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How To Travel Sustainably Amidst Global Warming

Press Play: Sustainable Travel Podcast – [Transcript is below]

Although Billy Joel famously sings We Didn’t Start the Fire–we did start it; humans are solely responsible for the Earth’s rising temperatures.

Weather is becoming more extreme, sea levels are rising and ice caps are melting–all of which have been confirmed by NASA–amongst a plethora of other scientists. According to BBC, the world will be at “near un-liveable temperatures” by 2070.

A sign that says There is no Planet B.
There is No Planet B. Canva.

Global warming is happening. And it is not slowing down.

Air travel is reported as being one of the biggest contributors to climate change–its in the top 5 of contributors to global warming according to Sustainability Magazine.

The BBC states, “For those of us that do fly, it is likely to make up a significant slice of our personal carbon footprint…flying is the most damaging way to travel for the climate.”

I know what you’re thinking…isn’t sustainable travel an oxymoron?

Well…no–not exactly.

There are steps you can take to ensure your traveling etiquette and the air travel you choose are more sustainable than not. In other words, your actions when traveling can have less of an impact on the planet.

If more people adapt to these measures, there is likely to be a greater possibility for change. As Neil Armstrong is iconically quoted for saying: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” 

So, what is a traveler to do? Realistically, people can’t give up travel–while many people travel for leisure, there are also people who travel for necessity. Whether that be for business or visiting family, traveling is inevitable. Below, are several tips to become a more sustainably conscious traveler. (Listen to the podcast above for more tips beyond these.)

Take Sustainable Plane Travel + Alternative Transportation

A plane flying in the sky with leaves for wings
A plane with leaves for wings. Made with Canva

Air travel is one of the only ways people can get from country to country. Cruise ships are another option–but cruise ships are actively polluting oceans and beaches according to Friends of the Earth.

Forbes has also stated “a passenger’s carbon footprint triples in size when taking a cruise.”

It’s seems like we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. So what’s the answer here?

While it is impossible to be 100% sustainable whilst taking air travel, there are steps you can take to minimize the impact air travel has on the environment in a few ways:

1. Look for flights with the lowest carbon emissions. According to NPR, ‘Google Flights’ now shows the result of each flight’s carbon footprint. You can also search for flights based on carbon emissions.

2. Fly with airlines that are eco-friendly & committed to becoming carbon neutral. Chemical and Engineering News states “Multiple airline companies have announced programs to try to become more sustainable in the coming years. Delta Air Lines recently committed $1 billion to become carbon neutral by 2030. JetBlue pledged to get there by 2040, and United Airlines by 2050. Many other global airlines around the world have made similar promises.” (You can read the full article here).

Some airlines, such as United, are additionally using “sustainable fuel” such as biofuel to “combat carbon emissions”–this is according to CNN.

Green Vacations has made an incredibly helpful list of eco-friendly airlines to use when planning for your travels–airlines ranging from Alaska Airlines to Virgin Atlantic.

Google Flights showing carbon emissions for different airlines
Google Flights showing carbon emissions for different airlines

3. Only take direct flights and use other means of transportation if the opportunity allows. Responsible Travel suggests using “eco-friendly transportation” such as public transportation like buses or trains that are “low-carbon”. The organization emphasizes that flying should be the last resort–in other words, if you can get to your destination with a more sustainable means of transportation, do so.

For instance, “According to the 2021 U.S. Department of Energy Data Book, Amtrak is 46% more energy efficient than traveling by car and 34% more energy efficient than domestic air travel.” (This information can be found on Amtrak’s website, here.)

If you must fly, however, you should choose a direct flight and fly economy. According to The Guardian, this is because economy class on flights opt for less space and thus less carbon footprint. The article states: “flying first class on BA gives you a footprint around 5.5 times larger than that of an economy passenger, with a business seat clocking in at 3.5 times the economy option.”

When you’ve reached your destination, you can easily reduce your carbon footprint by choosing to walk or bike to your tourist activities; this is the optimal way to becoming a more sustainable traveler.

4. Choose green airports when possible. When possible is key–because not all airports are taking initiatives to be sustainable. However, Airport Industry Review has created an interactive map of all the sustainably inclined airports around the world; this ranges from the Zurich airport in Switzerland to the Singapore Changi airport in Singapore.

It’s important, overall, to do your research when choosing the airport, airline and seat for your travels in order to minimize your personal carbon footprint.

Stay in Environmentally Conscious Hotels & Accommodation

An illustration of a bed in front of a background of leaves.
Eco-friendly hotel visual. Made with Canva.

The New York Times recommends using “an eco-friendly booking site for accommodation.” They further suggest using the site which allows you to “calculate your carbon footprint per night based on your selection and include eco-friendly ratings.”

Curious as to what makes a hotel eco-friendly? According to Ecobnb, an eco-friendly hotel reduces the “carbon footprint of the company’s operations and the carbon footprint of people who work and stay there [in order to] have a better impact on the environment and the local community.”

Being a sustainable traveler means putting thought into the hotel or accommodation you’re staying at. Lonely Planet offers a series of “low-carbon, solar-powered, community-friendly accommodations” that can be found throughout the world.

Lonely Planet additionally gives awards every year to hotels, cities, trains, and islands for its “low-impact” and sustainability. These kind of lists are great for figuring out where to go whilst simultaneously being an eco-conscious traveler. (You can browse the list here.)

While it may not always be possible to find an eco-friendly hotel, The New York Times suggests “choosing accommodation that injects money back into the local economy.” Another big portion to being sustainable is not disrupting the local community; you can stay in locally owned accommodation to ensure that your money goes back into the community. As Conde Nast Travel states, “responsible travel really starts with where the money goes.”

Travel in the Off-Season

Not only is this good for your budget–because, well, tickets and accommodation are generally cheaper in the off-seasons, but it minimizes overtourism during peak tourist months. Overtourism itself impacts the enviornment. According to Forbes it causes:

  • Overloaded infrastructure
  • Damage to nature
  • Threats to culture and heritage

Several UNESCO World Heritage sites all over the world are in danger due to climate change and overtourism–according to Conde Nast Travel.

Lonely Planet states: “Taking the road less traveled and visiting under-the-radar spots to avoid crowds is one way to be responsible.”

If you have a burning desire to see popular tourist spots, The New York Times suggests you should do so “outside [of] peak summer months”.

The goal is to minimize your personal impact on the environment and local community.

Traveling is already a privilege–not many people have ever traveled outside of their own city or town or village. With this privilege, comes responsibility.

“We need to focus every inch of our being on climate change because if we fail to do so then all our achievements and progress have been for nothing.” – Greta Thunberg

There is so much more you can do to change the world.

Listen to the podcast for more tips on ways to be a sustainable traveler.

Podcast Transcript:

Not to be a Debbie Downer, but the Earth is slowly dying from global warming. Scientists have been screaming this from the mountaintops—mountaintops which are slowly eroding by the way. 

So, as a traveler, we have a social responsibility to this planet—literally our only home—to do to the best we can to combat climate change. 

But on a positive note—you alone can make a difference! While I’ve listed some tips in the blog post—which you should read if you haven’t— there is seriously SOOO much more you can do. 

Reducing food waste and eliminating plastic use is quite possibly the easiest step you can take to being a sustainable traveler. 

This basically just involves you eating leftovers and carrying a reusable water bottle. 

So about 6 to 8% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced if we stopped wasting food [woah] this is according to the organization World Wildlife. Food waste is a BIG contributor to climate change, but by doing this small step you can make a difference. [yay sound]

Ok, I know air conditioning can be a touchy subject for some. Especially if you’re dealing those hot flashes or if you’re like me and dealing with the hot Texas summer heat. But, the first tip is to use less electricity and air conditioning when traveling. 

Because, according to CNBC, heating, cooling and lighting, account for 28% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. [gasp sound] That is a lot. 

So electricity and air conditioning should be used at the very minimum and you should also remember to turn these things off before you leave. This is a small step that will go a long way in helping combat climate change as a traveler. 

This last tip might be obvious for some but it still needs to be said. Support the local economy. Dine locally, buy locally, stay locally, and tour locally. Tourists have to spend money—this is just a fact—whether on food, hotel or activities. 

So, making sure that you’re putting money straight back into the pockets of the local community you are visiting is another way to travel responsibly. [clapping sound]

I really hope these steps and information have opened your eyes to the impact each of us individually make on our planet and have maybe inspired you to take the initiative to become a sustainable traveler. 
Thanks for listening & let me know what you think in the comments. 

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