What does ‘ethical travel’ mean?

Technology & Science·What on Earth?

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at what it means to travel ethically and why a group of green advocacy groups decided to call out oil and gas giant Chevron to the Federal Trade Commission in the U.S.

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

This week:

  • What does 'ethical travel' mean?
  • Making the case against 'greenwashing'
  • Alberta looks to shift recycling costs to producers

What does 'ethical travel' mean?

(Yuri Kadobnov/AFP via Getty Images)

In March 2020, global tourism came to a screeching halt.

Flights were cancelled, borders were closed and soon millions of people across the world found themselves under lockdown in their homes. Countless frequent flyers were grounded, airports all but abandoned.

A little more than a year later, the travel industry has lost nearly a trillion dollars.

It is a rare opportunity, philosopher Emily Thomas says, to reflect on the meaning and the impact of travel — and how we could, perhaps, return to do it differently.

Thomas, an associate professor of philosophy at Durham University in England, is the author of a book called , which is a journey into the shared history of travel and philosophy and a consideration of the philosophical problems posed by travel.

Among them are the environmental effects of the millions of journeys we collectively take each year.

Travel and tourism "can be destructive, but it doesn't have to be," Thomas said in an interview with CBC Radio's .

For one, Thomas said the COVID travel bust — and the flourishing of Zoom calls — has shown business flights can easily be scaled back even when we're able to hop on a plane again.

"We've seen that lots of business travel just isn't necessary," she said. "That seems like a really easy way of cutting down our carbon footprint in a way that doesn't actually damage anyone."

Tourism can also be done differently: In addition to rethinking the outsized carbon footprint of the average family vacation, Thomas hopes we can reconsider practices such as "doom tourism," in which travellers rush to locations especially endangered by climate change, such as Venice, the Dead Sea or the Great Barrier Reef.

"The problem is that the act of visiting at-risk places may hasten their demise," she said.

Trips to the Maldives in South Asia, for example, require long flights and involve harmful activities on the ground — such as car and boat rides, littering or walking through endangered habitats — that together create an enormous carbon footprint that contributes to the climate change threatening the island country.

Is it unethical then to visit such places? Not necessarily, said Thomas, but it is a matter of balancing the various ethical issues posed or presented by such travel. The Maldives, for example, relies on tourism for nearly a third of its GDP.

"Why not bring money into a country if they have beautiful things to see?" she said. "But you have to travel in a responsible way that's going to leave those beautiful things open for future tourists, and for the inhabitants of those places themselves."

That could include taking part in carbon-offsetting activities, such as tree planting. Tour companies could also work harder at educating travellers about endangered places, said Thomas, which in turn would increase our appreciation of them.

The COVID era's encouragement of local travel could help reduce the effects of long-haul international travel.

Another way to mitigate such effects is to reduce the number of internal flights in the countries we visit, and use overland travel instead, said Thomas.

There has also been a mindset change that might well affect how frequently or unthinkingly we hop on a plane.

"There is a tendency," said Thomas, to think that travel "will always be available to us easily, cheaply." But the lockdown has shown us that freedom of movement is a privilege that shouldn't be taken for granted.

"When we can travel again, my God I'm going to appreciate it."

Reader feedback

In response to our stories recently on various energystorage solutions, readers had this to say.

Marilyn (no last name given): "Great story on gravity storage! I first ran into the concept when I discovered and bought a GravityLight that worked with a sandbag and gave you light. I took that one with me to Africa and left it there, as buying solar lights gets expensive. Now Deciwatt has the NowLight, which I just love. You just pull a cord to charge your lights and it also charges your phone. I gave one to all my friends and relatives for Christmas. When the power goes out now, no more messy, dangerous candles or smelly propane lanterns, which can also be a fire hazard with little ones running around. Now I see that these principles are being used on a larger scale, I feel hopeful that we are actually making some progress."

Lucas Doran: "Great recent articles on energy storage, have you heard of this company and its gravity storage system using trains?https://aresnorthamerica.com."

No, we hadn't heard of Ares, but thanks for getting us to check it out. For our other readers, here's how it works: "Mass" cars are driven uphill on rails using an electric motor to store energy, and deliver power to the grid when sent back downhill. Ares (an acronym for Advanced Rail Energy Storage) is building a 50-megawatt facility in Nevada with 10 multi-rail tracks and 210 mass cars weighing a combined 68,000 tonnes.

Write us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There's also a radio show! One month after the power went out in Texas, looks at how resilient Canada's power grids are to climate change and explores some of the solutions on the ground. Listen to on CBC Radio One on Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland, or any time on podcast or CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: Making the case against 'greenwashing'

Sensing growing public concern about the health of the planet, many companies have in recent years gone on the offensive by touting environmentally friendly new products or a (nebulous) change in their business philosophy. Environmental activists have long been suspicious of such pronouncements, as they often conflict with how companies actually pad their bottom line. This week, the advocacy groups Greenpeace USA, Global Witness and Earthworks are taking a novel step: They are filing a complaint about "greenwashing" with the Federal Trade Commission in the U.S., which investigates fraudulent advertising. The group's target: oil and gas giant Chevron. The California-based company has been promising to take steps to reduce emissions, but Greenpeace et al. say its stated pursuit of "ever-cleaner energy" is misleading because Chevron's existing production plans may end up nullifying any pledged emissions cuts. Chevron has called the FTC complaint "frivolous" and insists that it engages in "honest conversations about the energy transition." Either way, it's clear that green activists believe that the FTC could be a useful venue in their fight against Big Oil.

( Eric Piermont/AFP via Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • A startup from the University of Toronto's engineering departmentis providing zero-emissions energy to rural homes and businesses in Nigeria. Reeddi (pronounced "ready"), which was founded by Olugbenga Olubanjo, uses a solar-powered "electricity bank," wherein portable power packs can be rented for short periods of time. The company's mission is to provide reliable, clean energy in places where that type of power has been hard to come by.

  • Last year, citizens in California learned that waste from the controversial insecticide DDT was once dumped off Santa Catalina Island. This spurred members of the ocean science community to find a way to clean it up. The result are a couple of robots — described as "underwater Roombas" — that will map the ocean floor in order to assess the extent of the pollution.

Alberta looks to shift recycling costs to producers

(City of Calgary)

The Alberta government is launching consultations to design a program that aims to reduce landfill waste by transferring recycling costs to companies, Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon announced Wednesday.

Speaking at the Rural Municipalities of Alberta's spring convention, Nixon said the implementation of an extended producer responsibility program (EPR) will encourage companies to produce less waste and packaging and come up with innovative ways to recycle more materials.

The program would transfer the cost and management of recycling away from municipalities and taxpayers, he said, and to companies that are directly producing and consuming goods.

"The launch of today's stakeholder engagement will set the stage to keep plastics out of landfills longer, and ensure Alberta is a strong leader in environmental stewardship," Nixon said.

Consultations to inform the program will start immediately and run until April, and will be held with municipalities, industry experts and Indigenous communities through stakeholder meetings.

The public will be able to engage through an online survey.

"While we all agree that an EPR program is good for Alberta, there are numerous design elements that need practical advice from municipal leaders and others," said Nixon.

According to the provincial government, Albertans send 1,034 kilograms per person of waste to landfills annually, and packaging and printed paper make up 15 to 20 per cent of that waste.

Ed Gugenheimer, CEO of the Alberta Recycling Management Authority, said in a news release that EPR programs can help to bolster sustainability.

"Extended producer responsibility initiatives like this one use sensible, sustainable plastics diversion and recycling strategies for economic growth."

Briana Loughlin, co-founder of the non-profit organization Plastic Free YYC, said an EPR program is a good start — but she feels Alberta has a long way to go in regards to waste management and environmental initiatives.

For example, she would like to see Alberta embrace reusable items or products that don't create waste.

She also said that she looks forward to seeing what actual actions come from Wednesday's announcement.

"It's very exciting to finally hear our provincial government stating that they'll take some actions toward plastic waste," said Loughlin.

"I think that the biggest challenge here is making sure that our provincial government does actually work with the federal government and all the municipalities in making a more collaborative plan."

Some experts have also said the programs can result in inflation.

Calvin Lakhan, a researcher in the faculty of environmental studies at York University, studied EPRs for years, and told CBC News in 2019 that companies sometimes build the cost of recycling into their products. But the increase is often so minute that consumers don't notice.

"Municipalities are often service providers and have traditionally paid the cost of recycling. Through EPR, that cost is then transferred onto the producer," he said.

"But what happens is that producers will then build that cost into their products. So ultimately the consumers end up paying the final bill for recycling."

Nixon said the government's framework for the program should be ready this fall, and will include legislative changes needed for it to take place.

He also said that Alberta does not have plans to ban plastic bags or packing — measures undertaken by provinces including Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

"I'm making it clear that we have a waste problem, not a product problem," he said.

Stay in touch!

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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