International Travel Has to Change in the Post-COVID-19 World

International Travel Has to Change in the Post-COVID-19 World


COVID-19 has brought international travel to a standstill. Since March, international movement has been more or less restricted due to the global pandemic. Tourism has plummeted, domestic trips have seen a rise in popularity and the use of online communication has taken the place of face-to-face meetings.

This year’s restrictions have also had a significant effect on international organizations, JEF included. As a youth organization promoting cooperation across borders, JEF and its sections have prided themselves on frequent events and meetings including participants from across Europe. The year 2020 has been, in many ways, an exception to this norm. International events and meetings have been largely cancelled or organized online not only for safety reasons, but also because travel is virtually impossible. While a vaccine or other solution to the virus is eagerly anticipated, we should not jump at the chance to return to a life identical to the one we lived before.

While COVID-19 has certainly been a global crisis, we have an even larger crisis on our hands: climate change. While vaccines, masks and isolation can help fight the coronavirus, they do little to stop global warming and the significant destruction it is set to bring on. With the disastrous effects of climate change progressing at a quicker pace than many scientists have dared to predict, it is clear that we should not return to the carefree travel of before. Even post-coronavirus, our planet cannot handle this degree of emissions.

This topic is, of course, unpopular among the masses. As flights have become more and more affordable, the popularity of traveling has skyrocketed, and this figure is only expected to rise in the coming years. Nevertheless, we can no longer ignore the stark reality that jetting off to a quick weekend trip or getting a week of sun during the dark winter months is a huge part of the problem. Currently, air travel alone makes up 2-2,5% of all global emissions. While at first glance this figure might seem small, air travel accounts for a significant portion of an individual’s carbon footprint. In Finland, private households make up 66% of all emissions. In practice, this means that the choices we make as individuals play a huge role in stopping climate change. There are no excuses – we cannot ignore our responsibility to reduce our own carbon footprint.

While one can certainly aim to make sustainable choices in other areas of their life, this does surprisingly little to offset the effects of travel. Take for example the carbon emissions of a round trip from Helsinki to Rome, which come out to about 386kg of CO2 per person. To give you some perspective, the carbon footprint of food for the average, omnivorous Finnish person is about 1750kg of CO2 per year. In fact, to make up for the emissions from just this one trip, the average person would have to switch from eating meat to a fully vegetarian diet for up to five months. Other options include switching from private cars to public transit for their commute for over one year. While other forms of travel may not have as large of a carbon footprint as flying, it is clear that travel makes up a substantial portion of our emissions. Furthermore, transportation is hardly the only cause of emissions related to travel as elements like food and accommodation factor into the total.

Consequently, we need to be more mindful of the carbon footprint of activities organized by JEF and its sections. If we want to be a convincing supporter of climate action, we need to start practicing what we preach. Climate change should not be an afterthought, but rather a core point of focus when planning events, trips, meetings and other activities.

While foreign events and trips have traditionally been regarded as the pinnacle of international work, it is absolutely essential that we question whether being international is always reliant on travel. One of the lessons learned from COVID-19 is that, in many cases, virtual events and remote participation are valid options. International cooperation with other sections can be fostered through joint social media campaigns, zoom calls, virtual meetings and working online towards mutual projects and goals. By planning activities to function best in virtual surroundings – such as picking the right formats, tools and times – we can still continue to find cross-cultural experiences despite traveling less.

If international travel cannot be avoided, we can at least try to limit the extent of our damage by remembering that all forms of travel were not created equal. Because flying has the highest rate of emissions, we should aim to choose alternative means of transportation, like trains. If traveling by car and presented with the option of choosing vehicles, we can prefer electric cars and avoid older or larger vehicles that emit more greenhouse gases. Public transport, carpooling or biking should be chosen when the option is available.

We can optimize travel routes. Layovers during flights or winding routes can add to the carbon footprint of the trip. While direct trips aren’t always the cheapest option, it’s worth considering whether the environment might be worth the extra penny. If possible, trips can be combined. When choosing where to hold events or meetings, we can aim to choose a location that is as close to most participants as possible.

Especially in cases where travel cannot be avoided, it is important that we keep the total amount of emissions as low as possible. This means keeping the climate in mind when making other plans, such as food, accommodation, transportation at the destination or any materials used - lots of little details affect the total carbon footprint of international work! Since international work will invariably lead to some degree of emissions regardless of the choices we make, we should consider compensating for these emissions to offset our carbon footprint.

With climate change being the largest problem faced by humanity, we can no longer enjoy the luxury of sitting back without taking action. In practice, this means making sacrifices and imagining new, sustainable ways of doing. With the right mindset and planning, reducing travel and emissions does not need to be an end to all international activity. In fact, fighting to stop the common enemy of climate change might even bring us closer together. That, if anything, should be a story of European unity.

Links and sources:

Further information:

Kaisa Matikainen
JEF-Helsinki, Member of the board
[email protected]

Eurooppanuoret on ensisijainen asiantuntija suomalaisessa Eurooppa-keskustelussa. Tule mukaan rakentamaan entistä parempaa Eurooppaa ja osaksi Suomen vaikuttavinta kansainvälisyyttä edistävää nuorisojärjestöä!