Your impact on the environment while traveling can be dramatic. Air travel, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, accounted for 9% of the country’s total greenhouse-gas emissions in 2016, and light-duty vehicles, like your Subaru, made up a whopping 60%. On vacation, we consume shampoo out of tiny plastic bottles. We live bigger, more extravagantly than we normally do.
There’s no way to eliminate that impact, but there are ways to at least reduce your carbon footprint while you’re traveling.
Don’t lose sight of the big picture.
When we think about exchanging one product for another — say, a veggie burger instead of a beef burger — “you’re only thinking of yourself as a consumer,” said Karen Litfin, a political-science professor with a focus on climate science at the University of Washington. “It leaves the citizenship muscle completely atrophied.”
“We should definitely feel good about ourselves,” said Litfin. “But if that’s my primary motivation, it might make me ignore other possibilities for how I might actually make systemic change.”
Avoid planes — when you can.
The end goal: Expend the smallest amount of carbon. In terms of carbon emissions, you’d be better off carpooling — yes, in a car — than flying.
Maybe, on a longer trip, a car’s emissions are similar to your share of a flight. But in the car, you have more control. “If you had two people in the car … you can halve your carbon emissions,” said Kristi Straus, lecturer in the University of Washington’s environmental-studies program.
With planes, on the other hand, we can’t choose what model we travel inside and how many other passengers we share our trip with. But if we must fly, we can choose to fly economy.
“Being crammed in there together optimizes the fuel efficiency of the plane,” said Straus.
According to the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization’s carbon offset calculator, a direct round-trip between Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport would generate 1,250 pounds of carbon — which more than doubles in first class. So next time you don’t have any legroom, take solace knowing that you’re on the most ecologically sound flight possible.
Your best choice for ground transportation — train, car or bus — is going to vary based on your situation.
“It depends on the fuel efficiency and how many people you have in your car,” said Straus. “But generally trains are a very good choice. If you’re going to have five people in your car or four people in your car, you can beat almost anything. If it’s you and a friend you’re probably better off in a train.”
“Conveniently, the more sustainable option is usually the cheaper option with travel,” explained Straus. “Fly coach, go less often, drive or train instead of fly … it’s not that often that those things line up.”
Make it count.
Make sure those trips you do take are worth it. Every time you don’t travel, you reduce the emissions you’re personally responsible for — so focusing travel on trips that are especially meaningful could be the best option for both you and the environment.
“The technology with Zoom and other online conferencing software is getting better all the time,” said Straus. “And so ask the question of: ‘Do I really need to go?’ ”
If you really do need to go, Straus suggests traveling less over a longer period of time.
“If you take half as many trips and stay twice as long — there you go. Boom. You just had just as many days of vacation away from your home but you halve your carbon emissions associated with that vacation,” said Straus.
Carbon offset — mindfully.
Carbon offsetting — paying to reduce carbon somewhere else in exchange for what you expend — is complicated, and extremely controversial in environmental circles.
“People who are very sustainability-oriented people are worried that offsets is like a free pass,” said Straus. She added that offsets really can make a difference, though, as long as they’re legit.
“I would probably look for a third party-certified carbon offset, and then when I was choosing among them, I would just do a quick Google search,” suggested Straus.
The quality of the organization makes all the difference, said Litfin: “How do you know it’s a good investment to actually offset the emissions, and how [can you] be sure that those offsets are being done in a way that doesn’t actually harm people who live there?”
While it’s not a carbon offset in the strictest sense, something like PeaceTrees Vietnam, a Seattle-based organization that helps travelers in Vietnam plant trees in the place of land mines, is the most foolproof kind of certification, said Christine Mackay, co-founder and executive director of sustainable-travel organization Crooked Trails: “You can personally certify it yourself and see that it’s happening.”
On a recent study-abroad trip, Litfin and her students used a similar tactic: tree-planting in the community they were visiting in South India. Tree-planting is much cheaper in India than the United States, so they could theoretically offset more carbon in India than they could at home. But there’s a catch to planting the most trees for the smallest cost, said Litfin: “Whose land is it that you’re actually planting these trees on, and what’s happening to the people who live in those places, and whose land are you claiming?”
“Go visit a nonprofit that’s doing that work right there and donate,” suggests Mackay. “It’s a way of bringing more meaning to your travel and really helping the people who are fighting for what you believe in the country you’re going to.”
“If you see people getting on with two giant suitcases that weigh as much as they do, that’s essentially doubling the amount of energy needed just to get you across the nation or across the world,” said Straus. “If you pack light that’s less that the plane needs to carry.”
Some things are worth packing: Mackay never travels without her own refillable bottles of shampoo and conditioner.
“People might think … What kind of difference [does] that really make?” said Mackay. “But multiply it times a billion people hitting the hotel every single night all using those stupid little plastic water bottles or the little shampoo and soap and conditioners.”
Don’t take a vacation from your good habits.
“Sometimes on vacation we live a little more extravagantly than we do when we’re home,” said Straus — taking longer showers, blasting the hotel air conditioning. “Try to maintain your normal eco-conscious strategies even though you’re traveling.”
A point that may seem obvious: Bring your own water bottle, and, depending on where you’re going, be prepared to clean your own water. This one’s not just about the plastic.
“Water quantity and quality is an enormous issue in many countries that people travel to,” said Mackay.
Of course, there are going to be some experiences unique to your travel destination — like eating a specialized, local meat when you normally eat a plant-based diet.
“Only you are going to know what’s important to you,” said Straus. “But you don’t have to throw out all your sustainability goals because you’re traveling.”