What is the environmental impact of wanderlust?

The biggest contribution a traveller makes to climate change is through air travel

Travellers continue to seek solace and adventure in the world’s remaining frontiers – but at what cost to the environment?

By Michael Gebicki

The question of sustainability has particular resonance for the traveller. Never before have we faced such a wondrous array of destinations – but that accessibility carries with it the risk of loving our planet to death. 

We embrace sustainability. We want those who follow in our footsteps to see lions on the plains of Africa, orangutans in the forests of Borneo and ice in Antarctica. Yet as we explore, it’s hard to escape the knowledge that the act of travel itself will affect the planet, even if our destination is a mere hour away.

Planes, trains and automobiles

Limiting your impact involves recognising the mechanics of travel. The biggest contribution a traveller makes to climate change is through air travel. Airline industry carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions account for about 5 per cent of the total of human-generated emissions.

“CO2 equivalent” refers to the fact that engines produce nitrous oxide and methane, as well as carbon dioxide, and these greenhouse gases should be taken into account to reflect the true emission figures. 

Despite lower emissions from more efficient jet airlines, CO2-equivalent emissions from air travel will rise as a percentage of the global total as more travellers take to the skies. Between 2004 and 2014, the number of international tourists rose by almost 50 per cent, to 1.133 billion, and the pace shows no sign of slowing. 

“The biggest contribution a traveller makes to climate change is through air travel ... train is a better option.” 

A passenger on a Boeing 747 contributes around 90 kilograms of CO2 equivalent per hour to our atmosphere. However, carbon emissions released into the high atmosphere are thought to have a greater warming effect than those at sea level, and aircraft emissions are usually multiplied by a factor of two to establish their true impact. A return Melbourne-London flight creates a warming effect equivalent to about eight tonnes per passenger.

To put that figure into perspective, you’d need to drive 37,800 kilometres in a medium-size, petrol-engine vehicle to generate the same emissions. Another yardstick: the average Australian’s carbon emissions are about 24 tonnes of CO2 equivalent annually.

For the traveller who wants to reduce their carbon footprint, train is a better option. A passenger on an efficient, high-speed train is responsible for just one-twelfth the carbon emissions per kilometre of an aircraft passenger. On the other hand, emissions from cruise ships are higher. According to Carnival Cruise Line’s own figures, their ships emit twice as much CO2 per passenger per kilometre as an air traveller.

Carbon offsets – the amelioration price you might pay for undoing your carbon emissions – can be subtle mechanisms for change, with a healthier planet as the outcome. Carbon offset schemes are proliferating, and while there are plenty that will happily accept your money, many offer at best an opaque view of what they do with it. This includes some schemes spruiked by airlines themselves.

Helping Mother Nature

One that stands up to scrutiny is Carbon Offsets to Alleviate Poverty (COTAP), which has a mission to reduce global economic inequality, plant trees and protect forests, all in the name of tackling climate change and with funding transparency. Key to COTAP’s agenda is helping Third World villagers establish a viable lifestyle in rural communities, with self-interest as the prime motivator.

Most of the projects COTAP funds involve reforestation: two million trees in Malawi under the auspices of the Clinton Development Initiative, one million in Nicaragua, protecting and restoring 27,000 hectares of forests in India’s Meghalaya state. As well as providing employment, these projects create carbon sinks, Mother Nature’s rebalancing mechanism.

“Big, swank resorts are typically not good environmental stewards.”

High-impact resorts

Where you choose to stay has a crucial bearing on the impact of your travels. Big, swank resorts are typically not good environmental stewards. Resorts will often import exotic foods from far away to satisfy the expectations of their clients, violating the locally grown criterion that is essential to low-impact tourism. Most resorts require large amounts of power that might not be generated by wind or sun. Water might be diverted from agricultural use. They can also distort local economies, pushing up produce prices and offering wages than undermine local agriculture. 

Small scale and a back-to-basics philosophy are no guarantee of solid ecological practice, however. There are plenty of bamboo and thatch hotels on remote Third World islands that flush their sewage straight into the sea.

Surveys show that there is considerable appetite among travellers for tourism operators that can demonstrate their green credentials. In a TripAdvisor survey of 1300 US travellers, nearly two-thirds reported that they often or always consider the environment when choosing hotels, transportation and meals. Another 7 per cent said they planned to make even more eco-friendly choices in the next 12 months.

Benchmarking a hotel’s sustainability performance is a forensic task, and there are now several green hotel certification programs in the hospitality industry. These programs tend to be regional rather than global, and each applies a different set of criteria, but a hotel that promotes its green certification at least indicates an enthusiasm for the cause. 

For anyone who wants to travel but limit the impact, there’s always the getaway that gives as well as receives. From working in a Third World orphanage to documenting cultural traditions to protecting sea turtle eggs, the world is full of people, animals and places that could use a little help, and anyone can do it. 

Let's face it: if you want the ultimate feel-good experience, nothing beats philanthropy. The light that shines from a small face when you've just brought some magic into their life
is a souvenir you won’t forget in a hurry.

This article is from the March issue of INTHEBLACK.

Read next: How to be a useful voluntourist

March 2016
March 2016

Read the March issue

Each month we select the must-reads from the current issue of INTHEBLACK. Read more now.