What’s less carbon-intensive – bus or train? What effect does the age of a vehicle, the route or the number of passengers have on a journey's carbon emissions? And how can you travel from A to B in distant corners of Europe, leaving a small carbon footprint – especially when there's hardly any public transport, and none of it eco-friendly? For the Oekoropa competition, 35 young teams from all across Europe looked at ways to travel sustainably to the three capitals of the trio Presidency – Berlin, Lisbon and Ljubljana.

© Goethe-Institut

They came up with a remarkable range of ideas. The teams combined journeys by ferry, bike and bus, as well as train and electric car. Some, like the “FAIRreisende” from Jena, want to use the stop-offs on their tour to report online about sustainability projects in each of the cities. Others, such as the “Green Traveller” team from Denmark, are planning part of the trip virtually. On the train journey from Berlin to Ljubljana, they want to kick off a joint environmental project via a live chat with the German School in Lisbon. And even before embarking on their ecological tour, the “Eco Travellers” from Mönchengladbach published their stopping points on their own website, to get other young people in Europe excited about their ideas.

Re-energising the sustainability discussion

The competition was organised by the Goethe-Institut within the scope of the cultural programme of Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the EU. Its aim was to spark public discussion about sustainability, especially among young Europeans. “Climate change mitigation is one of the focuses of the German Council Presidency and is particularly important to the young generation,” says project director Friederike Knodt from the Goethe-Institut. “We wanted to give it more space and encourage people to think about sustainability in travel.”

Ms Knodt says that, for many young people, travel is a “longing”, something they do not want to give up. So it is all the more important that we take a critical look at what it entails: what kind of travel produces what emissions, and what alternatives are there? Ms Knodt added: “We were amazed at how many fantastic concepts the young people came up with, despite the trickier conditions as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.” The ten winning teams will each receive € 5000 with which to actually go on their tour of Europe in 2021, if the Covid-19 situation allows.

We asked the spokespersons of the teams from Romania and Greece exactly how they imagine their journey.

Green Teens: “Our research shocked us”

The “Green Teens” of Greece and their route: Konstantina Mitsopoulou (top), Christina Chalvatzouli, Alexandros Ballis (bottom, from left) © privat

“Sustainability isn’t really a widely discussed issue in Greece, as lots of people have other problems right now. That motivated us. Winning this competition gives us a unique opportunity to get other young people interested in sustainable mobility and climate change mitigation.

The three of us complement each other well. Alexandros wants to become a transport engineer; he knows a lot about sustainable transportation. Konstantina has already taken part in a UN conference on sustainability for young people. And in ninth grade I studied the topic of water and sustainability very intensively.

Even so, researching emission-free travel really got us rattled: we were shocked at how huge the emissions are from flying. We wanted to leave air travel out of our plan completely. So we removed Lisbon from our list of destinations; it’s just too far to go right to the westernmost point of Europe. But the journey through the Balkans is tricky too. There are hardly any trains or coaches from Thessaloniki to Ljubljana.

An electric car ride through the Balkans

Our alternative is to take an electric car. We have found handy charging stations, but unfortunately it was impossible to tell which ones use green electricity. Surely the operators should be required to provide that information? From Ljubljana we’ll take the train to Berlin, then travel back to Munich by bike and Flixbus, then back home via Bologna and Ancona, by train, bike, ferry and bus. We often had to change the route, to find an ecofriendly connection. You really have to look very hard to travel green.

It’s great how many sustainable accommodation options there now are all across Europe. Hostels, for example, that work with solar power and serve only organic food. The online portal workaway is super too: it lets you book accommodation in exchange for work. We also want to sleep on night trains, and find overnight accommodation with host families found for us by the town twinning association in Leipzig.

People are far too unfamiliar with possibilities like these. We can hardly wait to show other young people in Europe on social media just how many possibilities there are. And just how much fun a green trip can be. We’re quite sure about that.”

The Sustainables: “This was a great experiment”

“The Sustainables” of Romania: Alexia Ioana Gheorghe, Bianca Rosca-Mayer, Ingrid Ioana Gheorghiu, Codrin Gogoasa (from left) © privat

“It’s only been a few weeks since our German teacher told us about the project. My team thought it was a super idea. Travelling through Europe, getting to know other cultures, gaining new experiences – and doing it all in a sustainable way. For us it was like a big experiment: would it be possible at all to make a journey like that green? Up until now, we hadn’t really thought much about sustainability in connection with travel. Generally we travel by car or plane.

So how do you go about a green trip? We quickly decided that we would do a lot of it by bike. Cycling is emission-free, and it’s healthy, and all of us have a bike. We love sport anyway, and three of us cycle to school every day. In Romania that’s really unusual: we’re more or less the only ones at our school who do it. We’ll do longer sections by train; the longest train ride will be from Ljubljana to Lisbon. We’ll need 77 hours for the 2096 kilometres.

7700 kilometres, 600 kilograms of CO2 and 30 trees

Even though we’re using ecofriendly transport, we’ll produce a total of around 600 kg of CO2 on the 7700 or so kilometres, which can be offset by 27 mature trees in a year. So, to compensate our footprint, we intend to plant 30 trees, ten in each of the trio Presidency capitals.

To us, sustainability means acting in a sustainable way socially and economically as well. That’s why we’ll be supporting the local economy on our trip, buying from small shops and markets. We’ll look for accommodation in villages, with locals or on farms, preferably in exchange for doing some work on the farm or in the house. If we don’t find anything, we’ll camp out or stay at sustainable hostels. And we want to work on sustainable volunteer projects in each of the three capitals: in Lisbon, an initiative to combat food waste and one for sustainable fashion; in Ljubljana, a socio-pedagogical ranch; and in Berlin, the education NGO

It wasn’t until we were coming up with our concept that we truly realised how important sustainability is. Lots of people in Romania don’t know at all how much we can influence through our day-to-day behaviour. So we’ll be documenting our trip on YouTube, TikTok and Instagram. We can hardly wait to get going!”

The ten winning teams are:
• “Die FAIRreisenden” from Germany
• “Eco Travellers” from Germany
• “ErlebenEuropa” from the United Kingdom
• “Girls Gone Green” from Romania
• “GreenTeens” from Greece
• “Green Traveller” from Denmark
• “International Crew” from Germany
• “RMGonTour” from Germany
• “The Sustainables” from Romania
• “TreecoTravel” from the United Kingdom

For more information on the competition and the ideas of the teams click here.

For more information on the cultural programme for the German EU Council Presidency, click here or watch the film below.

The cultural programme of Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union