Travelling expands our personal horizons, improves our cross-cultural understandings, or enables us to finally relax and take that long-needed break from our day-to-day life. The tourism industry is one of the largest and fastest growing industries worldwide, outpacing the growth of international trade. This month, Spark Sustainability and our climate-smart wall calendar focus on climate smart travelling.
Most of us humans have the desire to explore exotic places, navigate through unknown cities whilst discovering new cultures and meeting strangers. But, travelling is also very closely linked to global warming, by both contributing to and being affected by climate change .With its skyrocketing growth rate, the global tourism industry becomes increasingly carbon intensive and accelerates global carbon emissions.
According to a recent study, tourism’s carbon footprint accounts for about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions (Lenzen et al., 2018). This is the very first study which truly brought to light the true cost of travelling by not only assessing transport emissions but also by including emissions related to consumption from shopping, eating out, or buying souvenirs. If current trends continue until 2050, many developed countries might have over half of their carbon emissions coming from aviation.
Ironically, with rising emissions, negative impacts from climate change will affect the most popular touristic areas first: vital but vulnerable ecosystems supporting beach holidays or winter sports will be directly threatened by sea level rise and less snowfall, respectively. Increased events of extreme weather, such as hurricanes and typhoons, are already becoming more prevalent in attractive destinations, such as the Caribbean and South East Asia.
From a sustainability perspective, the relationship between travelling and the environment is incredibly complex. But what should we do? There’s much we can do, even for those who don’t see staying at home as an attractive option. We can minimise the impact from our travels – and that’s where Spark comes in to answer your most important questions!
The choice of your destination has probably the biggest effect on your environmental footprint. The best is to choose a place which isn’t too far, that you could reach without needing to fly. Alternatively, you could choose a destination which values sustainability, such as Denmark, France and Switzerland that currently take the top slots as world’s most environmentally friendly nations (EPI, 2018).
Choose a place where your money goes into protecting wild habitats, that is known for having great public transport, uses renewable energy and has a good recycling system. The Sustainable Cities Index tells us that the world’s top ten planet friendly cities are and you can check them out below. Why not pick one of them as your travel destination! (Koch, 2015).
When selecting your destination, take a moment to think about your real motivations of travelling to a certain place: Why do I want to travel to a place which is 25 hours away by plane from my home country? Is it because I really want to? If visiting someone dear who lives far away, could I stay longer instead of going often? Or am I going because I am pushed by the idea that as a ‘successful’ Millennial, I have to travel to some tropical place and fill Instagram with pictures of myself drinking from a Coconut, when in reality, I prefer cool and calm Nordic summers by a lake over hot and crowded beaches?
Give a chance to discovering a new place in your own home country. The further you travel doesn’t mean the happier you will be, and you can get breathtaking photos for social media also at locations close to home.
The important questions are how far do we really need to go, and how much time we are willing to spend travelling. There are even examples of people who bicycled all the way from Europe to South East Asia! However, in the modern western culture, flying is seen as the default mode for longer journeys, despite its high CO2 emissions.
Over time, the attitudes towards flying might change as the pressure to slow down climate change increases. Why not consider different options, such as an Interrail, a camping holiday or a cycling trip?
Sustainable passenger planes are still a distant future dream, but even if we would have new carbon-free technologies for airplanes, we would need an enormous amount of renewable electricity to allow the global middle class to keep flying more than ever. Physics tells us that we need quite a lot of energy to get a heavy plane up into the air. One round-trip for an intercontinental flight for 12 hours per way, would use 10 times more electricity than most of us use in our homes in a whole year! (McKay, 2009).
Prefer direct flights. The first 15 minutes of take-off uses as much as 20% of the total fuel used for short flights. Because of this, you can reduce CO2 emissions by avoiding stop-overs on any journey shorter than 8 hours. (Worldwatch Institute 2005, Edwards et al. 2015).
Flights have a larger effect on the climate than just the CO2 footprint because of a phenomenon called radiative forcing. It refers to the total warming effect of the atmosphere when different gases are added to it or the earths heat reflection changes. For example, ozone and nitrogen oxides in the smoke coming out of a plane have a stronger climate warming effects when injected directly into the atmosphere (Timperley, 2017).
Many cruise ships or passenger ferries have similar CO2 emissions as planes, but they do slightly better in their total climate impact as they have no effect of radiative forcing. Cruise ships are floating hotels running on oil, so every shower you have on board of a cruise ship is warmed up by dirty oil. However, there are a few cruise companies that take the environmental factors more seriously and use better fuels such as liquid natural gas (Viking Line, 2018).
When time isn’t an issue, travelling in the company of containers on a huge freighter ship is an adventurous way of getting to the next continent. Since it's those that pay for cargo transport and not the passenger’s money that drives this ship, the logic goes that the ship's CO2 emissions are not the responsibility of the passenger. This logic would however change if all cargo ships started earning much income on transporting passengers too.
Travelling by train, bus or maybe a sailing boat remains the best options from a climate perspective.
The global hotel industry contributes annually to around 60 million tons of CO2 emissions due to wasteful practices and unmindful guests. Alternative forms of accommodation, including Airbnbs, House swapping or Couchsurfing are not only better for your wallet but also perform better from an environmental perspective (Skjelvik et al., 2017). Furthermore, they can provide excellent ways to get to know the local population better!
If you do plan to stay in a hotel, choose a place with high environmental standards, which are certified by a third party such as the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. You could also consider staying in a hotel which is locally owned, so that profits remain in the local community. Also remember to give feedback to hotels about their environmental practices.
Other small actions, which however make a great difference, are leaving the “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door to cut down on electricity and chemicals used for the cleaning and to hang up your towels after each use. Let’s be honest – you certainly don’t clean your room or wash your towels every day at home, so why do it when you travel?
There are numerous ways to further ease your carbon footprint when travelling and also to contribute positively to the local economy. Firstly, keep up with the sustainable habits, which you should also adopt at home. This ranges from limiting energy use and conserving water to walking, biking or using public transport to get from A to B as often as you can.
Make it standard practice to travel with your reusable water bottle, coffee cup and cloth shopping bag to limit your use of disposables. This is especially important in countries with poor waste management. There are reusable water bottles with filters, so by boiling and filtering your water, you can avoid plastic bottles even in countries where the tap water isn’t drinkable.
Finally, consider supporting the real local economy. According to the World Tourism Organisation, for every $100 spent during a trip, local economies only benefit from mere $5. Go to local markets and restaurants, try to eat seasonal as well as locally produced food and avoid eating meat and dairy.
Our desire for exotic travel experience and dangerous reliance on aviation has turned travelling into a carbon-intensive activity. At the same time, around 15% of global tourism associated emissions are currently under no legally binding reduction targets.
On the other hand, tourism can help conserve wildlife habitats and lush forests, rather than tear it all down to build enormous hotels with beaches made from imported sand. It’s in our hands to make better, more informed and sustainable choices when we travel.
Edwards et al. 2015
Lenzen et al., 2018
Skjelvik et al., 2017
Viking Line, 2018
Felicia works for a cleaner energy system as an analyst at BloombergNEF. In her spare time, she loves dancing and slow travelling.