The Voyage of the Malizia unintentionally debunking “zero-carbon”​ travel

There are many ways of looking at the voyage of the Malizia. In the first place it is a testament to Greta Thunberg’s integrity in following her principles. It may be a great adventure, it may be quite uncomfortable. Nature is pretty random. But overall, sailing trans-Atlantic is pretty cool, especially when on a peak-technology vessel with a highly experienced crew.

For many in the twittersphere, this is a beacon of hope, with the Voyage of the Malizia representing the future, with “zero-carbon” travel being proven. “If only everyone would do the same…” As/when they arrive in NY there will undoubtedly be a heroine’s welcome. If (and I sincerely hope not) they have to abandon and/or turn back, then I’m guessing that the “extreme” weather will be more proof of climate-change. Win-Win.

For the more cynical, the “zero-carbon” epithet so loved by headline writers is challenged on everything from Greta’s waterproof gear to the ultra-hi-tech four-million-dollar carbon-fibre race boat, to the various trans-atlantic flights of crew-members.

Although I have no particular insight, I would assume that Greta’s objective is simply to travel to the UN climate conference without using air or ocean-liner travel. The bigger objectives of “proving” the future of zero-carbon travel is more of a media invention. So it would be a strawman argument to criticise this voyage for failing to be perfectly “zero-carbon”.

Despite the barrage of such criticisms one doesn’t have to tilt at that particular windmill, since this voyage inadvertently proves that the idea of zero-carbon travel as a viable alternative to current options is beyond utopic (outside of an individual endeavour, and then not even).

Proving something is “doable” in optimized conditions does not prove that it is possible in a generalized or commercial way. If a pioneering endeavour led to mass adoption, we would all be able to visit the bottom of the Marianas Trench or indeed the Moon. Why can’t we do these? well really its just a question of cost; the technology exists.

I accept that any “new” venture will have a cost base that is wholly unrepresentative of a mass-consumption product. Notwithstanding this, if the future of intercontinental travel is really sailing, we should recall that this has been tried before, and whilst sailing boats can transport large numbers of people economically and with low carbon emissions, it is slow, and for most people, time is money. It is slow and also expensive : imagine the cost if all delegates at the UN conference travelled by racing yachts? Perhaps not as expensive as a carbon-fibre race yacht for one passenger, but still.

The focus on the carbon emissions is to some extent missing the point (in my humble opinion) – the focus is all on the transport fuel (in this case wind). This is however, only a tiny fraction of the energy needed for the trip to be accomplished. Would that you could build the Malizia such that all it’s embodied energy was of non-fossil fuel origin and that the whole voyage be supported in the same way. Having a few solar panels and a water-turbine on board is an irrelevant detail.

The amount of energy required to transport one person to a conference is huge – and it is this energy footprint that is missed in the debate on carbon emissions.  However, without cheap fossil fuels subsidising the whole endeavour, it would be out of reach even of Princes. How fossil-fuels subsidise renewables is a much bigger subject and the will be addressed in my next article.

Slow Boat to Climate

Now, the next question is why all delegates at the UN Climate Conferences don’t follow Greta’s example? I think we know the answer: the emissions produced in travel are (a) offset in some way, and/or (b) justified as these conferences will save far more than they will create by driving global policy. Of course the discomfort and time loss is not a factor. Wouldn’t it be nice to see all delegates following Greta’s initiative? – which would at least have the effect of reducing the number of these jamborees, and probably the number of attendees.

The world is a big place when you travel slowly.

Alternatively, why not follow the WWF advice (to other businesses, and I assume to themselves) – and replace face-to-face meetings with video-conferences? This doesn’t seem to have been considered for UN Climate conferences. Hmmm…

Of course video conferences (along with everything digital) is not “zero emission” either, but surely less than the Voyage of the Malizia. I assume participation by video was the original Plan B.