Looking through an open door into the front seat of a car

The carbon footprint of longer distance travel to and from Cortes Island

The Friends of Cortes Island (FOCI) just released a report on the carbon footprint made by longer distance trips to and from Cortes Island. 

Many of their findings are to be expected. Taking a plane off the island creates a great deal more emissions than driving a car, and people who carpool or take a bus are responsible for only a fraction of that vehicle’s pollution.  

One of the biggest contributors to our local footprint is the Cortes-Quadra ferry, which creates approximately 1 kg of carbon emissions for every walk-on and 12 kg for every car. 

Image credit: Car deck of the Campbell River to Quadra Island ferry – Photo by Roy L Hales

This is where the effects of carrying more than one person is really evident, because the vehicle emissions are divided between the number of occupants. While a car makes 12 kg of CO2, if there are four people in that vehicle their personal share of these emissions are only 3 kg each. 

Of course, you need to include the emissions from three ferries when calculating the impact of a one way trip to Vancouver. 

“If you take up a space on the ferry with a car, then you get a certain share of the ferry’s greenhouse gas emissions. It’s actually quite a lot.  Roughly half of a car’s emissions if you’re driving to Vancouver, which  surprised me a little bit.  It helps to make decisions about how much effort to put into leaving the car on Cortes, finding another way to get across Quadra and catching a ride with somebody else or taking the bus,” explained Max Thaysen, President of FOCI

He added that this is not the typical carbon footprint study, which tends to shift the blame for carbon emissions away from corporations and governments and onto individuals.

MT: “A lot of people get turned away from climate change and climate action because it doesn’t feel very good to be the recipient of guilt or shame for just trying to live our lives and do the best we can.”  

“I’m really sensitive to that dynamic. We tried to make it explicit in the report that this is for information purposes. This isn’t to make anybody feel bad about what they decide.”

“This is to support people who would like to know what choices they can make to reduce their personal impact.” 

“With that comes a strong message that the average, or certainly lower income Canadian, impact on climate change is not the game changer. It is a bit of a distraction at times.”  

“I still want to know about it, and I think other people do too, but we shouldn’t let it hold us back from focusing on some more important things, which includes collective action and creating the political will to make systemic changes.”  

“It can be supportive and helpful to reduce our personal carbon emissions because it makes us feel more aligned when we make demands of the government. We can stand in a healthier place when we’ve picked off the low hanging fruit of our personal contributions to this problem, but we shouldn’t let a few hundred kilograms of carbon one way or the other hold us back from joining together to save our planet, save ourselves, save people who are least responsible and most affected.” 

“The flip side of that is the unsurprising revelation from this study that if you’re a person who has a lot of financial resources and you’re using those resources to do a lot of flying and a lot of traveling in some of the least efficient ways, then you’re having an outsized contribution to this problem. This is an opportunity to think about that a little bit.”

CC: I do not see many references to walking or cycling? 

MT: “This research project was pretty focused on some of the longer trips, not Campbell river, but more like getting to Vancouver or Victoria. I don’t think it’s very practical to get to Nanaimo by bicycle, even if it’s got an electric assist.  I rode my bike to Courtney from Campbell River and it took about four hours.  Nanaimo is quite a bit further so I’m not sure that anybody’s going to sign up for that. I’ve taken my e-bike across Quadra quite a bit. That is very doable and very enjoyable, but we didn’t include that in our study.”

CC: Your report identified two big polluters. What options are available for people who want to fly? 

MT: “I haven’t looked into the latest technology around solar planes, but the last I looked – it’s not really a possibility. We do have a little bit in this report about battery electric seaplanes, a pilot project adopted by one of the local coastal float plane companies. That’s a possibility for short flights, but for longer flights I don’t think that there’s really a solution. I think some of the non-solutions include converting a bunch of crops into fuel to run airplanes. I think  that is quite irresponsible in a world with not enough food to feed everybody. To be using any of that food to fly airplanes  would be a big shame.”

“Who knows, there could be something. We could consider just putting a pause on lots of flying until such time as we come up with a solution.  It might not be that long. We’re smart monkeys. We can probably figure this out eventually. When we do, we can resume that speed and scale of travel.”


CC: Most of the people on Cortes use the ferry. Do we have any other options besides putting more people into vehicles? 

MT: “The thing that jumps out of this report is the importance of electrifying our ferry, which is something that is kind of in the works.  There’s an intention to get Cortes one of those Island Class ferries. that has been running between Quadra and Campbell River, but we need a pretty strong push in order to get those ferries electrified.” 

“I don’t see any near term plans for the battery upgrade and the shore charging facilities that would facilitate running them electrically and that is pretty important to decarbonizing our transportation to and from Cortes Island.”

CC: Who is the  author of this report?

MT: “It was drafted by Forrest Berman-Hatch, who was our intern last winter, with edits from myself. Barry Saxifrage did some additional research and chart development.” 

CC: Why have you waited so long to release it?

MT: “It took us a while to release the report because of some capacity issues and just not having time to get around to that.  Just today, I decided that it was more important to get this out than to wait for the conditions to be perfect.  So we’ll just put it out there and will get its own permanent home on our website at some point in the near future.” 

“It would be amazing to have a bigger team to work on this kind of thing to get stuff out  and do communications around it on a more regular basis and do more reporting research like this. We are working towards that.” “This is a project of the Friends of Cortes Island Society. We’re trying to slowly build up a head of steam towards some climate action, and it would be great to have some more help and some involvement and some feedback. If you’re at all interested, then do get in touch with us.”

You can find us on the website, friendsofcortes.org. You’ll find all our contact information there. Your membership is very valuable, and your donations. Your time, your thoughts, and your energy would be wonderful.”

Top image credit: Taking passengers reduces your person impact on a cat trip – Photo by USAutoGer2010 (Own Work) via Wikimedia (CC BY SA, 3.0 License)

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