Slow travel to the Sloweb conference in Italy

Written by Tom Greenwood - December 6, 2023

Last month, Vineeta and I travelled to Treviso in Northern Italy for the Digital Ethics Forum where I’d been invited to give a talk about scaling sustainable digital businesses. I’ll write about the content of my talk in a separate post but here I want to share the experience of the event itself and the journey to Italy without an aeroplane.

So how did we get there?

Wholegrain has had a no fly policy for many years, meaning that we don’t use air travel for any journeys. This was introduced following the realisation that a small number of European flights made up about a third of our annual emissions and were for non-essential travel. It’s been one of the most effective things we have done to minimise our carbon emissions and hasn’t negatively impacted the business, but every now and then it presents an interesting challenge.

When I received the invitation to speak at the Digital Ethics Forum in person in Italy, I wondered how feasible this would be. Could I? Should I?

At first I thought that it would be nice to do a road trip in our electric car to the North of Italy and visit places along the way as a mixed work-holiday trip, but the dates of the event in November turned out to be more complicated than I thought. Some parts of Europe, including the Alps that we would need to cross, and the location of the conference itself, have a legal requirement for all vehicles to use winter tires from mid-November until spring. As you might expect, our own car doesn’t have winter tires and getting them fitted would be a huge expense and have a big environmental impact of its own. So that was the end of the road trip plan.

Or was it?

My next plan was to take the train all the way from our home in the New Forest to Treviso, which would have worked but the train routes crossing the Alps all took rather long routes around. I realised that we could take a faster and shorter route if we took the train to Switzerland and then crossed over to Italy by car.

Vineeta and I love the city of Basel, located at the junction of Switzerland, Germany and France, and we have done the journey many times so we knew it would be fast and comfortable. We could travel to London from home and do a day’s work at the office, then catch the Eurostar to Paris in the evening and stay for the night near the Gare du Lyon station before making the speedy 3 hour trip on the TGV to Basel, getting us there in time for lunch.

Vineeta on the platform with suitcases with a white and red TGV train behind her
Vineeta wrapped up warm on the platform next to our TGV at Basel’s central station

The other cunning part of the plan is that Switzerland has a requirement that all cars be fitted with winter tires, meaning that a rental car would be fitted with them by default. Furthermore, they have a surprisingly wide range of electric car rental options available. 

So after a day enjoying the city of Basel we wandered over to the Hertz office near Basel’s central train station and collected an electric Volvo XC40 that would be our trusty steed for the next ten days.

I have to say that I was a little worried about this part of the journey, having done several electric car trips in Europe since 2015, when we drove our little Renault Zoe with an 80 mile range to the German Alps, which let’s just say was an adventure. I knew that things have improved a lot since then, but I was pleasantly surprised just how easy it was. The car was really comfortable and had a genuine 350 kilometres of range even despite the cold weather. 

My main worry though was how we would charge it. If you’ve never driven an electric car, you might not know that there is a ridiculous system whereby most chargers require you to have membership of their network, either through a physical RFID membership card or by setting up an account in their own app. Furthermore, language barriers and foreign bank accounts have in the past meant that this can be tricky for charge networks in other countries. The rental car did come with a promotion for access to an app that should work on most chargers in Switzerland, but as most of our journey would be in Italy, this wasn’t very helpful.

For that reason, I had planned ahead and ordered a membership card for Chargemap, a service that gives you access to use a large proportion of chargers across Europe, including Italy. There was just one small problem, which is that I left the membership card at home.

At our first Italian charge stop, while I was busy panicking that I had forgotten the membership card, Vineeta realised that the Plug Surfing app that we’d used on a number of previous trips would also work on the charger that we had stopped at. It turned out that it also allowed us to charge pretty much everywhere that we wanted to throughout the trip so it served us well, despite one slightly stressful day where it mysteriously wouldn’t work on any charger. This frustratingly meant that my plan for a romantic breakfast by Lake Garda turned into us eating a croissant at McDonalds by a motorway junction that we reached with just 4km of range left. It has become a bit of a running joke that whenever we drive an electric car abroad, we always end up at McDonalds, but hey, at least they are good for something!

Vineeta standuing next to a black electric Volvo plugged into a charger with snowy mountains in the background
Vineeta at a particular scenic charging spot near the Gotthard tunnel in Switzerland

We had decided to combine the trip to the conference with a holiday and so the car gave us the freedom to visit places along the way that we might otherwise not have been able to. We visited Lucerne, Lugano, Bologna, Treviso, Verona, Bergamot and the hot springs at Monte Grotto and San Pellegrino, as well as taking a day trip to Venice by train.

All in all, it was really fun journey and mostly went pretty smoothly other than that one day. The only other real challenge was when returning the car to Basel, we had to drop it back with at least 75% of charge. That sounds easy, but when the day came I realised that it isn’t. We were going to be driving 300km from Bergamo to Basel, meaning that we would arrive with only a little battery remaining, and even if we charged half way, we would still then use half the battery in the second leg. Furthermore, another funny quirk of electric cars is that they can charge really fast up to about 80% charge and then it slows down, a lot! That isn’t normally a big issue but when you have to drop the car off with 75% charge, it makes the pit stop strategy a little more complex.

I did a little maths in my head and worked out that if we stopped for a relaxed lunch in Lucerne, we could leave Lucerne with a full battery and arrive in Basel with 75-80% charge. I was surprised how accurate this was, as we rolled down the street toward the Hertz office and the range indicator ticked over from 76-75%. Perfection! It’s the sort of challenge that I strangely enjoy, though in practice it is an unnecessary stress that I think most people would rather avoid. 

We then had time to enjoy the Christmas market in Basel, and more Christmas lights in Paris as we followed the same route home by train.

Is it really better than flying?

Vineeta and I really enjoy slow travel because we get to see lots of places, understand how places relate to each other, and because it has an unusual blend of being both relaxing and a little adventurous at the same time. But is it actually better for the environment than taking a plane?

For this trip, it’s hard to do a like for like comparison because we mixed the work trip with a holiday and did things that are inherently different from how we would have travelled by plane. But I’ve done a rough estimate for illustration comparing four different ways that we could theoretically have travelled to Treviso. The numbers shown below are for return trips for one person, factoring in that any travel by car was shared between the two of us so the emissions would be higher if doing the car journeys alone.

TrainTrain from New Forest to Treviso via Milan122kg CO2e
Train & carTrain from New Forest to Basel, then electric car from Basel to Treviso112kg CO2e
Direct flightTrain from New Forest to Luton, then flight to Vienna and a second flight to Treviso475kg CO2e
Indirect flightTrain from New Forest to Gatwick, then flight to Treviso665kg CO2e

I used data from Our World in Data for easy comparison with Tommy’s recent trip to Athens, and I also applied the higher emissions value for local trains to all train journeys instead of the lower value given for Eurostar, simply because the Eurostar figure looks suspiciously low. I assume that’s because Eurostar has committed to using 100% renewable energy but I’d rather be a bit conservative with the estimates.

Looking at the above, it’s interesting to see that the route we took is actually the lowest emission, slightly cleaner than taking the train all the way. I think this is due to the shorter route distance that we took combined with there being two of us sharing the car journeys. If we consider that direct flights to Treviso are hard to come by at this time of year and so flying would realistically have been an indirect route, then the numbers above show our slow travel route to have been 83% less polluting than flying, even using the higher emission figures for the train journeys. That’s a big difference.

Of course there are other factors to consider and it would have been a lot cheaper to fly. It’s hard to put exact numbers on this due to the extended car hire period for our holiday and because I didn’t check flight costs for those dates, but looking now they range from £60 to £200 return per person. In comparison, the international train journeys cost about £250 per person and the car hire cost about £40 per day. In addition, unlike the train we had to also pay to fuel the car, which cost us about £80 in electric charging fees for the portions of the trip travelling to the conference. This was actually more expensive than we expected but we mostly used high speed motorway chargers, which charge a premium for the convenience.

It also takes longer to travel without the plane, but the journey was an absolute pleasure and we got to see so much more than we would if we were crammed into economy class, so if you can make the journey a part of the experience and embrace it then it’s well worth it.

As a final note, our decision to combine a holiday with a work trip might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there is an inherent efficiency here that I think is often overlooked. It means that the costs are shared between the company and us as individuals, which is a win for everyone, plus the travel time and emissions are also reduced compared to taking separate work and holiday trips. 

So we got there, what about the event?

The Digital Ethics Forum is the annual conference of Sloweb, an Italian organisation promoting ethical and more mindful use of digital technology. Sloweb was born in Turin, the home city of the Slow Food movement and is grounded in similar principles of more ethical and sustainable forms of production and consumption. 

This year’s conference consisted of two days, the first of which was in Turin and covered a wide range of digital ethics topics. The second day in Treviso was organised by our friends at Piano D and was specifically focused on environmental sustainability, which is the part that Vineeta and I attended.

I found it to be a very friendly event in a beautiful location and with probably the best conference food I have ever eaten, as you would expect from Italy! The event had talks in both English and Italian so I was only able to understand some of it, but the parts that I understood were very insightful. 

Gauthier Roussilhe highlighted the need to look beyond the direct impacts of hardware production and energy consumption to see the far wider impact that digital technology has on society. He challenged the accuracy of some popular studies that make bold claim about how digital technology decarbonises society and encouraged the audience to look closely at assumptions and make informed decisions about how data is interpreted.

Fershad Irani from the Green Web Foundation talked through how they work with Piano D to tailor the Siti Green carbon calculator to the Italian market using CO2.js and how they hope that this will help to raise awareness of digital sustainability within Italy. Tim Frick from Mightybytes introduced the new W3C sustainable web guidelines and then I had the pleasure of sitting next to Gerry McGovern, the author of World Wide Waste, as he gave a talk about the wider impacts of digital technology. Gerry didn’t hold back in highlighting the true scale of the environmental crisis, challenging our addiction to consumption (digital and otherwise), and highlighting that there is currently no such thing as truly sustainable digital technology due to the exotic mix of materials used in electronics. He summed this up beautifully with the statement “You won’t find any potatoes in your smartphone!”.

We also had the pleasure of meeting members of the Sloweb team including its founder, Pietro Jarre, who we absolutely loved chatting with and gave us a lot of food for thought.

Sloweb founder Pietro Jarre, me (Tom Greenwood) and Piano D founder Nicola Bonotto at the Digital Ethics Forum 2023
Sloweb founder Pietro Jarre, me (Tom Greenwood) and Piano D founder Nicola Bonotto at the Digital Ethics Forum 2023

A good time to slow down

All in all it was a great event, even if I only understood half of it. It was actually quite nice to have some time to think and also take a few breaks out of the talks to wander the local streets. The slow travel journey was comfortable and good fun, allowing us to visit a lot of places that we would likely never have been to if we had travelled by plane. Yes there are some compromises, but on balance I feel that the slow travel approach gave us the best balance of all factors and I would highly recommend it.