Venice: A City Connected by Canals…and Carbon

Venice is perhaps the world’s most famous island city, cut off from the mainland. Visitors arriving by plane do not land in Venice proper when disembarking at Marco Polo Airport. Instead, they land across the lagoon and must take a water taxi to get to their destination.

That is where on a recent visit we met a water taxi stand manager who struck up a conversation. The inevitable commentary about weather came up; we were lucky to have the prospect of an awesome summer forecast for the next few days.

The manager commented that climate change was altering the weather and ravaging the city. I asked how she thought Marco Polo managed climate change when he left town and traveled the world on behalf of the Republic of Venice. Her response summed up today’s ideological brainwashing of society by environmentalism: “climate change didn’t exist back then.”

The manager pointed out how Venetians have become quite sustainable when it comes to their carbon footprint. She informed me the city reached its peak carbon footprint not long ago and is on the road to zero carbon.[1] Events in the city increasingly tout how they are net-zero carbon confabs.[2] She suggested we might be visiting the planet’s lowest-carbon-footprint major city.

That got my immediate attention.

I decided while waiting for the water taxi that it was game on for our few days in town. While taking in the sights, people, and food I would also be tallying an unofficial carbon footprint audit of this most unique of cities.

As we said goodbye to the water taxi manager, she asked what we did for a living. My response was half-joke, half-serious and made her laugh: “I work in an industry you’ve been told is part of the problem. But the reality is that without my industry, Venice as you know it would cease to exist.” What I respectfully left out of my response was that the manager’s job, tied directly to tourism and carbon utilization, would also cease to exist.

If You’ve Never Been…

A little background for those who have not had the pleasure of visiting Venice (highly recommended, subject to the advice that follows). The place offers an intensely deep history; but today Venice has become a museum to itself. Everything in the town revolves around tourism and the past.

I heard the horror stories from seasoned travelers. About how crowded the city gets in summer, when a plague of tourists descends off cruise ships and planes to assault the city’s famous sites, as if the visitors were spearheading an amphibious invasion. To some extent that proved accurate, especially at and around the postcard sites of Ponte Rialto and Piazza San Marco. Tourists jam both locations, paying more attention to their smart devices to capture what was around them instead of taking in what was around them.

But there is a fabulously attractive aspect of Venice: walking a hundred yards from the most packed of sites transports you to a quiet, less populated, and unique area. A traveler can go from part of the hordes, to alone with only a few resident Venetians around in less than thirty seconds. And 90% of the city lends itself to the latter vibe, meaning if you invest an hour or so hitting the popular locations, you are then free to wander and immerse in the real Venice (or what is left of it).

I mentioned walking. That is the exclusive travel method once within the city. There are no cars in Venice. Or buses or trucks or motorcycles. Which means there are no streetlights or stop signs. Bikes, scooters, and skateboards are forbidden and, frankly, useless. The only mode of transportation other than feet are gondolas and small motorized water taxis and delivery boats. Which means the pedestrian reigns supreme. One only needs to navigate other pedestrians and the city’s hundreds of footbridges across canals when meandering about.

I mentioned meandering. That is the most accurate description of how one navigates through Venice.

There seems to be an infinite number of ways to go from point A to point B in the city. Which makes every walk an adventure and something new. Maps are nearly useless because of the countless alleys, foot bridges, and canals. One learns early that you iterate a path to the final destination through trial and error. It is not uncommon to turn a corner and see your destination close by but get lost as you turn corners trying to maneuver a path to where you’re headed. It might sound frustrating but does make for great fun.

So, at first blush, Venice appears to have one of the lowest carbon footprints of a major city on the planet. No cars and everyone walking or rowing on water. No wonder Venice and Venetians tend to brag about their sustainability credentials.

But a closer look exposes a different reality.

The Carbon of Venice

Venice is awash in two things: water and carbon utilization. The former is obvious while the latter becomes obvious after reflecting how this city attracts and supports tens of millions of people each year.

Feeding Venice consumes massive amounts of carbon.

It doesn’t hit you at first, but after a few days you realize that all the food and drink being consumed across the city in the thousands of bars and bistros is coming from somewhere off the islands. Agriculture is far from carbon free, with fertilizers and machinery utilizing copious amounts of fossil fuels. Packaging adds to the carbon tally. And the transportation of the food requires diesel and gasoline, whether the mode of transport is truck, boat, train, or plane. If Venice required a zero-carbon footprint for its food, the population would necessarily shrink drastically. And the diet would be severely pared back.

Which brings up the subject of the ‘residents’ of Venice.

In the summer, the population is heavily supplemented by tourists.[3] Those travelers got there by plane, train, boat, bus, and auto. All those modes of transport consume carbon-based fuels for power (and their manufacture). Perhaps travelers went carbon-free for transport once inside the Venetian walls, but the journey to get there and return home was hugely carbon intensive.

Venice worked hard to retain its cultural identity, including the preservation of its architecture. The orange terra cotta tiled roofs make for picturesque sight lines, bringing tourism and economic commerce into the city. Solar panels on historic roofs don’t exactly make for nice photos or appealing vistas. Thus, you don’t see solar panels on Venetian roofs despite a somewhat sunny climate and a more than accommodating regulatory regime with EU energy policy. That means much of the air conditioning, electricity, and heat will be derived from carbon-based power generation, whether it be in Venice or supplied from the Italian mainland.

Locals and tourists walk about the city wearing shoes and clothes derived from petroleum-based polymers and fabrics. Everyone drinking from water bottles and snapping photos from smart devices, with both being made from carbon. And the former being chilled and the latter being charged with carbon. The masses across Venice literally wear and hold their carbon footprints on their feet, backs, and hands.

Carbon is present and necessary for the most famous of Venetian products. Murano glass utilizes a process that is quite carbon intensive. Venetian masks, from the paper mache variety, to the paints and pigments that decorate them, require carbon as an input or feedstock. Whether a tourist buys a cheap knockoff, or the finest handmade versions, they are taking home a souvenir that carries a carbon footprint.

The Venetian Experience Relies on Carbon

The kid in The Sixth Sense memorably remarked that he ‘saw dead people.’ Spending a few days visiting Venice had me seeing carbon. Everywhere and with everyone.

Carbon remains the lifeblood of this city with the historic past that today primarily exists as a window to the past. Venice is not on a road to zero carbon emissions unless its leaders seek urban suicide. For Venice to continue to be a global tourist destination, it will likely have more attributable carbon emissions, not less.

Mandate arrivederci to carbon utilization, and the consequences for Venice and its economy will sadly be dire. As well as for its residents and those wishing to visit.

Again, if you have the opportunity to visit Venice, definitely go for the rich history, culture, and one-of-a-kind experience. Just say “no grazie” to the zero carbon claims.

[1] Similar flawed thinking can be found everywhere. Give a read to Onu Ialia’s “Venice Is One of 30 of the World’s Largest and Most Influential Cities to Have Peaked Greenhouse Gas Emissions” to see how baseless, yet feel-good, pronouncements reinforce a false premise.
[2] For a recent example: “Venice Biennale 2022 Gets Eco Accolade, Winning Carbon Neutrality Status” (James Imam, The Art Newspaper, 12/30/22). Unfortunately, as this essay will detail, a legitimate carbon accounting betrays a carbon footprint for any such event as being quite positive.
[3] The numbers don’t lie: historic central Venice has just over 50,000 permanent residents but attracts over 20 million visitors each year.


Venice: A City Connected by Canals…and Carbon