The no-fly challenge.

Whilst cycling from Romania to Germany this summer I was already thinking about what my next challenge would be after my return. Usually I get away once a year for a long distance walk or cycling trip, and I wanted my next challenge to be something more integrated into my daily life. Something that would push me a bit further and on a more regular basis.

I remembered an event earlier this year when I was visiting some friends in Spain. Their family owns a little apartment right at the Costa Blanca. To get into the water you have to climb down some cliffs and navigate a few half-submerged stones. I went there in 2009 for the first time and I remember very clearly how the stepping stones stuck out of the water. Like a little pier leading the way into the sea. Going back this year, I found the stones entirely submerged by the sea. It was a matter of only a couple of centimetres, but even this little change had made the world of a difference. I talked to my friends about my observation and they showed me pictures of the bay taken during their childhood. I was shocked by how much the sea level had risen since then. Within my lifetime (which is plus 30 and under 40) the rising of the sea has visibly wrought changes to the coastline! It was the first time the abstract terms “climate change” and “global warming” became real to me. Of course I had  known about them, and I believed in them too, but now they directly affected me: they had become tangible reality for me.

This shock stuck with me and I began researching what changes I could make in my lifetime to reduce my carbon footprint. One major impact on the climate is air travel. Whilst cycling and celebrating every second in the saddle because I really, really love it, I came up with the challenge to not fly within Europe for at least a year, and to travel by train and bike instead. The hope is, that after a year I would have adapted to a new kind of traveling and would find it natural to avoid flying short distances.

The main reaction I get when I tell others about my challenge is very positive. The majority of people tell me it’s great, and is the way to go. And then in response to the question of how much longer it takes to travel by train, questions such as  “Puh, how much does it cost? Isn’t the train really expensive?” crop up straight after the initial thumbs up.

I’m writing this sitting in the train from London back to Berlin. The ticket was 145 EUR return with a BahnCard 25 and the train journey will take me 9 hours. To get to London I chose to travel over night, which meant the ride took 4 hours longer than during the day. Compared to flying, the travel time is about a third longer. The flight itself is 2.5 hours, with an additional 2.5 hours for the travel to and from the airports, as well as the 1-2 hours you should be there prior to boarding. So flying takes about 6 hours travel time, the train via Cologne and Brussels 9.5. In Berlin it takes me about 30 minutes to get to the central station and in London I had a youth hostel right by St. Pancras Station.

Another point to take into consideration, and something which I have always enjoyed about train journeys: Most of the time you arrive in the city center, right where everything is happening. On my way to London I had about 40 minutes to spare in Cologne very early in the morning, just before dawn. I stepped out of the station for some fresh air and found myself right next to the famous Cologne Cathedral. I decided to go for a stroll and walked around the church, meandering left and right through the little streets. Before the main entrance stood two priests in their robes, chatting and greeting the people for morning mass. I felt like I had travelled not only through space but also in time. The dawn light cast the sky in a dark blue hue, and the red robes of the priests were offset against the warm, yellow light emanating from the inside of the very dark and gothic church. For me, this experience was a much more valuable and experiential one than killing time at a garishly lit gate in stuffy airport for an hour.

Another thing I really enjoy about going by train is the means by which you travel through countries. It is very different – more immediate – than flying over them, without properly knowing what exactly lies below. Sitting in the train and gazing out of the window every once in a while I noticed so many differences. How the type face on the station signs changed; the train designs; the way people speak, gesture, communicate, dress and smell. I reveled in the feeling for distance, and for the distance I am putting between me and my home. And I watched the weather change, particularly enjoying the moment when, after having traveled through a misty, rainy France, I resurfaced from the Eurostar tunnel in England to the bluest of skies and the friendliest of sunshine.

To cool the climate by 2 degrees by 2050, the yearly climate budget per person is 2300kg of Co2 according to Atmosfair. Flying from Berlin to London and back costs 949 kg of CO2 (based on Atmosfair) per person, the train only 18,8 kg CO2 (based on the Bahn climate mobility check). I am not quite sure yet what that really means, but what I do know was that it was a great journey with a myriad of different experiences compared to flying. And it also feels really good to have produced just under 2% of CO2 by traveling in this way compared to flying. I will research further to find out more about these numbers and how I can change my life on a daily basis to reduce my carbon footprint and still have a nice life, now and in the future.

Here are the sources I used to calculate:
CO2 calculator atmosfair:
CO2 calculator deutsche bahn: