I used to be an inveterate traveller – so much so that I would take, on average, a minimum of two flights per week. That is no longer the case.

I have trouble recalling the last time I was on an aeroplane. That will change this week, when I board a flight for Tasmania – my third attempt, in two years, to join family there. So, is this the beginning of a return to a life of endless travel – both at home and abroad? Or will a trip to the airport continue to be a relatively rare experience?

Of course, such questions apply to all modes of transport – whether they be by road, rail, air or sea. Perhaps we have become conditioned to think that the answers lie in the hands of public health officials and government ministers who, between them, can stop us in our tracks.

However, every journey begins with us – with a personal decision to travel. So, what should we take into account when making such a decision?

Perhaps one of the most important considerations is to do with who bears the burden of our decision. A 2018 article published in Nature Climate Change estimated that tourism contributes to 8% of the world’s climate emissions, with those emissions likely to grow at the rate of 4% per annum. Of these emissions, 49% were attributable to transport alone. And this was just tourism.

One also needs to add to this the emissions of people, like me, largely travelling for reasons of work rather than leisure. One of the effects of the current global pandemic has been to reduce, to a massive degree, the level of emissions caused by travel. This is welcome news to those most likely to be affected by predicted changes caused by anthropogenic warming – notably those living on low-lying islands and others whose lives (and livelihoods) are at risk of devastating harm.

Yet, it’s easy enough to find advertisements enticing us to travel to the very same low-lying islands whose economies rely on tourism. The paradoxes don’t end there. Another criticism of tourism is that it tends to commodify the cultures of those most visited – and in some cases does so to the point of corruption. Those who mount this criticism argue that we should value the diversity of ‘pristine’ cultures in the same way that we value pristine diversity in nature. Retaining one’s culture free from influences from the wider world is not necessarily the choice that people living within those cultures would make for themselves. Some hold fast to an unsullied form of life. Others are keen to share their experience with the world – not only as a source of income, but also out of a very human sense of curiosity and a desire to share the human experience.

To make matters even more complex, not all travel is for reasons of leisure or work. It is sometimes driven by necessity or a sense of obligation to others, such as when joining a loved one who is sick or dying, or to attend a family ceremony. Even those obliged to travel have, of late, been asked to ‘think twice’ or, in some cases, had the decision taken out of their hands due to border closures that have allowed few (if any) exemptions. And even those few exemptions tend to have been offered only to the very rich, powerful or popular.

This might seem to suggest that we should calibrate our decisions about travel according to its purpose. If one can achieve the same outcome by other means (such as using a video conference rather than meeting in person), then that should be the preferred option. However, I have discovered that this approach only gets you so far (excuse the pun). Some meetings only really work if people are in the same room – especially if the issues require nuanced judgement and there are some obligations (like those owed to a sick or dying relative) that can only be discharged in person.

Despite this, the causes of climate change or life-threatening viruses don’t have any regard for our motives for travelling. A virus can just as easily hitch a ride with a person rushing to the side of an ailing parent as a person off to relax on a beach. All other things being equal, they have the same impact on the environment.

Given this, how should we approach the ethical dimension of travel?

First, I think we need to be ‘mindful travellers’. That is, we should not simply ‘get up and go’ just because we can. We need to think about the implications of our doing so – including the unintended, adverse consequences of whatever decision we make.

Second, we should seek to minimise the unintended, adverse consequences. For example, can we choose a mode of travel that has minimal negative impact? It is this kind of question driving people to explore new forms of low-carbon transport options.

Third, can we mitigate unintended harm – for example, by purchasing offsets (for carbon) or looking to support Indigenous cultures where we might encounter them?

Finally, can we maximise the good that might be done by our travelling?