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Is sustainable travel possible during your year abroad?

Chloe Brewster

Wednesday, 16 November 2022

To coincide with the current COP27 summit, Chloe considers the possibilities of travelling sustainably during the year abroad which can potentially produce a hefty carbon footprint.

At a time when the devastating realities of climate change are increasingly apparent, living sustainably is not just a distant ideal, but a necessity. Travelling is often perceived as a major source of pollution – undoubtedly not helped by cheap flights – and there are increasing calls for people to reduce their use of polluting modes of travel to save the planet. This raises the question: how do you travel sustainably during your year abroad? Is it possible to travel without leaving a massive carbon-emitting footprint? As this article will explore, the answers are not necessarily straightforward, but sustainability is not an unattainable goal as you embark on your travels.


Reaching your destination

A key image that springs to mind are flights – who hasn’t posted an Instagram story of the view out the plane window at the beginning of their travels? However, air travel is the complete antithesis of sustainability and releases huge amounts of carbon emissions; for example, The Guardian estimates that one flight from Manchester to Barcelona generates a significant 259kg CO2, and undoubtedly emission rates are considerably higher the further you travel. For many year abroad destinations (including Asia and South America), air travel is almost certainly the only means of transport, so it is difficult to find a sustainable alternative.

Travelling cheaply with Ryanair from Stansted Airport - but at what price to the environment?

On the other hand, students who are spending their year abroad in mainland Europe have more options, notably Eurostar which travels to Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam. If your destination is neither of these capital cities, you can opt for coaches such as Flixbus or Blablacar, both of which are cheap and eco-friendly. Yes, travelling by coach can be exhausting (i.e. overnight journeys) and it isn’t an option for the faint-hearted. But Europe is ahead of the curve by offering sustainable modes of transport for the masses without costing a fortune, and you couldn’t better immerse yourself in European culture by travelling more sustainably. Or you could opt for trains within your host country; the affordability of rail cards (some for youth, others for local regions) further incentivises people to use public transport in a way to which we are not necessarily accustomed in the UK.


Ultimately, whether you are studying or working in Europe or beyond, keeping air travel to a minimum is a major factor for reducing your carbon footprint. Don’t feel too guilty for flying to your destination if that’s the only option to get there, but be mindful about the frequency with which you fly (either home or elsewhere) – for example, is it really necessary to fly home for a weekend? Would it be sustainably wiser to fly home for a longer period of time, such as during the Christmas holidays? Sometimes, it is easy to be tempted by a cheap getaway (and we are all in need of a holiday occasionally!) but living and travelling sustainably can require some self-discipline (and possibly some sacrifice).


Travelling within your host country

Once you have navigated the tricky waters of travelling to your destination, it is remarkably easier to travel sustainably within the country where you are spending a semester or year abroad. It is highly unlikely that you will bring a car with you to your host destination (keeping your hold luggage below the weight limit is challenging enough), so that immediately eliminates one threat to you carbon footprint. Using public transport – as mentioned previously – is the way to go to be as sustainably conscious as low as possible.

However, it is of course easier to travel sustainably within cities or bigger towns compared to small towns or even villages. Cities usually offer a wider range of public transport, such as trams or even biofueled buses, so there are clearly inequalities between urban and rural environments in terms of sustainable travel.

Regional train to Luxembourg from Belgium

One popular (and healthy!) way of keeping carbon emissions low (or zero) is cycling, which is quite common in many European cities where you can even rent a bicycle on a monthly subscription. Several French cities, including Paris and Strasbourg, run their own bike-rental services to encourage more sustainable travel habits among its citizens and visitors, which is often cheaper than purchasing a monthly bus or tram pass (although those sustainable modes of transport are not to be overlooked).


All in all, being a sustainable traveller against the current backdrop of an environmental and climate crisis is not an easy task. However, any gestures that we can make – however small they may seem – are indeed better than doing nothing at all. While getting to our destination are important, it is what we do while we are there for months at a time which matter on a daily basis, so research ways in which you can get around your host destination and the country before you leave the UK, as well as investigate any alternative ways of getting there if you can avoid air travel. It might seem daunting, but you can travel sustainably and happily!


About the Author

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