For example, we know that the U.S. economy’s biggest source of greenhouse gases is transportation, and the U.S. is the second biggest source of greenhouse gases in the world. As The Washington Post’s climate reporter Sarah Kaplan wrote in 2019, canceling a single round-trip ticket on a trans-Atlantic flight saves the equivalent carbon dioxide emission as the average citizen of India emits all year, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
Does that mean we need to stop traveling if we want to save the planet from further demise? Fortunately, some climate experts say no. We spoke to four about how to change our behaviors to lessen our travel-carbon footprint in a meaningful way.
Start with where you’re going
As Kaplan wrote, most travel is going to have a negative impact on the environment, unfortunately. One way of reducing your carbon footprint is to plan trips closer to home.
The farther from home you go, the more fuel you need to get there (unless you’re going by bike, on foot or via renewable energy, of course), says Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist, professor, director of the Climate Center at Texas Tech University and author of the forthcoming book “Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World.” Her advice for travelers is to explore your own backyard and opt for more domestic trips.
“There are so many riches where we live, no matter where we live,” Hayhoe said. “Let’s think of different ways that we can take vacations and travel, be creative and enjoy the place where we are.”
Another very clear way of reducing your carbon footprint is to reduce travel, particularly by air, overall.
Milan Klöwer, a PhD student of climate computing at the University of Oxford, who also has side projects researching aviation’s contribution to global warming, says that to have the world’s flights stop contributing to global warming, everyone needs to fly less than we used to before the pandemic.
“If we were to fly 2 to 3 percent less every year, then we basically have stopped aviation from contributing further to global warming,” Klöwer said. “It sounds like a little, but the problem really is that the whole aviation industry is thinking that could be different direction.”
Rethink how you get there
Often, the ways to get to a destination as quickly and cheaply as possible don’t translate to the most energy-efficient. As you plan your trip, can you find a way to get there that has less of an impact?
If a plane is your only option, Hayhoe suggests looking for airlines that choose more sustainable jet fuel. But most climate experts will tell you to find alternatives to flying, like taking the train when possible. This is going to be an easier ask depending on where you are in the world, like Europe and Asia where train systems are more abundant. In the United States, unless you’re near an Amtrak route that fits your travel needs, taking the train instead of flying is a bigger challenge.
Lewis Fulton, a global transport expert at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis, recommends travelers look for ways to take energy-efficient vehicles on their trips. Maybe that’s your family investing in an electric or hybrid vehicle or finding one to rent for your road trip.
For long distance trips, this is still a challenge because of distance limitations for cleaner vehicles (if you’re doing a big trip in an electric car, you need to be cognizant of where you can find charging stations). The more people support the technology now, the better the infrastructure supporting it will be in the future.
“I hope that within five to 10 years, we’re going to have a system in place where it’s just a lot easier for people to own an electric car and drive it long distances,” Fulton said.
Consider your accommodation options
Chris Woodford, a science and technology writer for adults and children and author of the new book “Breathless: Why Air Pollution Matters — And How it Affects You,” says that overall, the calculations can get too complicated to establish whether staying at a hotel is better or worse for the environment than renting a house on Airbnb. But you can still try to spend your travel dollars supporting accommodations that are investing in greener practices, e.g., a hotel in a LEED certified building, one that uses biodegradable key cards, mobile check-in or solar power.
Then there are the little efforts, which Woodford calls “feel-good” endeavors because they’re minuscule on a larger scale but better than nothing. They’re the basics: not asking for housekeeping on a daily basis; not getting new towels or bedding during your stay; skipping the disposable cups in your room.
Look for local food
As our food production is a major impact on the environment, how you eat on the road matters just like it does at home.
Klöwer says travelers can rely on the “rule of thumb: It doesn’t really matter where your food comes from. It’s much more important what you eat.” Try eating less of foods that require a lot of resources to produce, namely beef and lamb, Klöwer says.
Woodford recommends travelers look for local food whenever possible, as it can have a smaller carbon footprint than ingredients imported from farther away.
Hayhoe agreed. “When we travel, we can shop at local farmers markets, eat lower down the food chain, not take our vacations as an opportunity to have giant steaks every night,” she said. “Almost every restaurant now offers plant-based options or seafood options. There’s so much that we can do.”
Travelers can also be aware of their food waste — an issue which globally accounts for a greater carbon footprint than that of the airline industry.
“Often when we travel, we eat out a lot and there’s a lot of food waste,” Hayhoe said. “We waste about 50 percent of the food that we produce so often when we go to restaurants.”
Hayhoe encourages travelers to take any restaurant leftovers home to eat later or to cook for yourself if you have a kitchen available on your trip.
Buy less, do more
Climate experts will tell you that a large part of our environmental footprint is consumption. Buying stuff — whether it is clothing, furniture, holiday decorations, among many, many other goods — isn’t great for the planet.
Travelers can keep that in mind on vacation, and be more mindful about what they buy during a trip.
Is the souvenir you’re eyeing something that’s going to end up in a landfill in a couple of months or years? Does your aunt really need another plastic Disneyland cup? Are you going to toss that neon visor when you get back from your beach weekend? Can you bring a reusable water bottle so you don’t have to spend $4 on a Dasani at the airport? Do your best to limit buying items you really need, or look for items that will last.
As you know, shopping and eating aren’t the only activities you do on vacation. Hayhoe encourages travelers to seek out low carbon pastimes.
“Instead of instead of taking a bus tour, go hiking, or go the beach, or go fishing or walking,” she said.
The moral of the story
Travel is no different than the carbon footprint actions you take when you’re at home. Woodford recommends people start their efforts to become more environmentally-minded by using a carbon footprint calculator (such as this one) to see where you can make changes in your everyday life, not just your travel behavior.
“What we have to understand is that climate change is everyone’s problem and we’re all going to suffer its effects — we’ve all got to play a part in sorting it out,” Woodford said. “We have to identify where we each individually are doing damage and try to put that right as best we can … and that applies whether you are traveling or whether you’re at home.”