“Race Across the World” and the problem of sustainable travel

“The desire to explore our planet has never been stronger, but in travelling over, are we missing the joys of journeying through?”

This is the premise of the hugely popular BBC 2 reality show, Race Across the World, which returned to screens for its third season in March of this year. The programme challenges 5 pairs to travel thousands of kilometres from one ‘checkpoint’ to another, across various landscapes, with each team given a sum of money equal to the price of a flight of the same distance. The vital catch, however, is that the contestants are prohibited from travelling by plane. Underpinning the undeniable entertainment of watching an adult father and daughter bicker over camping in a forest, or a pair of friends fruitlessly attempt to navigate their way to a remote train station, is the crucially important, and increasingly pertinent idea of ditching air travel for other forms of transportation.

The crucially important idea of ditching air travel

Recent research by Hannah Ritchie, of Our World in Data, reports that in 2018, an estimated 1.04 billion tonnes of CO2 were emitted due to global aviation. In fact, CO2 emissions have been found to account for only one third of the harmful impact that aeroplanes have on global warming, non-CO2 factors, such as water vapour trails from aircraft exhausts, also generating significant environmental damage. Though only contributing to 3.5% of the world’s carbon emissions, scientists at London School of Economics (LSE) predict it to become the largest single source of carbon emissions in the UK by 2050, not to mention that it dominates individual’s carbon footprints, making renouncing recreational travel a seemingly obvious form of ethical life-style change for climate conscious Britons.

But what are the options? Is abandoning foreign travel altogether the only solidly environmentally ethical solution? While this would certainly have a positive effect for the fight against climate change (LSE scientists found there was an estimated 41.5% reduction in carbon emissions from the aviation sector in 2020 because of reduced air travel), it is utterly inconceivable in the world we live in. ‘Summer Holiday’ culture can be seen as a significant aspect of many Briton’s lives, the Association of British Travel Agents reporting that 64% of British people took at least one foreign holiday in the 12 months up to July 2019. To imagine a ban on overseas travel evokes clear images of outrage and protest in the name of personal freedom. Even from an environmentally conscious perspective, there does seem to be an obvious paradox in ‘saving’ a planet, of which we are only able to see and experience a minute proportion.

What Race Across the World appears to champion is the concept of ‘Slow Travel’, an approach to travel that emphasises more ‘journey-based’ holidays, where travellers interact at a greater level with the cultural and environmental phenomena that they encounter, transporting themselves from one place to another through the medium of trains, buses or car shares, ultimately promoting a much more sustainable means of seeing the world. Rail travel particularly, has been shown to be significantly more environmentally friendly than other forms of transportation, with the European Environment Agency reporting that while aviation represents a share of 13% of all the EU’s transport-caused greenhouse gas emissions, rail represent only 0.4%. But, aside from such promising statistics, the personal benefits of slow travel are plentiful, and well exemplified by RATW  – as each new episode sees the contestants forge connections with fellow travellers, learn the unique customs of locals from the areas they visit, and find themselves moved by the natural beauty of less frequented locations, those not deemed ‘holiday destinations’ by flight companies.

The personal benefits of slow travel are plentiful

However, there are a number of issues surrounding a total switch from air to ground transportation, that cannot be ignored in conceiving of a realistic future of ethical travel. Firstly, and arguably a problem which gets to the crux of the climate crisis, is the human lack of willingness to deviate from that to which we are habituated and with which we are comfortable.

A 2010 study published by the UK Government website indicates that the proportion of respondents who agree that they should be allowed to travel by plane as much as they like ‘even if this harms the environment’ was steadily increasing (17% in 2006 to 25% in 2008 and 29% in 2010). Admittedly, climate consciousness has significantly improved amongst the British population over the past 13 years, suggesting such figures may now be more optimistic, but this attitude of unwillingness to implement personal change, fostered by the belief that one should not have to sacrifice individual comforts in place of governmental action remains symptomatic of many of the sustainability issues central to the climate crisis today, such as fast fashion, or meat consumption. The longer journeys and potentially higher expenses of alternative travel may act as deterrents which supplement this attitude. Another problem is the fundamental unfeasibility of the RATW model of travel for the general working population, whose employment contracts would largely preclude such lengthy periods of time devoted to slow travel.

All in all, while evidently a successful basis for a TV show, and an attractive model of what sustainable travel can look like, UK society seems to have a long way to go before such ideals can become reality. Evolution in UK working culture, expansion of overseas rail travel, money invested into alternative ‘clean’ modes of transportation, such as electric vehicles, and many other changes are imperative to truly reduce of aviation emissions. Renouncing air travel, as with many of the sustainable changes individuals can make to ‘do their bit’ for the climate crisis, seems to lead us back to the increasingly frustrating paradox of individual effort having little consequence unless a more fundamental upheaval of our current lifestyle is enacted by those in power.

A more fundamental upheaval of our current lifestyle needs to be enacted by those in power

Image Credit: Farshad Rezvanian