In the last month or so, we finally finished the research, thinking and calculations to take our teashop MatchaAlternatives.com, carbon positive. That is, reducing and offsetting far more carbon than our teashop took to set up and takes to run.
BUT this blog is only partly about that. This blog is actually about four places: Cambodia, Singapore, Indonesia and Portugal. This blog is a little insight into how experiences here, among others, pushed our minds in one direction, to moving beyond standard environmental awareness (recycle, turn the tap off: job done) to wanting to do more, to do something meaningful given the resources we have available.
Before we get into our four select scenes from our travels, for context here’s a summary of our big news:
Announcing Our Carbon Positivity
We decided over the last year to make environmentalism a key focus of our tea blog and shop, with our Carbon Positive Series. Tea, being the second most consumed drink in the world after water, has a global impact, and so our blog series concerns the impact of tea and what we as tea drinkers and tea lovers can do about it.
In addition to our blog, we embarked on a path to go beyond carbon neutrality - a term the media is more familiar with.
It has taken a lot of research and thinking, with the support of an amazing research team, to get here and find the numbers that answer the question: what is the carbon footprint of our teashop?
We also wanted to go further than simply covering our tracks: after we calculated with (very) conservative figures how much carbon we have produced in development and running this business, we then quadrupled that number to find how how many trees we needed to plant to be more-than-doubly-sure that we were way-over-offsetting.
“But didn’t you, like, fly around the world for 4 years to research and enjoy tea - Travelling for Tea - producing a huge amount of carbon dioxide (or CO2e)?”
Why yes we did! So, we incorporated ALL the flights and various months of living whilst we were working creating the shop in the first place, into our calculations.Would it have been better to not burn that Co2 in the first place? Also yes. But that is the past - so what can we do about it now it’s happened…? We used special measurements, which more than doubled our flight carbon footprint, to incorporate the fact that greenhouse gases released at high altitude cause more warming effects. This means that relative to ticking the “offset your footprint” button on an airline’s webpage, we offset up to 8 times what an airline would typically calculate. As I said, we went very conservative, yielding the highest possible estimate of our emissions.
As a result, we have changed and adjusted our tea shop to reduce as many emissions as possible, and have thrown ourselves in wholeheartedly to reforestation as a means of offsetting our carbon footprint.
We are planting more than 1000 trees in North America to absorb far more carbon dioxide than we created in both travelling for tea and developing our tea shop, and next year looking to go plastic and water positive as well.
Of all things to care about, why this cause?
Short answer: it’s the biggest problem we know of. It’s global. It also affects people unequally, through no fault of their own, whether it’s retiree communities of Florida getting hit with more and more hurricanes, or entire countries in the Pacific which may be uninhabitable in the future. Of course there are countless problems on this planet - but if we don’t have an environment to live in, then solving anything else becomes academic.
We both grew up in regions of countries where environmental issues were controlled, reduced, or hidden over time, whether by legislation or changing customs like recycling, or simply putting up walls and Do Not Enter signs. Out of sight out of mind is a true adage... This meant that experiencing unchecked pollution, natural disasters, and the deadly impacts of climate instability first hand during our travels was a change from rural Vermont or Wales. We travelled to 30 countries in four years, and the fragility of both the environment and our place within it were a common theme.
Travelling for Eye Openers
These snippets of our travels are where the clash between humans vs the environment was more aggressively in our faces. These glimpses are not exclusively about climate change and/or environmental destabilisation, but they are all about negative environmental externalities (as professors in our Economics degrees might say).
These experiences and many like them helped us envision a world where the consequences of climate change are no longer hidden or relegated to the future. Painting a picture (hopefully an interesting one!) of our changing perspectives. So without further ado…
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Phnom Penh is a major city with a major recent past. Although many a taxi driver pushed us to visit the Killing Fields and other haunting relics of that age, we were focussed on developing our business so our stay there was less “touristy” (a bizarre incongruity of how enthusiastic everyone was in wanting to show us the horrific past). Most of the time in the evenings we would head out after a long day on the laptops (we stayed two months in 2019) to find dinner, wander the streets and absorb the city.
We noticed very quickly that the smoke, smog and air pollution of this particular city seemed worse to us than New Delhi or Mumbai. Was it simply a lot of people in one place? But that is true of so many places. What was different?
For one, we’ve never seen so many SUVs anywhere outside America. They were on average older than in the US, but still the black smoke churning out of them, including modern Lexus 4x4s, made us wonder. We asked around and finally a taxi driver told us the answer: catalytic converters. He shared that these are big business: pull the catalytic converter from a vehicle and sell it on to America, leaving the car in Cambodia. These are complex components with palladium parts (worth more than gold by weight) and are ripe pickings for an enterprising mechanic. And so, all that carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide which would have normally been scrubbed from the exhaust was pouring out into the streets. It was thick enough we could watch the exhaust fumes blanketing the open-air meat markets, roadside food stands, and outdoor cafes that typify Phnom Penh.
The environmental and human consequence, with damage to lungs, brains, hearts and more was obvious and literally in our face. It was the only place on our travels where we habitually wore masks or face coverings, and began avoiding going out on foot. The sparkly dust covering street food stands also discouraged us from trying the glistening grilled meats on display - we could afford to go to an indoor restaurant. But how people don’t have this choice?
Cambodia doesn’t have the same income level as its wealthier neighbours of Vietnam and Thailand, and so air and waste management take a backseat. Like in major Indian cities, Phnom Penh boasted trash-filled rivers with dumped boxes of abandoned syringes and medication leaching into the waterways. We were visiting during a drought (the rainy season had been abysmal, and the Mekong’s levels were at record lows), meaning the city’s many waterways were sludge-choked channels, and the dust levels were at dangerously high levels. Inequality also exacerbates the problems, as those who can’t afford to escape to an air conditioned mall are the most heavily impacted.
A brief piece about air quality in Phnom Penh by UCRSA (Urban Climate Resilience in Southeast Asia) if you'd like to learn some hard stats.
After India we decided to spend one week in Singapore, somewhere very different from Kochi, our home for a year. A super clean and diverse city, a bastion of world finance and safety (for some, not all). We did not know much about Singapore before our visit: we were there for a tea conference before heading to Malaysia. In exploring the city, including with a new Singaporean tea friend we met at the conference, we stumbled into greenery.
In the metropolitan centre of the city are botanic gardens, a nature reserve made up of 6.2 hectares (15 acres) of rainforest. So it was only due to visiting a restaurant in the gardens that we realised these trees were the few remaining parts of primary rainforest on the entire island. A web of peaceful paths, wooden walkways and steep stairs, shepherding us through mighty trees, colorful flowers, insects and incense.
We learned 80% of the plants we saw were not only rare/endangered in the botanic gardens but in Singapore in general. This type of habitat once covered the island and beyond up the Malay peninsula. Now it is a sliver of one, squeezed between buildings and highways, some of the last hectares of original rainforest in Singapore. I guess better late than never, in that the recognition of this resource eventually came with it being Singapore's first UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There is something funny about being given a small reminder of what once was, and it being more powerful than seeing it all completely gone and concreted over (which logically would be worse). We have no deep knowledge of what was in Central Park NYC before New Amsterdam, and have not really considered it closely. But seeing the incredible flowers and bugs, reading about the history of the rainforest and standing in it with skyscrapers not far away, we can imagine more clearly what was lost in Singapore.
I (Vientiene) took a photograph which is one of my best “classic” photographs, the National Geographic type. A perfect golden spiral with a perfect red bug. A little bit of perfect nature remaining in the centre of a futuristic world city:
As loyal readers will remember, we were just a few miles from the epicentre of a 6.9 Indonesian earthquake in 2018. Earthquakes are obviously not climate change - but navigating the fallout of this natural disaster made us hyper-aware of our privilege, and better able to imagine the consequences of climate instability.
After the deafening noise, scrambling to get the keys which were on a hook into the door in the dark, we climbed out of our partially collapsed cottage. Piles of masonry were now sitting where we had been sitting, and we were doing a quick damage assessment of cuts and bruises from the bricks, and the falling wooden terrace which helpfully picked the perfect moment of our egress to decide to fall. On the street, that’s when our phones (hastily grabbed) - pinged a tsunami alert. We were maybe one metre up from the beach. To cut a longer story short, although the fear was very real as we raced our way to safety with the help of a neighbour’s pick-up, we were mindful of how we were lucky enough to have a phone to warn us at all. Thankfully for us and that Indonesian island, although 6.9 is certainly strong with many dead, the tsunami mercifully wasn’t.
The next day after sleeping outside and only waking up perhaps 30 times to the shaking glass of nearby houses during the 800 aftershocks, our phones were connecting to Bali masts in the distance across the water. Some new Dutch friends contacted us, friends we met in Malaysia and again by coincidence in Lombok. They had flown out just before the quake and kindly managed to book a flight out for us that day. Elizabeth, being a geologist, knew that it was entirely possible the worst was still to come, and our friends booked two of the last seats available. It was a complicated system of authorising a foreign credit card at surprising and unsurprising prices. It was only because we were connected and resourced enough that we could escape the humanitarian fallout, flying away before more damage, aftershocks or water shortages occurred. Most people there, of course, lived there - it’s their home, and leaving was never an option, let alone having a place to go.
With the ever-more-common disasters or slow destructive change of climate change, many of the most impacted people are the least able to react, and can’t leave.
In our move to the Alentejo, climate change was directly on our minds. So much of Portugal is a fire risk, a serious fire risk. Fires happen every year, and in July 2017 for example four major wildfires spread across Central Portugal requiring the services of 1700 fire fighters including from Spain, France and Morocco. Thesee fires resulted in 66 deaths.
A few months later in October 2017, 7,900 more fires started in northern Portugal killing another 49 people. Tens of thousands of hectares / acres were destroyed, livelihoods and homes with them. Smoke eventually entered parts of England and black rain occured over Estonia, the opposite corner of Europe.
In all honesty we had been far more aware of fires occurring in California and Australia, and before we investigated to live, were not aware of this devastation. Portugal is covered with pine and eucalyptus - an invasive tree and literally designed to catch fire with its oily peeling dry bark. With this an ever-present threat, we thought: what will happen in the future? They say climate change should probably be called climate destabilisation instead, as it will get hotter in some places, wetter in others, etc. If much of Portugal is already prone, or at risk of, wildfires then we had to incorporate some risk aversion into our place of choice.
You see that green area in the lower-middle? That is the Alentejo where we decided to settle. Happily, gratefully, there is not the widespread eucalyptus and pine you find in the Algarve in the south, the coast, or in central Portugal:
We have seen property prices continue to drop across central Portugal, as people try to sell up to leave the wildfire risk behind. For those buying, it's a clear case of Buyer Beware: the charred trunks across a plot of land, and blackened stone walls of a sweet little house, are a warning of more to come. And of course, for those selling and eager to leave, the value of the family home has dropped due to climate change.
For geographers and lovers of GIS (geographic information systems), you can see the live fire risk of Portugal’s regions here (of course in December it’s less of an issue), and a more generalised map below. https://www.ipma.pt/pt/riscoincendio/rcm.pt/
Given we are enormously privileged thanks to where we were born and the wealth of our countries, how can we not use our platform to try to get us all to care enough to make real changes?
In the end, it was our love for tea and our tea shop which changed us. Ironically, it was the understanding that came from travelling to learn about tea, which of course has an enormous carbon footprint from flying, that did it! As mentioned, that was a large part of our choice to offset our footprint since 2016, when we began our travels rather than the much easier carbon offsetting of the tea shop alone.
It was very significant for us, for our own mindfulness, to be presented with these sights and sounds. Building and building over years until it was a major consideration in most of our thinking, and a part of so many conversations on a daily basis. We are always discussing waste and overconsumption, and the resultant carbon footprint from what we see and do ourselves. This is where the world is headed and we are happily going with the tide.
We have 4000+ monthly readers of our MatchaAlternatives.com blog and hope that continues to grow. With this platform, and with a climate positive teashop, we hope our words will reach further and wider than otherwise and we will make a positive impact in how mindful our (happily) tea-obsessed customers will be moving forward.
With so many people, in so many places, and with such an existential threat, this is a good starting point for our own small bit of doing. The pandemic has shown us what it is like to have our habits and routines ripped apart, and what a chaotic change to a new normal feels like.
Although this blog has been focussed on some of the less fun thoughts from our travels, we hope it has helped transport you to those locales as an interesting exploration of different realms and perspectives.
We want to stress a final message: these are only a few hand-picked scenes from a few cities in a few regions and in no way reflect the rich diversity of any one country, let alone even one city.
We loved every single country we visited and so there is no judgement in this blog: this is the world as it is, and these are events we experienced. We look forward to returning to all these places, every country is absolutely jam packed with culture and we have only scratched the surface.
In the future we might share a blog on “Why bother?” covering the same countries or others, showing the other side of the coin, the most beautiful places we have visited, perhaps places which are at risk or under threat by climate destabilisation but are still stunning today. But for now, time for a cup of tea!
Elizabeth & Vientiene
@TravellingforTea & Founders of MatchaAlternatives.com
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