Choosing Sufficiency: Redefining Travel Quality in a Climate Crisis

Written by:
Jessika Luth Richter, Associate senior lecturer, IIIEE, The International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics

I decided to stop flying within Europe in 2018, towards the end of my PhD. In part, I was influenced by many of those who have already written sustainable travel blogs here, including Kimberly Nicholas. I had been researching climate and sustainable consumption for years and just couldn’t justify the environmental impacts in a time of climate crisis.

Of course, Covid followed soon after so not flying became the norm for everyone. In 2020, I started working with the EU 1.5° Lifestyles project, in which the project partners pledged to travel as sustainably as possible – to “walk the talk” so to speak. Through the endeavor to travel as sustainably as possible, I have learned a few lessons along the way.

Take it easy on myself and think of time differently

Making a commitment to not flying for work didn’t go as planned from the beginning. My first meticulously planned itinerary from Lund to Helsinki ended before I’d gone even 100km, stopped in Hässleholm due to a fire on the tracks up ahead and no hope of getting to the ferry in Stockholm in the near future. The travel agency apologized and suggested I turn around to Copenhagen and take a flight. I learned quickly to leave some extra time to get to the destinations and build in a working day while travelling and long breaks when switching modes to grab a meal or a quick walk around a city (train stations are great for that – they are almost always in the center of everything). When I know I am going somewhere I book several days on either side in my calendar to avoid scheduling teacher or other on-site activities in case I need to be on route once I figure out my itinerary. Many trains now have wifi and the last train trip on the German ICE train felt like I was in a co-working space – everyone was working and I was compelled to also have a productive working day.

Woman on train station. Photo.
City view with bridge and river. Photo.
Cup of coffee and chocolate cake. Photo.
A couple of hours in Villach, Austria waiting for a train connection allowed for a quick walk around town and a taste of some local chocolate cake.

Flexibility is needed

Last summer a storm named Polly disrupted all travel to the Netherlands for a project meeting and sustainability conference combined (the project aimed to put the project meetings close to planned conferences if possible). Getting there required heavy use of the public transport apps in finding viable alternative connections. Having those apps to support me had come with a trade-off because my old phone had stopped being able to run them effectively (to be fair, after 7 years) and I had to buy a new phone before the trip to feel that I could handle disruptions if they arose.

Apps were not the only support along the way. Anytime I was interrupted while travelling, I found others in the same situation who helped me too. My travel to a conference in July in Zagreb was only supposed to be three trains and 24 hours. Five trains and 3 days later, I arrived after a lot of troubleshooting but with a group of other conference attendees I had met along the way. I had already met one objective of the conference – I had a great network of sustainability researchers and practitioners. Nothing breaks the ice more than being stranded for hours at an unmanned train station!

View from rainy window. Photo.
Mountains and green fields with yellow flowers. Photo.
A trip to Zagreb disrupted by floods but after three days I made it to my destination. There were some beautiful views along the way once the clouds cleared.

On the one hand, train travel through Europe gets a reputation for being unreliable. Certainly, the travel to project meetings proved the need to be flexible and understanding rights and options as a traveler. However, travelling in weather events interrupted all travel, even flying. On the trip to the Netherlands, it turns out the train was easier than flying when all the transport to and from airports is stopped. Which is to say, travel in general requires flexibility, sustainable travel included.

Determining what is sustainable travel can be tricky

It is important to me as a sustainability researcher to practice what I preach. Yet, even for me there can be times when it is hard to know what actually is the most sustainable option. The second time I was planning to go to Helsinki I was determined to take the train and ferry. At the time, another project I was involved in, Mistra Sustainable Consumption, had just completed a carbon calculator for travel. I tested it and was a bit shocked that my train and ferry trip would be very close in carbon emissions to flying the same route. I read a bit more about it and asked the researchers. The ferry calculations depended on the speed of the ferry, the fuel, and how emissions are allocated between freight and passengers. Considering this, I found that one ferry line between Stockholm and Turku had switched to a more efficient ferry that could potentially use biofuel. I booked an overnight train to Stockholm and then took the ferry to Turku/Åbo. Since it was a day crossing, it was very cheap to book a cabin with wifi as my office for the day. Instead of the night before the conference in Helsinki, I spent the night in Turku/Åbo and commuted to Helsinki in the morning.

Working from the cabin and taking a break on the ferry to Finland (desk not pictured).

Adopting a sufficiency approach to travel

In the last few years, I not only changed the way I traveled in deciding not to fly. I also changed how much I traveled. I now have to choose between conferences in the summer that before I might have flown from one to the other. I definitely experience the fear of missing out syndrome, but I have also found that while the quantity of travelling and meetings has reduced the quality has not. I now collaborate with some researchers that I have never met in person, and it still works.

During lunch at a 1.5 project meeting July in the Netherlands we were all remarking how great the next project meeting in six months was going to be. The meeting was planned at our Spanish partners in A Coruña on the northwest coast of Spain in November to escape the winter gloom. Then we started sharing our initial research on potential travel itineraries. Would we go overnight on a train, daytime on a bus and then overnight again? Or 24 hours on a bus? Some reluctantly admitted they could not attend without flying. The allure of warm sun was fading fast with the realization of the herculean effort and the irony of 20+ researchers flying to Spain to meet about 1.5° lifestyles. Then it was suggested maybe we should just have the meeting online.

So rather than finishing this piece from a train after our 3 day project meeting, I am finishing it from home. My colleagues attended the meeting together from the office and it actually finished early, giving me a bit more time to work on other things. Now instead of a swim in the sea in Spain, I am off to go ice-skating with my son.

Researchers meeting in person in Lund and online with the rest of the consortium. Not the same as Spain, but with its own benefits.

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  1. Shelley Lawson

    I really appreciate your very practical tips. thank you for sharing what you learnt! You didn’t mention cost much; did you find that it usually cost you more, or less, to take the train versus flying??

  2. Jessika Richter

    Hi Shelley,
    It did not always cost more, but the more delays there were (like the trip to Zagreb), the higher the costs compared to flying for sure. The costs to the Netherlands by train vs flying was about equal (and my flying colleagues were more delayed than me on that particular trip). The costs to Finland depended on the number of hotel nights I would have stayed with flying (4) versus ferry (3 as one night was either on the train or ferry). So it depends, but yes, often the costs of flying are cheaper (in economics terms).

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