It’s the second time I’ve taken the train to Germany rather than fly. The first time it was for an invited talk at a meeting at the Cultural Politics of Sustainable Mobility international network – the irony of flying for that was too great, after a few years of building guilt as hopped on planes around Europe to examine PhD or evaluate grant proposals on themes of sustainability. Finding then that Germany by train is a pleasure, and increasingly motivated to contest the flight dependence of academia, it was easy to say I’d only take on this invitation if I could get the train. So, an enjoyable journey to Halle-Salle and back to deliver a keynote talk at the Practice and Space summer school.
Roughing things out with the help of the calculator.carbonfootprint.com I saved around 250kg of CO2e. That’s less than 2% or a rough average UK per capita / per annum CO2e output. But the costs of dodging a quarter tonne of carbon guilt are low. Enjoying the relaxed pace, ease of working and good stretches of work time that come with train travel and time to enjoy sunshine and a glimpse of cities between connections along the way, it turns a work trip into a journey.
Of course, in thinking on overall carbon savings we need to broaden out to other consequences. The most obvious negative offset of surface travel is when it creates a need for a night in a hotel. Trains to get to Halle did not quite work out to get there from Sheffield in a day, so I did have a night in a London hotel. I went to St Athans, handy for St Pancras. It makes good claims on being committed to sustainability. But the main thing that makes it relatively sustainable is that its 1* with minimal facilities in small rooms – how often towels get washed is pretty minor compared to total energy costs of running a small sparse room compared to a fancy big one. Otherwise, most costs roughly replace what I’d be using anyway – food, device electricity, data, etc.
The other cost though is the value of the trip. As we seek to tackle carbon costs of travel, we have to think about the overall costs and benefits of trips – the more time and meaningful activity in a destination the better. For this trip, the extra time of train travel meant I left early on the last day, while if flying I could have stayed through to the midday closing plenary that day. Trade-offs all the way.