The list of things you love that contribute to climate change is probably longer than you’d like it to be. Your guilty pleasure might be regular trips to a drive-thru for a juicy burger, or maybe you prefer hot showers that last 15 minutes longer than necessary and use more water than you need in a week. For a growing number of people worldwide, the activity that contributes most unnecessarily to their carbon footprint is something many are wildly passionate about: traveling for tourism, be it international or domestic.
Travel is widely considered to be one of the best ways to broaden world knowledge and gain new experiences, and on the surface, the pros seem to far outweigh the cons. It often brings drastically different cultures together, drives the economies in areas with few other industries, and has even been proven to provide health benefits like reduced stress and better brain health.
Despite the obvious positive aspects, many environmentalists and nature lovers find themselves stuck in a moral dilemma when it comes to travel. It’s not uncommon to hear a personal story of a trip to an awe-inspiring destination that ignited a passion to protect the environment, so it seems counterintuitive to limit those opportunities. On top of that, for those that don’t live in close proximity to natural wilderness areas, travel can often be required to escape highways and cityscapes. Unfortunately, as is the case with so many human habits we’ve come to take for granted, knowing the collective damage this kind of travel can do to the planet can weigh heavily on our conscience, and choices about how to travel responsibly are difficult.
The relationship between climate change and the business of tourism is complicated. It’s unquestionable that tourism’s part in climate change is substantial, but it’s often the tourist destinations themselves that are most at risk of being affected by this crisis.
In 2017 there were an estimated 1.3 billion international travelers, a number that is expected to continue increasing due to a handful of factors. Travel is now easier, cheaper, and faster than it has ever been, no longer seen as a luxury reserved for the wealthy — although options for the more advantaged traveler have also continued to expand. Pair that with the rise in popularity of travel blogs and social media accounts that document their experiences across the globe, and it makes even the most exotic destinations seem accessible for almost anyone.
The tourism industry as a whole contributes to roughly 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That number accounts for the combined footprint from travel, lodging, recreational activities, and goods purchased while traveling. Arguably, the biggest issue is that the carbon footprint created for every $1 made by tourism is 25% higher than emissions per $1 made across all other sectors. So while many destinations rely on tourism as their number one industry and wouldn’t survive without the revenue that travelers bring in, after a second look the pros may not outweigh the cons in terms of carbon emissions.
In turn, while the general increase in travel and tourism continues to contribute to climate change, it’s also harming a number of tourist destinations that rely on their unique geographical position and predictable weather patterns. For coastal tourist destinations, dramatic weather and disappearing coastlines have made them less attractive options. It’s predicted that coastal destinations make up roughly 80% of tourism around the world, and although many of these destinations have not yet experienced dramatic effects, they are being forced to take steps to prepare for the inevitable. Similarly, the $20 billion ski industry has its share of concerns. Luxury ski resorts in the western US have seen wildly varying amounts of snow in the past few years, and since the 1980s, the region has seen an average decline of 41% less snow per year.
Naturally, one of the biggest contributing factors in tourism’s footprint is aviation emissions. Specifically, in the US, recent increases in CO2 emissions have not come from cars as they have in the past, but from trucking and plane emissions. According to the Rhodium Group, CO2 emissions increased 3.4% in the US in 2018, much of that driven by the rising demand for jet fuel. As of now, plane engines are really as fuel efficient as they can be, so while widely applicable innovations are somewhat far off, there’s some promising research into electric and hybrid planes, as well as biofuels that might be able to make planes carbon neutral.
Other players in the tourism industry are making moves to become more sustainable as well. A number of hotel chains have implemented new initiatives encouraging their guests to use less energy and water during their stay. Hyatt has had a sustainability strategy with ambitious goals to reach by 2020, driven by their mass collection of sustainability data from hotels around the world and incentives offered to guests who chose to limit their own waste.
Here’s what you can do
As these initiatives inch closer to reality, I’m sure you’re wondering how to feel a little less guilty about your annual cross country or international flight.
Leave no trace
This one’s a given and one that’s becoming more of a norm… but of course, don’t trash the incredible place you’re visiting with waste. Practice no-waste habits during travel, buy only locally sourced goods when shopping during your trip. Make sure you have all your sustainable essentials with you wherever you go (see water bottle above…). Refuse items you don't need (that straw…), reduce the ones you do use, and recycle everything you can. Going beyond that, make sure you’re not damaging the nature while you’re out there. Stay on the hiking paths, pick up after yourself, leave nature where it was.
Fly less often
Unfortunately, the most obvious and effective way to limit your footprint while traveling is to choose a destination that doesn’t require flying. If you’ve truly maxed out all destinations within driving distance, try to pick somewhere you can fly without a connecting flight. Planes use the most energy during takeoff, so in many cases, shorter flights are the least energy efficient. In that vein, it’s no wonder that Ryanair, Europe’s low-cost airline for short flights within the continent, is now listed as one of the top ten carbon emitters in the EU, and the only non-coal company on the list. Another nice option is to plan for longer stays at a single destination rather than hopping around throughout a trip.
The brief idea behind carbon offsetting is based on calculating how much CO2 is emitted by your activity, ie. flying. Then funding a project designed to reduce those carbon emissions by the same amount elsewhere (renewable energy projects or planting of trees) in an effort to “neutralize” the effect of your emissions.
Now there are a ton of mixed reviews on offsetting your footprint (NRDC, WIRED), some saying it’s worth it, others disagreeing. If you want to offset, we recommend funding Gold Standard approved wind or solar projects found on their website, and you can buy your Gold Standard certified emission reductions (CERs) through the UN’s platform. (https://unfccc.int/climate-action/climate-neutral-now)
The other option we recommend is supporting alternative projects, such as educational projects found on Skeptical Science which provides projects that have crowdfunding at the moment. Science is taking a beating right now, and it could use your help too…
So, offsetting isn’t the easy out to go crazy with flights, but it might be a stopgap solution until the technology of transportation can figure out entirely green transportation with electric motors.
In any case, even if you consider travel one of your personal vices, we’re not telling you to stop. Like most aspects of your lifestyle, you should feel the need to monitor your habits closely and be aware of the footprint your travel creates, but the opportunity to see the world and share it with others is one of the few things that reminds us of exactly what we’re trying to protect.
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