Travelling responsibly in the age of climate change

Travelling responsibly in the age of climate change

    No matter how eco-conscious we might try to be at home, the excitement of travel makes it easy to tuck away those worries to the back of our minds when we plan what to pack and do.

    We promise this article isn't here to make you feel guilty - actually, we hope it helps you travel without as much guilt. But let’s be real, air travel current produces around 2.4% of CO₂ emissions worldwide and is the fastest-growing source of emissions caused by individuals.

    Now that we’re starting to get back out and travel again and the climate crisis is getting visibly worse, it’s a good chance to consider how you can square the two without eliminating the joy of travel from your life.

    Here are some reasons we put the environment on the back burner:

    We think it’s expensive

    We’ve been to the produce section at the supermarket - we know that eco-conscious words like “organic” and “green” come with a hefty price tag.

    Phrases like “eco-tourism” and “green certified” don’t help. We’ve scrimped and saved for this big trip, dang it, and we don’t always have the extra pennies to make it “green.”

    We want the excitement without the guilt

    Once we have the whole “the world’s going to end because I’m taking this flight” thought, there’s really no going back, is there? 

    Better leave the whole subject out of our trip planning altogether, our minds decide.

    It seems futile

    Well, if the world is going to end because we’re taking this flight, what’s the point anyways? Other people fly every day, so it’s going to end without our help. 

    Might as well enjoy it before it does, eh?

    ...But there are things we can do

    Here are a few ways we can each be a bit more environmentally conscious when we travel that are simple, inexpensive (or free), and will make a difference.

    Flying less, travelling more

    One thing we can do is travel to more places without flying as much. Do longer trips instead of many, picking smart destinations to use as a hub.

    For example, Croatia is only a couple of hours by ferry from Italy and Paris has high-speed trains to, Brussels, Barcelona and more. You can get home without backtracking by booking an “open-jaw” flight from wherever you end up - it’s likely your airline (or their partner airlines) will also fly to any larger city you’re looking at and the price is usually the same as a return flight.

    If you’re an open-minded traveller, almost anywhere you go will have another interesting town nearby. Or another country you’ve always wanted to visit just over a border. 

    For a trip of the same distance, trains’ emissions can be around 60% less than flying, and it’s a scenic and more comfortable way of getting around. Most of Europe and Asia has great networks that are also affordable.

    There are other plusses too - depending on where you’re going, taking a train can also save you hundreds. Or, at worst, the cost will be similar, but you’ll get a nicer view on the way.

    Remember when we were all finding a newfound appreciation for the outdoors after the lockdowns? That’s going to make longer trips to explore what countries have to offer more popular.

    If there’s an upside to the COVID pandemic, it’s that there are more opportunities than ever to work remotely. So even if you can’t take off huge chunks of time, slow travel is getting more practical.

    If no train routes are available, long-distance bus routes are the next best option. They might not be glamorous, but at least they'll make you feel young again!

    Offsetting is cheaper than you think

    First, we have to say that if you can avoid a flight, you should do it. Not adding extra carbon into the atmosphere is always better than offsetting it afterwards.

    If you have to fly, though, you might be surprised by how little it actually costs to offset the carbon your flight produces. Check out our guide if you’re not caught up on what offsetting is.

    Many airlines have a carbon offsetting calculator you can play with to get an idea of how much it costs. Different airlines might show different prices for a similar route based on the types of projects they’re funding.

    A round trip flight from New York to Los Angeles only costs $4.95 to offset, according to JetBlue’s calculator.

    On the longer haul side, a recent deal we found to Dubai from Boston with Air Canada would cost about $39.83 to offset at the current exchange rate. The deal price was $511 round trip - so you could offset at only 8% of the cost of your flight. Not so bad, eh?

    Usually, airlines offer carbon offsetting via a partner charity or organisation that specialises in carbon offsetting, but you don’t need to use them if you don’t trust them.

    The United Nations carbon offset platform lets you narrow your donation down to the specific project and they’re all fully vetted and effective.

    Keep in mind that individuals and companies (like airlines) can’t use offsetting as a catch-all when it comes to protecting the environment. We do need to cut emissions too.

    You may have heard the argument that offsetting is completely useless because it doesn’t really undo your emissions, but that’s not completely true either.

    The trees your offset planted won’t suck the plane’s carbon out of the air, no, but protecting and regrowing forests is still important. Especially since tropical deforestation accounts for 8% of global emissions.

    And many offsetting schemes do cut the production of emissions directly, albeit not the ones your flight is creating.

    Advocating for big changes with small actions

    The Glasgow COP26 conference at the end of this month is a good reminder that individual choices are a small part of a much bigger picture.

    Offsetting your own trip is a great start, but as an individual, you can actually do something to help action systematic change - and this one doesn’t have to cost you anything! 

    We’ve mentioned some airlines that have offsetting partnerships but you can also find airlines that are pushing their actions a bit further. 

    Rather than just adding an offsetting button at checkout, some of them - like easyJet and jetBlue - offset their own fuel. And many airlines, including Delta and Alaska Airlines, have pages outlining their other climate initiatives, from phasing out inefficient aircraft to getting rid of in-flight single-use plastic items.

    When you have a choice, support the airlines doing the most. Money talks!

    If you choose to fly with an airline because they’re going above and beyond on carbon emissions, tell them. 

    Businesses do respond to what their customers tell them. They might seem uncaring, slow to respond or send you a boilerplate reply, but eventually, your feedback will break through and change their priorities - if they get enough of it.

    When an airline isn't doing enough, don’t just tell them, tell your friends and family to write to them too. Tweet, blog, make tik-toks and as much noise as you can. Taking action on climate change is extremely popular, in general, and others that care about it will amplify your message. 

    If you have the time and resources, doing something in the actual real world is even better than emails and messages. Look for local groups who are already organising for climate causes that you can join, or start one if they don't exist where you are yet. 

    When you're starting from nothing, convincing businesses and government local to you to make eco-friendly policies is a way you can make the biggest difference and that pressure eventually trickles up to the top.

    Yes, in an ideal world we’d stop putting carbon in the atmosphere yesterday. But as we collectively figure out how to get to that point, anything that gets organisations thinking and advocating for climate change is an important step.

    Ditching the car can be wunderbar

    Renting a car can emit an average of 411g of CO₂ per mile (along with being stupid expensive). So when you’re deciding where to go next, look into its walkability and if it has good public transport. 

    There’s no shortage of destinations that fit the bill, especially big European cities, but Europe isn’t your only option.

    Even the USA, the king of cars and road trips, is starting to be a little more accessible if you don’t drive. Obviously, many big cities still have a comprehensive transport network, like New York. In fact, New York even has Fire Island, which is totally car-free. 

    On the West Coast, Santa Catalina Island, California is almost car-free, and eco-conscious Americans have taken that mindset (and name) down to Central America to Costa Rica’s Las Catalinas

    Central America and South America are generally great for getting around by bus… if you’re not on too tight a schedule, at least. Can you really say you’ve been to Guatemala if you haven’t taken a suspect chicken bus while you’re there?

    Okay, so maybe you’re reading this and thinking “I still need to get around comfortably.” Then you can’t really beat Europe or East Asia.

    Japan is a great example, their Shinkansen (bullet trains) literally stretch up and down the entire country and are famously punctual. Tourists can get an unlimited 2-week pass for about £320/$440, which is a way better deal than driving!

    Europe has plenty of high-speed rail between big cities, but another benefit is that you can often walk or cycle wherever you need to go once you’re in the city.

    Barcelona isn’t super walkable, except for the tight, winding lanes of the Gothic Quarter. but it does have bike lanes everywhere and you’ll see plenty of people whizzing around on them. They’re also experimenting with city planning strategies that make big car-free “super-blocks”.

    And if you’re on a budget, you can even find areas with free public transit, including the entire (tiny) country of Luxembourg. Cities around France are starting to offer free public transport too, even for visitors.

    Back in the U.S., you can find quite a few surprising spots to catch a free bus ride, from the ski resort town of Ketchum, Idaho (Earnest Hemingway’s resting place) to Park City, Utah (home of the Sundance Film Festival) to Sandy, Oregon at the base of Mt. Hood.

    Some seemingly eco-friendly options aren’t as green as they seem though. E-scooters, for example, have become trendy in cities around the world. 

    Because of their manufacturing processes and the way a lot of the sharing services work, scooters aren’t always the best option. Maybe stick with a bike to be safe.

    Sure, there are destinations that are just not worth doing without a car, unfortunately. But ask yourself: what and where could you go with the £80/$100+ a day you would have spent on the rental?

    Living, eating and shopping like a local

    It’s super easy to go into splurge mode once you’re on holiday because you’re there to forget about your daily responsibilities for once.

    On the other hand, it’s easier than ever to live a bit like a local and DIY your holiday, shunning all-inclusive resorts for homestays and eco-lodges.

    But it’s also really simple to take your eco-friendly habits from home on the road - or across oceans - with you.

    Basic stuff like not having your linens washed every day in hotels and carrying your own reusable shopping bag and a refillable bottle are small things that don’t make your trip any less enjoyable. That bottle even helps you avoid overpriced airport shops! They only use up a bit of bag space, but it’ll make your trip cheaper, easier, and greener.

    We’ll use a water bottle as an example. Manufacturing a single disposable water bottle generates around 69g of CO₂. That may not sound like much, but it’s equivalent to a whole month of phone charges

    Reusable bottles do cost more (money and emissions) at first, but it only takes 10-20 uses before their emissions balance out. 

    So by bringing a water bottle you already own on a 7-day trip, you cut your footprint by nearly 1.5kg. Just make sure to empty it out before going through airport security :-)

    The other element of living like a local is buying like one. It’s good for the planet and for the community you’re visiting.

    Food production creates about a quarter of annual worldwide emissions, and 5% of that is just getting it to your table. Along with avoiding food waste and eating less meat, eating local food is one of the best ways to reduce food-related emissions.

    When traveling, make an effort to eat at local restaurants rather than chains. Bonus points if you find extra eco-friendly local restaurants, but either way you’re cutting down your impact. Not to mention that your food will probably be more wholesome and tasty.

    When it comes to shopping, less is more. 

    These days, there isn’t much that you can buy on holiday that isn’t already imported to your home country (if you live in the western world).

    So when you’re looking for souvenirs, the best options are often clothes, art, and anything else you can find made by local craftspeople. It’ll probably be unique, and buying from local businesses directly supports the people who welcomed you to their home.

    If you can find something that you’ll genuinely use then it also serves as a nice reminder of your holiday every time you see it. 

    Travel can be sustainable

    Thinking about some of the smaller things we’ve mentioned is important, but it’s only going to take you so far.

    It’s simple math at the end of the day. Since your flight is about 50% of the carbon you generate by going on a trip, you can make the biggest difference by taking fewer flights.

    If there’s one suggestion we've made that has the biggest impact on your emissions it's to make your trips longer and more ambitious. It's not even bad news - in many ways it can actually enhance your holiday. The money you’ll save can go towards offsetting, which can often be as little as 5-10% of the total cost of the flight. 

    Like we’ve stressed, not flying is always better than offsetting but even if we were all doing it, it wouldn't solve the issue of carbon pollution.

    To make a world where we can travel without harming the planet, it’s going to take widespread effort and collaboration - especially from governments and businesses. 

    Don’t underestimate the power of public pressure and the difference that your phone calls, emails, letters, and even tweets can make to change how businesses decide on where to invest, and on how politicians prioritise policymaking.

    It’s easy to fall into thinking that our concerns are totally ignored in our modern society with shorter attention spans, and there might be some truth to that, unfortunately.

    Try to remember that behind the scenes, there are millions of people quietly working hard to make important changes, shifting the global economy towards environmentally friendly policies.

    Do you have tips on how to reduce the impact of travel we haven't mentioned? Send your suggestion to [email protected]