It’s undeniable that the tourism industry has a huge environmental impact. Tourism is said to be responsible for around 8% of global carbon emissions, while also having other potential negative environmental and social impacts. What are travellers to do?
While the issues with unsustainable travel are quite well-documented, I think — knock on wood — things are actually getting a bit better.
Despite some slow progress, travelling in more sustainable ways is getting easier. As travellers we have more ways to reduce our environmental impact, while more tourism companies are making the necessary changes to decrease their carbon footprint.
I know this might just make me sound hopelessly hopeful. There’s been a lot of doom and gloom in the news around climate change in particular, and in my opinion, deservedly so. In fact, if you’d asked me a few years ago, I’d probably have said humanity is about 90% screwed. But some stuff is actually making positive progress, so now I think we are, oh, maybe 75% screwed?
So, that’s good news! You can count me as a “glass-quarter-full (maybe?)” kind of guy.
I’m joking (a bit), but given there is so much negativity to consider already, I think it’s worth taking a more optimistic look at how we can travel in more sustainable ways. Now is a great time to consider this issue, especially as we begin to look beyond the hump of the COVID-19 pandemic and horizons are opening up again.
While I believe governments and companies bear the most responsibility for our current mess, I also think consumer choice and support can make a helpful difference. In that spirit, here are some ways we can reduce our impact as travellers.
1. Choosing better flights
Aviation contributes hugely to carbon emissions, and for all sorts of reasons, it is a challenge to make it environmentally friendly right now.
This clearly makes flying one of the biggest sustainability issues within the tourism industry.
I don’t know about you, but I always feel a little bit guilty when taking a long-distance flight, just knowing it causes a great deal of pollution in a relative sense. I often hear of other travellers feeling the same.
Not every flight emits the same levels of carbon, however. This means that we, as travellers, can choose a less polluting flight and make a difference.
It’s become a lot easier to make informed decisions regarding the environmental impact of flights. For instance, try searching with Google Flights, and you will see an estimate of the CO2 emissions for every flight option.
You can also narrow your Google Flights search to display “low emissions only”. (It’s under the ‘Emissions’ button in the flight overview.)
According to Google, these calculations are made using a combination of factors, such as “the distance of a trip, the number of stops, the number and class of seats on board, the type of aircraft and data from the European Environment Agency.”
Direct flights are usually better options, as relatively speaking, most emissions come from take-off and landing. The aircraft type is also a big factor as the more fuel-efficient planes emit less CO2 than old kerosine guzzlers.
It’s definitely an improvement to have more visibility into the carbon footprint of a flight. It not only lets us travellers make an informed choice, but such transparency (and our support) can motivate airlines to reduce their climate impact.
2. Travelling overland
So much attention is placed on how bad flying is for the climate that we don’t talk enough about just how good overland travel is.
Rail, in particular, is just a mind-blowingly low-carbon option. In fact, high-speed rail is the most efficient form of transport that humanity has come up with… by far.
For starters, it uses very little energy per passenger. According to the book Energy by Vaclav Smil (I’ve been reading very nerdy books), a French TGV can move people around using less than 0.4 MJ/p-km (the energy used per passenger per kilometre). This figure is about 2 MJ/p-km for jet airlines.
That’s a whopping five times better, but that’s just the base efficiency. The difference becomes much greater when putting it in terms of carbon emissions.
Here are some stats from ThisWorldInData:
This chart, which is based on UK government data, shows that taking the Eurostar high-speed rail is 42.5 times (!) less carbon-intensive than taking a domestic flight. That’s NUTS.
This makes me wonder: why are we not talking more about the sheer miracle of high-speed rail?!
Emphasizing the positive aspects of overland travel is surely more productive than tut-tutting people for flying (unless maybe they’re being particularly wasteful). I fly a fair bit myself, but I also use other options when I can — and probably many travellers find themselves in this category.
It’s therefore great news that overland travel options are increasing. In Europe, rail is even undergoing a renaissance of sorts at the moment. New high-speed rail and international (overnight) connections are popping up left, right and centre. It is also getting easier to book tickets, though sadly, the prices are still often not competitive with budget airlines.
Even knowing the statistics, I must admit that I’m not exactly 42.5 times more likely to take a train. Flying is often a more practical and realistic option. However, knowing just how efficient trains are makes me even happier to use them wherever possible.
3. Staying in eco-accommodation
Another way of reducing our impact on the environment is choosing accommodation that cares about water and energy use, waste disposal, food sourcing, and other such aspects.
It’s wonderful that increasing numbers of hotels, hostels and eco-lodges are prioritising sustainability.
But how do you find them?
Honestly, sometimes just looking for places with an eco or hippie vibe does the trick. Looking at the pictures or descriptions can usually give you a lot of information. Maybe the place uses solar panels, serves breakfast with veggies from the garden or just gives the overall impression that it might be eco-conscious. Many booking sites can also help you specifically find places advertised as eco-lodges or eco-resorts.
But not all sustainability-minded places make it quite so obvious, which is why it’s great to use search filters.
For example, Booking.com recently introduced a sustainability badge for hotels. This badge is based on various measures regarding waste, energy and greenhouse gases, water, supporting local communities and protecting nature. It’s very subtle, but you can see these establishments labelled as a “Travel Sustainable property”.
This label appears among the listings, but you can also search for them using filters:
Issuing the badge is based on self-assessment surveys, so I suppose that’s not a completely watertight system. However, any property that claims to be sustainable but isn’t would surely suffer bad reviews, so I believe this badge gives a useful indication.
Since more travellers are becoming concerned with sustainability, some accommodation establishments are making changes just to get this kind of recognition. I came across this post from a homestay organisation sharing how they earned their Booking.com badge by installing solar microgrids, solar water heaters, eco-toilets, and ensuring that the food for guests is locally sourced.
Google Travel also recently introduced its own eco-certified badge. It’s awarded to hotels that were “certified as environmentally sustainable by an independent organisation recognised by Google”. Hopefully, more travel platforms will follow suit.
Your specific search and support of eco-accommodation can promote change within the accommodation sector. The more customers these sustainable accommodations get, the more such places there will be.
4. Supporting ecotourism
Ecotourism is another way to make an impact. While directing some of your tourist money to ecotourism won’t necessarily negate the overall environmental impact of your trip, ecotourism does play a crucial role in protecting nature and preserving biodiversity.
The more ecotourism experiences I’ve had around the world, the more passionate I feel about them!
Ecotourism is basically any kind of tourism that benefits the environment and the local people. Safaris are often one of the first things that spring to mind, but there are many other examples. I consider scuba diving, whale-watching, hiking, rock climbing, and canyoning all to be ecotourism as well (if they’re done responsibly).
Over the past few years, quite a few of my experiences brought into focus just how much ecotourism can help communities live from nature rather than from destroying it. For instance, on a wildlife tour in Cambodia a few years ago, I got to know some of the park rangers. Many of them had literally been loggers and poachers before the local ecotourism project had started. They were now proud to be making a living protecting nature instead of exploiting it — and it’s tourist money that contributes the largest portion of their salaries.
Of course, some people will argue that ecotourism is ‘hypocritical’ if you have to fly a long way to get there. After all, if your flight is bad for the climate, how can ecotourism benefit it?
But I think that’s missing the big picture. We can’t solve every problem at once, and ecotourism desperately needs our support. While there’s still time to make aviation more sustainable, protecting the wilderness and biodiversity we have left feels like a more immediate challenge.
The global lockdowns caused by the pandemic laid bare just how essential this source of income is in many places, such as national parks. It is an issue that National Geographic, among others, covered a lot.
So, if you decide to fly to Costa Rica to see some sloths and monkeys, I think that’s awesome! Actually, thanks to ecotourism income, the forests in Costa Rica have been growing for several decades.
Taking the long view, the nature we preserve today can be the starting point for regrowth in the future, once other sustainability issues are hopefully resolved. This idea has already inspired rewilding initiatives in some parts of the world.
Including ecotourism activities or tours in your itinerary definitely helps promote change, helps fund nature conservation, and encourages local communities to focus on sustainability.
5. Choosing electric
While the low impact of rail transport is impressive, electric cars are another contender joining the fray. It’s incredible just how quickly electric cars have gone from barely-a-thing to the inevitable future.
It’s 2022 and there aren’t that many EVs on the road yet, but it’s safe to say that gas and diesel cars are now officially among the ancient dinosaurs of technology — it’s just a matter of time until they are replaced. And this is great news for those who wish to travel more sustainably.
It won’t be long before you can easily rent an electric car on your next holiday. Kicking off the trend, last year Hertz announced the purchase of 100,000 Tesla cars which will become available for rental over the next few years.
But wait, is that truly a good thing?
Some still doubt and dispute that electric cars are better for the environment. I’ve had the chance to learn about this topic a lot (for reasons other than this blog), and the answer is yes, they are definitely better!
There are some companies (like the ones still making those dinosaur cars) trying to sow seeds of doubt and confusion, but EVs are absolutely better. It is not disputed that they do take somewhat more CO2 emissions to produce, but this is very quickly compensated for by their incredible efficiency.
Even if you power an EV using electricity from a dirty coal plant rather than renewable energy, it’s still an improvement. In a typical petrol car, only about 25% of the fuel energy is actually used to move the car, while the rest is lost as heat. That’s kinda nuts! EVs don’t have this problem.
EV’s also need less maintenance, last much longer, and their batteries are almost completely recyclable at their end of life. Sounds good to me.
Electric cars are mainly found in developed countries, so it’s not of much use at this stage if you’re travelling in Sri Lanka or Bolivia. But I definitely look forward to renting an EV and seeing more on the road around the world.
Every time you see one, it’s a sign that some things really are improving.
For proof that it’s already possible to travel around the world in electric vehicles, just watch the wonderful series The Long Way Up. In this documentary, Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman travel from the southern tip of Argentina to LA using electric motorbikes and electric cars.
Admittedly, they did have to install some charging points of their own to accomplish this journey, though they did leave these for future adventurers to use.
In the future, finding an electric charging point anywhere in the world will surely be as easy as finding a gas station. Choosing to use electric vehicles will accelerate this wave of change while reducing the world’s emissions from transportation.
6. Reducing waste
This point is so common sense that it surely calls for very few words: travelling wastefully or excessively is obviously less sustainable.
For instance, taking long showers during your stay will affect resource demand, especially in a destination where water is scarce. Using a refillable water bottle is also clearly preferable to using single-use plastic bottles all the time. These containers can quickly add up, particularly in tropical countries where you might go through several bottles a day.
These are just two examples; I’m sure you can think of a few more.
I think the idea of being less wasteful can also be extended to the overall trip. Taking flights for three separate weekend trips is wasteful compared to flying somewhere and staying a week. Longer and slower travel can thus reduce the overall waste level if you average out your impact across all travel days.
By combining your trips or using the option to work remotely, you may be able to stay at the destination longer while gaining the chance to experience more.
7. Compensating your emissions
Finally, it is possible to offset the CO2 emissions of your trip. Such offsets will pay for, say, having trees planted or solar panels installed. You’ve surely heard of such offsetting initiatives, though they are not without some controversy.
I was in favour of offsets when it felt like there was not much else you could do, but a lot has changed in the past few years. I now worry that offsets purchased by the consumers let companies off the hook, reducing their motivation to change to more environmentally sustainable options. There are also questions about how effective some of these offsets really are.
Personally, I now feel it may be better to choose companies that have pledged to offset CO2 emissions for every customer across the board (during their transition to more sustainable methods) rather than to leave it up to the individual to do it.
Even if offsets have an uncertain impact, there are more direct ways to compensate for emissions in your own life. It’s already quite easy to choose to eat less meat, choose electricity for your home from renewable sources, or support charities actively working on nature conservation. If you invest, you can choose sustainable funds instead of (sorry…) energy-wasting bitcoin.
When it comes to election time, you can choose to vote for political parties that support strong environmental policies—possibly the best ‘offset’ you can make.
A sustainable future for travel?
All in all, I think just in the past five years, there has been so much progress in sustainability. As I said… I might be a glass-quarter-full kinda guy.
Expecting every traveller to be a complete purist when it comes to their travel impact is probably not so realistic. Unless you choose to walk the Earth and never use a vehicle of any kind, it’s hard to do everything 100% sustainably. But I do think each traveller making small changes and more mindful choices can have a big impact taken together.
I don’t know what the future of travel will look like. Maybe we’ll eventually be flying around in hydrogen planes, or maybe we’ll have to fundamentally rethink how we travel internationally. I do believe that, for now, everyone can help out by choosing lower-impact forms of travel that are better for the planet, better for the destination and often more fun too.
Is sustainability something you factor into your travel plans? You’re invited to share your thoughts in the comments below. And if I got any facts wrong, let me know if you have other information!
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