to love!

Then reality sets in. Nothing–nothing–screams “millennial guilt” quite like a nice flight over an ocean. I can eat vegetarian, stop wasting food, put up solar panels, and take every other step my relatively privileged western lifestyle will allow, and a few-hundred-dollar flight will still bankrupt a reasonable carbon budget for the year.

What if I decide to take the trip anyway? I can always buy carbon offsets, and if I’m coughing up the cash to fly I’ll find them a relatively cheap (if crude) way to assuage my guilt. I can—should—maximize my time on the ground, spreading the impact of the flight to Iceland over an extended stay and shorter trips around the region. And I can definitely try to maximize the value of the visit.

Unlike carbon offsets and a length of stay, though, “value” is a slippery, subjective thing. There’s value in being exposed to different lifestyles, and in representing the best of your own. There’s value in studying history Where It Went Down, and in just changing scene. Heck, there’s value in spending Saturday night in someone else’s local. Cultural exchange. That’s what they call it.

The value of a trip

On an otherwise-forgettable flight home from Europe, I got to thinking about how I might start accounting for a trip’s value. If I wasn’t ready to eliminate travel entirely, how could I be more intentional in choosing when to take (or pass on) a trip?

The result was a scorecard for evaluating the trip—independent of the reason, destination, season, or conveyance—in a reasonably objective way. I’ve subsequently expanded the categories and tuned the (completely arbitrary) “value” assigned to each category, but the first pass came out something like this:

Category Value Details
Culture 5 Festivals, concerts, or other cultural events
Friend 10 Catching up with old friends (or making new ones!)
Language 5 Tourist-pidgin in the local language/dialect
Location 10 Visiting a new location for the first time
Lore 5 Learning some bit of local lore
Transport 5 Navigating a new transit system or mode of transport
SOURCE: Travel Scorecard

In other words, within my own value system I’d give double points for just being somewhere (Location) and for connecting with people (Friend); standard points for each museum, cultural event, and so on, and a reasonable pat on the back for successfully navigating the local transit system.

An example

Within that framework, the next step was to log the sights I’d seen, people I’d met, and experiences I’d had during the trip. Here’s how it worked out for a few days in Prague.

year country city description category count score
2018 Czechia Prague Prague Location 1 10
2018 Czechia Karlstein Karlstein Location 1 10
2018 Czechia Prague Walking tour Lore 1 5
2018 Czechia Prague Pivos / pfand Lore 1 5
2018 Czechia Prague Food Lore 1 5
2018 Czechia Prague Lantern Magica Culture 1 5
2018 Czechia Prague Farmer's market Culture 1 5
2018 Czechia Prague Vysehrad Location 1 10
2018 Czechia Prague Underground Lore 1 5
2018 Czechia Prague CD Transport 1 5
SOURCE: Travel Scorecard

I’ve since made a habit of scoring each trip on the journey home, while the memories are still fresh (and to save myself the forlorn hope of sleeping on the plane). For older trips, I dug into old journals—pleasant reminders in their own right—to understand and account for them retroactively. And I learned a few things as I went.

Some observations

While I started this experiment to help myself travel more intentionally, it’s also been an interesting way to introspect on myself. Each of us are the literal personification of a certain set of values. The relative scores that I might assign to meeting a new friend or touring a row of museums reflect my priorities, but only my priorities–a fellow traveler with different values may score a trip on entirely different grounds. The point isn’t to assign objective value. It’s simply to make sure that I’m prioritizing the activities that I tend to find most meaningful.

Even with my own value system, there are still plenty of “known” wrinkles that need working out. Among the (doubtless many) things that I’m still not accounting for are:

  • the financial cost of a trip. This is OK for now—a trip’s “score” is after all just one summary of a thought experiment—but a light fiscal reckoning would add an interesting new dimension to the project.

  • ditto travel distance and time on the ground. Given the environmental roots of the project, it would be interesting to normalize trips’ value based on their overall impact.

  • quality time with traveling companions. Travel creates great opportunities to catch up with friends or spend a little longer with the backpacker from the last hostel, and that’s definitely worth something.

  • perception. Factoring in some level of qualitative self-assessment (“how did I feel about the trip?”) would restore some good old human bias back into a somewhat cold, calculating assessment.

Then there are also straight-up gaps in the original scorecard. I’ve made a couple of revisions so far to:

  • make more room for natural wonders. My home state of Oregon is the most beautiful place in the world (especially in the fall, with crunchy leaves underfoot and the mist draping the valleys… but I digress), and I didn’t initially account for the natural beauty spread across the rest of the world.

  • scale down the “friend” scores. I put enormous value on people, but when one good night drove the output for an entire trip, it was time to re-evaluate

  • break “lore” out into more specific subcategories. It’s helpful to me to distinguish between related-but-separable encounters with a place’s history, geography, and culture, for instance, and to be able to score them independently.

Even with its shortcomings, though, that little scorecard has already helped me considerably with prioritizing and filling in future travel plans. If you’re a frequent flyer who can’t quite shake the residual guilt–Iceland is lovely this time of year!–it might be helpful to you, too.

I’ve copied a template over to Google Drive (CC0). Use it, tune it, and let me know how it goes!

Now, about those carbon credits…