The Climate Crisis in Travel: Are We Missing the Bigger Picture?

By Published September 21, 2020

As we respond to the climate crisis and consider tourism’s role in it, we wonder if we might be missing a bigger picture – and a greater opportunity — by focusing so squarely on flights. We offer some research and tools to travelers and the tourism industry to help season and expand our thinking on the topic.

Travel and the Climate Crisis
The end of the iconic airplane wing shot?

As we read about the climate crisis and the role that travel and tourism plays, we’ve noticed a prevailing theme: carbon emissions from flights and aviation are the problem.

Sure, this is a central issue. The reality is that flights do contribute considerably to global carbon emissions and this is only expected to rise as passenger numbers increase. In recognition of that, we’ve examined our own thinking and committed to the Tourism Declares framework in an effort to reduce the number of flights we take per year for professional and personal reasons.

However, flights aren’t the only problem at the intersection of tourism, carbon emissions and the climate crisis. In fact, even if we stopped flying altogether, we’d miss some of the travel industry’s greatest environmental impact and carbon emissions reduction opportunities of all. We’d also lose out on many of the potential socio-economic and conservation-oriented benefits that travel and tourism deliver to the places we fly to and the people who live there. (Note: We will address this aspect more specifically in our next article).

In addressing one undesirable outcome we run the risk of unintended negative consequences because we failed to see the interconnectedness of it all.

Note to travelers: Although the first part of this article is more industry-oriented, you might find the background interesting as to how travel companies can measure and make changes to reduce their carbon footprint. However, in the Tools section below you can more directly see the impact of your actions and decisions — on holiday and at home.

Climate Crisis
and Travel

To date, carbon offsets have served as the tourism industry’s form of penitent indulgence or get-out-of-jail-free for flight-based carbon emissions. However many experts argue it doesn’t really solve the problem. We tend to agree.

Fortunately, the actions that travelers and tourism companies take on the ground once the plane has landed and their holidays begin has gained greater attention and scrutiny.

For example, recent research from Responsible Travel regarding carbon emissions from holidays found a
surprising result: that the carbon footprint from food — or foodprint —  can sometimes be greater than that of the
transport used to reach the holiday destination.

Travel and the Climate Crisis, Role of Food
Although this Dungan family dinner in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan is an impressive feast to behold, one of the things we worked on with this family provider was to find the optimal balance between a smaller quantity of food to reduce food waste while still maintaining the Dungan cultural tradition of serving a minimum of eight dishes.

This aligns with a project we advised on in 2019 with the Mediterranean Experience of EcoTourism (MEET) Network which developed the Ecotourism Ecological Footprint calculator, a tool to measure the environmental impact of a tour or itinerary. At the time, its results highlighted that the carbon footprint from food can be greater than that of transport or accommodation during a vacation.

Repeated tests on MEET ecotourism itineraries indicated that making changes to food and meals — cutting portions to reduce food waste, replacing meat-heavy restaurant meals with lighter picnic lunches in nature, sourcing more products locally to reduce transport distance from the food source — often had a greater impact on reducing carbon emissions than making adjustments to accommodation or modes of local transportation.

This doesn’t mean that accommodation, transport and activity choices are irrelevant. They matter. However, what this research shows — and why measurement like this is so important — is that sometimes the areas that get the most press and attention may not actually carry the biggest impact, positive or negative.

There’s also an environmental bonus of thinking on this particular area of behavior. We can bring this thinking about foodprint, food consumption and food waste back home, too.

Let’s Be Pragmatic:
Not Just Reduction, but Optimization

The point of the MEET Network approach to measurement and monitoring was pragmatic. It was not to achieve the lowest footprint possible at the expense of an enjoyable experience (e.g., eating local vegetables exclusively, staying in an electricity-free lodge and avoiding transport). Rather, it was to identify an optimal balance between the quality of travel experience — which includes experiencing local cuisine, the culture of hospitality, comfortable accommodation, and a diversity of locations and activities — and the sustainability of the tour.

Travel and the Climate Crisis
A light picnic lunch outdoors can be preferable to a big restaurant meal.

The online calculator — which is free and available to all tourism companies — allows tour providers to adjust different segments of their itineraries and to understand the environmental impact of those adjustments on the fly. Tour operators may realize that it’s more impactful as a whole to make select small changes across all tours than to make only a few tours zero-waste and perfect. But the first step is to understand where the biggest culprits of carbon’s emissions lie.

Environmentally aware travel is not just about flights, but instead about recognizing how the different dimensions of travel and human behavior interrelate and work at scale.

What does this mean for the individual traveler?

Recent research and some basic tools can provide a more holistic view on one’s environmental impact, then guide which actions to take.  And I’ll continually reiterate: this isn’t about guilt-tripping about one’s travel behaviors. Instead, it’s about having some context about the impact of one’s choices so deliberate decisions can be made.

Ecological Footprint Online Calculator

Check out the Ecological Footprint online calculator. It’s an easy-to-use online tool that helps you understand more holistically your carbon footprint and how different dimensions in your life and travels play a role.

The point is not so much about your final score (your personal Overshoot Day, the date when what you consume has outstripped the Earth’s regeneration capacity), but instead about developing your awareness of what is relevant. The tool illustrates how choices of transportation, food, electricity/electrical appliances, home, shopping, and other activities can have an impact and just how big or small that impact is on your total carbon emissions.

Travel and the Climate Crisis, Ecological Footprint

It’s worth running the online calculator process several times and changing responses to represent actions you might consider taking, then watching the corresponding change in total footprint. For example, we’ve adjusted the number of flight hours we take, percentage of locally sourced foods we buy, overall amount of stuff we purchase, and other factors to see in each online calculation iteration what difference each of these changes makes to our total carbon footprint. The idea: to use the tool to increase your understanding and to find your own optimal yet realistic equilibrium.

We don’t imagine that the output of the tool should set you off with a list of how you might deprive yourself of life’s pleasures and live a hermit’s life. Instead, the tool illuminates how our individual behaviors — as well as those of the companies we do business with — have an environmental impact.

WWF Environmental Footprint Calculator

The WWF Environmental Footprint Calculator is a similar questionnaire-based tool whose approach can help you better understand the environmental impact of different aspects of your life. It’s a bit simpler and less precise than the Ecological Footprint Calculator, but still provides a good overview. It also allows you to compare your footprint to national averages (only available in certain countries) and see how your results measure up to those around you.

Adjusting your
Travel Footprint

Most of the carbon footprint dimensions highlighted in these tools apply in travel as they do in daily life: food choices and food waste, transportation options, accommodation choices, and other activities.

The more broad-minded we are of the impact of all our travel choices — not just flights — the more both travelers and tourism companies can make informed, effective and impactful decisions across the spectrum of our behaviors.

And therein lies a fuller solution.

There’s a great deal we can change, if we look at it right.

NEXT UP: A look at why travel still matters and can have a positive impact in the age of the climate crisis, overtourism and increasing divisiveness.

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