Some travelers are deciding that saving the world is more important than seeing the world.
As concerns over global warming grow, some people think giving to a carbon-offset program or staying at a "green" hotel isn't enough to compensate for an airline flight. The most eco-conscious vacationers are forgoing long-distance trips, trading treks to Europe for walks around the neighborhood -- and sometimes angering family members in other cities. Spurring the movement on are environmentalists who implore the public to stop burning unnecessary fuel and stay closer to home. It's the next step for commuters who have already swapped cars for bikes and attend out-of-town meetings by videoconferencing.
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Sev and Nina Williams are swearing off flights and long drives in 2008 -- which will mean missing Ms. Williams's sister's September wedding in Spain. (Her sister is "disappointed," says Ms. Williams, a 33-year-old public-policy analyst.) Last year, the Santa Barbara, Calif., couple took five airplane trips. This year, they plan to spend their 20-odd vacation days around town, at most driving their hybrid car the 120 miles to Disneyland with their 2-year-old son. "We just really looked at our whole life and said, what can we do to make an impact?" says Mr. Williams, 38, who owns a marketing company.
The Web site for Global Cool, a campaign to fight global warming, offers advice on how to "be cool," including, "Hey hotshot, do you really need to holiday abroad?" Web site manager Richard Kilgarriff says visitors to the site have pledged so far to cut out enough air travel to reduce carbon emissions by a combined 2,205 tons -- the equivalent of about 1,770 round-trip New York-to-Los Angeles passenger flights. A member of AlterNet, an online community and news site, recently told readers, "Stop traveling. Don't fly in a plane. Just don't."
Most Americans' daily commute makes a bigger carbon impact than their vacation air travel. Driving in a car contributes about 13,800 pounds of personal carbon emissions, or 27% of the average American's annual 26 tons, according to the Nature Conservancy; flying contributes about 2,300 pounds, or 4%. (To calculate an individual's air-travel impact, the group divides a plane's emissions by the number of passengers, assuming a load factor of 65% or 70%.)
Overall, transportation contributed 28% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2005, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's latest data, behind only electricity generation.
Although a single long-haul flight can generate more than half the emissions of an average annual commute -- a New York-to-Singapore flight on Virgin Airlines (stopping in London) results in about 8,600 pounds of carbon emissions per passenger -- some people figure skipping flights won't help. Michal Strahilevitz, a 43-year-old business administration professor in San Francisco, sold her car and cut back on leisure flying to reduce her carbon footprint, but she still flies for work. "Chances are you are just taking a seat, not adding flights to the schedule," she says. Because of cuts she has made, she says, "I feel nowhere nearly as bad about all the long showers I take."
Peer pressure helped persuade Kim Teplitzky, a regional organizer for the Sierra Club's student coalition, to cancel a holiday trip to Guatemala and Belize that she'd been planning for months. During a visit to Venezuela a year and a half ago, a friend pointed out that the carbon footprint for each of their flights was close to some people's footprint for a whole year. "There's a stigma around flying so much when we're working so hard to get our lawmakers to reduce global-warming emissions," says Ms. Teplitzky, 23, who lives in Pittsburgh.
Sharon Astyk, a 35-year-old mother of four who owns a farm in Knox, N.Y., says she used to travel a lot, especially internationally, but hasn't flown in two years. She says she became even more determined to avoid air travel after reading a 2007 book, "Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning," by Guardian columnist George Monbiot.
The world must reduce carbon emissions by 90% by 2030 to avert an ecosystem collapse, the books says, and achieving the cut will mean "the end of foreign holidays -- the end of shopping trips to New York, parties in Ibiza, second homes in Tuscany." Ms. Astyk says painful as the decision may be, she won't send her father in Bellingham, Wash., plane tickets to visit his grandchildren anymore, although she might send a train ticket.
Of course, most Americans aren't willing to give up air travel. The number of passengers boarding domestic flights rose 14% in the 12 months that ended in October, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. John Heimlich, chief economist at the Air Transport Association, says more foreign tourists traveling within the U.S. and more discount fliers are behind the increases.
To retain eco-minded customers, Continental, Delta, Virgin and other airlines last year launched carbon-offset programs, which help counteract emissions somewhere else in the world. The Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group last year started offering discounted room rates and parking for guests who arrive in hybrid cars. Amtrak's Web site has a carbon calculator for comparing annual emissions from rail travel with air travel.
The programs don't go far enough for Steve Rypka, a 55-year-old Henderson, Nev., consultant. He has stopped flying to business meetings and contributes $90 a year to carbon-offset programs to compensate for his lifestyle. Now, he wants to limit his vacations to within a one- or two-day drive in his Toyota Prius. "Buying carbon offsets isn't a license to pollute," he says. "Plus, it's not exactly punishment to cut back on air travel, with all the security issues."
Even travel writers are starting to wonder if they are part of the problem. Someone sparked a heated discussion last year on travelwriters.com, a networking site, by posting, "I'm worried that if I encourage people to travel, they may be adding to a problem that will ultimately cause misery all over the globe."
That's misguided, says Kelsey Timmerman, a 28-year-old Muncie, Ind., scuba-diving instructor and author. If he'd never been to the Great Barrier Reef, he wouldn't care as much that it is dying from rising ocean temperatures. Decisions he makes as a consumer and a voter offset emissions resulting from his travels, says Mr. Timmerman, who visited Bangladesh, Cambodia and China last year. "Travel helps us care more about our world."
Jamie Henn, 23, who graduated from college last spring, has promised himself he'll stop flying. He studied in northern India and has been to Africa and Europe several times. But after he moves to San Francisco this winter -- driving with friends in a hybrid car -- Mr. Henn says he plans to stay put. His parents in Boston are "begrudgingly" supporting his decision, although his mother says she plans to visit. "Maybe I'll find a friend to carpool out with my mom," he says.