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It’s not easy being green: lower-carbon travel and the future of Geography fieldtrips

By Aled Singleton, Swansea University and Angharad Closs Stephens, Swansea University

Swansea is one of many UK Geography Departments that have experimented with lower-carbon travel, following the return, after the Covid-19 pandemic, of undergraduate fieldtrips to destinations outside the UK. In late March 2023, twenty students and three staff from Swansea University Geography set off on the department’s first lower-carbon organised fieldtrip to the city of Berlin. Going by land reduced the transport element of our carbon emissions by 73%. Here we explore some of the opportunities and the challenges that came with travelling 3,000km by coach.

Confronting the carbon challenge for a weeklong fieldtrip

The QAA’s new subject benchmark statement for Geography states that a carbon audit should be carried out for all Geography fieldtrips. Berlin formed one of the existing Swansea Geography destinations that was achievable for travelling by land rather than air. Other destinations include Vancouver, Mallorca, the Isle of Arran and Isles of Scilly – the latter two selected to increase the range of lower-carbon destinations.

Our coach amid a sea of bikes outside the hotel in Maastricht

Considering distance, ferry timings, and the need for our two drivers to rest, we scheduled an overnight stop each side of Berlin. On day one, we left Swansea at 3.30am, caught the Dover to Calais ferry at 11am, and arrived in Maastricht just after 6pm. The students enjoyed getting to know each other during the journey and later over a group meal in Alexanderplatz, Berlin. We learned that they still felt they’d had few chances to spend time together with others on their course, given how their first year at University continued to be disturbed by Covid-19.

In Berlin both staff and students made good use of its excellent public transport system. However, we gained extra value from our coach being able to pick us up every morning and take us to different places.

Student response to carbon reduction

By chance, we arrived in Berlin the day after a city-wide referendum on whether the city should become carbon-neutral by 2030. While the people voted no, with reports that not enough had been done to bring them on side and show what this meant for their everyday lives and finances, the fact that such a referendum was even held attests to Berlin’s radical reputation.    

Poster campaigning for Berlin to go carbon neutral by 2030

On the trip’s final morning in Antwerp, our overnight stop on the return journey, we asked the students about their experiences. They told us that they had enjoyed the trip immensely, but that the travel had not always been easy: it was tiring and long.

Lower carbon travel does not necessarily or straightforwardly align with other principles in Geography teaching and learning – such as inclusivity, accessibility, and equality. We found that the facilities at both Calais and Dover are sparse. The atmosphere on the ferries was dominated by male lorry drivers:  as we were travelling outside of the holidays, there were very few families or children around.  

Gaining insights into lower carbon travel: Saving over 220kg carbon per person

Upon our return, Swansea University’s sustainability manager, Teifion Maddocks, calculated our carbon use. The default flying option would have been 18.6kg for a return coach to Gatwick airport, 288kg each for the flights, and 0.11kg for the train into the centre of Berlin; altogether a total of 306.71kg CO2e per person. The option we took emitted 81.874kg CO2e per person, comprising 80kg for the coach and 1.874kg for the ferry. Effectively we used 27% of the emissions from previous fieldtrips to Berlin.

Despite coaches emitting around 20% of carbon per passenger compared to a short haul flight, there remains a challenge to reduce that figure. Our friendly coach drivers Charlie and Stuart were insightful about ongoing efforts to reduce carbon within the transport sector. For example, many European cities have introduced clean air zones with £100 fines for vehicles that do not meet the Euro 6 standard.

How do other field trips compare?

The undergraduate fieldtrip has become a central feature of how Geography Departments market themselves in the neoliberal environment of higher education. They are also often one of the key positive experiences students consistently note from their Geography degrees.

Leaving the bus for individual passport checks at Dover

So, do we continue to visit the same places, but aim to travel in a way that reduces our carbon footprint? Or rethink where we go and for how long? Some of the students wished to have spent a morning in Antwerp on the way back, rather than leave at 9am. However, the contingencies in our planning became clear as we arrived in the UK on the afternoon of Friday 31 March. Rough weather delayed us, but together with an increase of traffic in the Easter holidays and the necessity of individual passport checks post-Brexit, this later led to chaotic scenes at Dover , which we narrowly missed but which made the national news!

Wind turbines in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

Travelling in this slower way also prompted different subjects and discussions during the trip. For example, one student said that they had appreciated the gradual sense of movement, rather than arriving by plane without seeing what existed between here and there. In France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, we passed thousands of wind turbines close to settlements of all sizes. Perhaps this provokes questions such as why there seem less of them in the UK.

Finally, do we agree with Kermit the Frog when he croaked in 1974 that ‘it is hard to be green’? Nearly half a century later we live in a nature-depleted world which affects survival for humans and all living things. Students and staff who made the trip from Swansea to Berlin had to make some concessions in terms of missed sleep and less time in the destination city, compared to those who visited in previous years. However, there is no doubt that we are in a time of transition, and we need to collectively reflect on the future of Geography fieldtrips, coming up with agreements on some key principles.

About the authors: Dr Aled Singleton is Research Officer and Tutor of Human Geography at Swansea University. This was his first fieldtrip as a member of staff. Dr Angharad Closs Stephens is an Associate Professor of Human Geography at Swansea University. This was her tenth fieldtrip to Berlin.

Suggested Further Reading

Tucker, F, Horton, J.  (2019) “The show must go on!” Fieldwork, mental health and wellbeing in Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences. Area

van de Glind, B. & Gomez-Baggethun, E. (2022) Reducing academic flying beyond COVID-19: Drivers, alternatives, and avenues for change. The Geographical Journal

How to cite: Singleton, A., & Closs Stephens, A (2023, 11 April) It’s not easy being green: lower-carbon travel and the future of Geography fieldtrips Geography Directions Available from:

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