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The world is in the middle of a climate crisis. That, we all know. But did you know that tourism accounts for a whopping 8% of all global carbon emissions? Yep, lazing on that Greek beach or seeking the snow in Whistler might not be as eco-friendly as you first thought.
What’s more, the impact travel has on the environment is going up. The UNTWO – the folk who know all about this sort of stuff – estimate that transport-related CO2 release alone within the industry will add up to mega 1,998 million tonnes by 2030. They say it’s “urgent” for the sector to find a new direction if we’re serious about defeating climate change.
So, what can you do?
Lots actually. After all, travel is a consumer-driven industry. To put it another way: You hold the power. Supply and demand reign supreme. So, once you find out your domestic flight from New York to London can emit more carbon than some humans do in an entire year, you could simply stop taking said flights. It’s about recognizing that you have the ability to shape and change the travel world.
But changes don’t have to be such huge shifts. You can also practice some smaller eco-friendly travel habits and still make a big impact. These include micro-alterations like skipping plastic or choosing to offset your carbon emissions when you buy a flight (yes, that can work!). It could mean putting in the extra effort to ensure all your activities have a positive effect on local communities, or just plumping for a refillable water bottle.
Everyone’s eco-friendly travel habits, whether big or small, are bound to have a cumulative effect and could help improve an industry that regularly gets a real bad wrap for its environmental impact and lack of green credentials.
There are oodles of ways you can add a dash of grass green to your travel habits. They don’t have to mean turning your globetrotting on its head, either. Some are small, cosmetic tweaks. Others are more fundamental alterations to the way you hit the road.
Yes – you will have to put those dreams of European hill towns and soy-sizzling Asian food markets on the backburner. Basically, if you have to fly to get there, it’s out. The reason? A mind-blowing 90% of the travel industry’s total emissions are thought to be caused directly by transport, of which flying is a huge chunk. Not convinced? Just check out the huge CO2 dips that occurred when planes were grounded during the coronavirus pandemic.
More pointedly, flying is one of the biggest growth areas in today’s travel market. Passenger numbers have more than tripled since the early 90s, and – COVID aside – there’s been sustained 7-8% increases in demand for air travel from 2015 to 2018.
Greenhouse gas emissions from international aviation have more than doubled over the past two decades, while those from shipping have also increased.
Although international aviation and shipping each account for less than 3.5% of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions, they have been the fastest-growing source of emissions that contribute to climate change. This is mainly due to record traffic growth driven by increasing passenger numbers and trade volume. These sectors also only recently became part of efforts to cut greenhouse emissions, both at the EU and global levels.
In a resolution adopted ahead of the COP25 climate summit, the European Parliament called for more ambition in cutting emissions from aviation and shipping, for instance by strengthening market-based measures aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
But some travelers are pushing back. Activist Greta Thunberg has spearheaded an explosion in popularity for the Swedish concept of flygskam – yep, the Swedes even have a word for it! It basically means swapping the plane for the train or choosing to fly a whole load less.
Choose slow travel
One sure way of minimizing that CO2 footprint on the road is to opt for longer stays in each destination. This is especially powerful if you’re a full-time traveler or a digital nomad. The reason? You should only need one flight to get you there and one flight to get you back, or a single train or car trip in each direction. Without the need to hop on regular connecting flights or plan another long-haul trip to the next place, you’ll be passively reducing your carbon output.
But try not to think of this one as a sacrifice. Slow travel offers all sorts of rewards. It’s a more fulfilling and thoughtful way to experience a place and its people. A week in Italy might give you a taste of pizza and some Vitamin D. Five months there will invoke real cultural encounters, language learning, and becoming a maestro at the local cuisine. See the difference?
Pick only ethical travel destinations and activities
Going green while you travel isn’t just about cutting your carbon emissions and whatnot, it’s also about keeping things ethical. Thankfully, that’s now easier than ever since the internet came to the rescue…
Yep, gone are the days when you’d have to head, finger crossed, to a Thai elephant “sanctuary” in the hope that you don’t find loveable creatures chained to telegraph poles. Basically, if it’s bad, you can bet that there will be plenty of Google reviews letting you know it is!
When it comes to picking a whole destination on ethical grounds, EthicalTraveler.org is the one-stop-shop. It brings out annual reports into where’s good and where’s not so you can make informed decisions on places based around four key areas: “environmental protection, social welfare, human rights, and animal welfare.”
Change your choice of hotels
Where you stay can have a noticeable impact on the greenness of your travel. It might seem obvious, but large-scale resort hotels with umpteen pools and sprawling sun terraces aren’t actually the most eco-friendly accommodation options. They often have huge carbon footprints, are pretty wasteful, and are rarely community focused. And that’s not even mentioning the physical space they take up, sometimes in the midst of protected forestry or by beaches where turtles once nested, but that’s another story.
Where should you be staying? Think about booking only LEED-certified places. They are the ones that have good ratings for energy efficiency, water savings, and more. Also, try to choose only locally owned establishments or hostels where you know all profits will be fed straight back into the region and its community.
Go plastic free
It’s thought that there’s a stunning 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic currently in the open ocean. That’s absolutely phenomenal considering we’re talking about a material that’s only been in mass production since the late 1900s. The good news is that all eyes in the green sector are now on how to cut our use of plastic across the board.
And – even better news – the change can start at home.
It can be something as simple as swapping out your usual 500ml of water at the airport for a re-usable bottle. Or ditch the 7/11 snacks and opt to buy your stuff in local markets. Or just take a hessian pack wherever you shop and refuse those polluting polythene compadres.
What’s more, there’s now everything from small-scale initiatives (check out Trash Hero in Southeast Asia) to huge global projects (see the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative) that you can join to push making a difference even further.
Offset your carbon emissions
Carbon offsetting is based on the idea that you can mitigate your output of CO2 by paying extra on top of a plane ticket. Lots have been said about it as a method to reduce your emissions. Some see it as just a red herring without proper accountability. They say you don’t know where the money goes and that it’s all about making frequent fliers with enough cash feel a bit better about jetting around the globe. But it’s probably not quite that simple…
The efficacy of carbon offsetting really depends on the program you go with. Yes, some airlines might not inspire the highest level of confidence with their $2 fee on four-hour flights and zero info on what’s being funded and where. But others are more transparent; the ones willing to show how all the projects they support meet the green offsetting parameters.
Plan your travels right
Choose ethical destinations and ethical activities. Check EthicalTraveler.org for ideas on where to go.
Opt for trains
One of the best eco-friendly travel habits you can try is to ditch planes for trains, or offset your carbon emissions.
Add a few days to your trip
Travel to single destinations for longer. If each place requires just one flight, then you’ll be cutting down the number of flights you take per year overall.
Since bagging his English and Ancient History degree, Rich has traveled from the canyons of Mexico to the surf-splashed bays of Bali, done five interrails, toured India, Indonesia, Thailand, and New Zealand, hiked in Italy and France, skied across the Alps, and lived in countless countries for a month or more at a time. Now at five continents and upwards of 50 countries (gaining a TEFL certification along the way), it’s safe to say he is a seasoned traveler. Full Bio | Connect With Rich | LinkedIn