Unless you are staying local, one of the biggest impacts our travels have comes from the transportation we use to get where we’re going. Planes, cars, boats and trains are all significant sources of carbon emissions.
But not all modes of transportation are created equal, different modes of transportation come with different environmental costs. The distance, the fuel and the occupancy are also factors in said impact. That is why today I’m exploring all things transportation, tips and tricks and how you can reduce your environmental impact when travelling.
For a lot of trips, flying is unavoidable. But with 8 million people flying every day, and one transatlantic round-trip plane ride equating to an entire year’s worth of driving, it does bring up some ethical dilemmas.
Obviously, one of the biggest issues with flying is that the airplane industry is dependent on fossil fuels. The average Boeing 747 burns approximately five gallons of fuel per mile, which equates to 36,000 gallons during a 10 hour flight. According to some estimates, the aviation industry guzzles five million barrels of oil every single day. And burning that fuel currently contributes around 2.5% to total carbon emissions, and expected to rise (some estimates put it at 22% by 2050).
If that weren’t bad enough, climate scientist Peter Kalmus estimates that the total climate impact of planes is “likely two to three times greater than the impact from the CO2 emissions alone,” due to a number of other outputs from the planes, including nitrous oxide, water vapour and soot. Similarly, most experts today use an aviation “multiplier” of around two (meaning the total impact of a plane is approximately twice as high as it’s CO2 emissions), but say the exact multiplier varies, depending upon the individual plane, local climate and time of day.
Another issue with flying is that due to its accessibility and relatively low cost in comparison to years ago, people today are flying more than ever, and the number is growing — the number of passenger aircraft in the skies is on track to double by 2035.
A third issue with the airline industry is that planes let us travel much, much further than nearly any other mode of transportation. And the further you travel the greater the emissions, and thus your carbon footprint, are going to be.
The good news is that in during the Aviation Retreat in Montreal in October 2016, countries around the world pledged to cut emissions from airplanes for the first time ever. The agreement set emissions in the year 2020 as the upper limit and decided that airlines who exceed the limit would be responsible for offsetting them by funding green areas or other carbon reducing activities.
But the issues is that while other industries are quickly moving towards greener alternatives, the airline industry is moving at a much, much slower pace. Aircrafts are becoming more fuel-efficient, but not nearly as fast as the automobile industry, and electric planes are decades away. There was also a recent study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, that found that by changing routes of certain flights, it could reduce the climate impact of airplanes by 10%, while only bumping up the costs for airline operations by 1%. That said, even this is likely not to be a reality for another 10 years.
But as I mentioned before, even with all the moral dilemmas that come along with it, flying is often a necessary evil when it comes to travel (I mean, you tell me another way that I can get across the world in a day, and I’m all in). So what’s a gal (or guy) to do? Well, there’s a few things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint if you must fly to your destination:
- Cut back. Cutting back on air travel is obviously numero uno, when possible. This could include anything from taking fewer flights every year to giving up flying altogether (more power to you, if you can swing it).
- Fly during the day. Sounds weird, I know, but flying during the day means that any contrails caused by the plane might reflect some sunlight away from the Earth, and lock warmth into the atmosphere, thus reducing the “multiplier” mentioned earlier.
- Pack light. The less you pack, the lighter the plane. The lighter the plane, the less energy it will use to fly.
- Fly budget. Somewhat counter-intuitive (people often assume budge flights are more eco-unfriendly because they’re cheaper), budget airlines tend to pack more passengers on each flight and usually have a younger, more fuel-efficient fleet than the older, more established airlines. Similarly, while it may be more uncomfortable (sorry), coach is the better option, as business-class and first-class seats take up more space on the plane, thus the plane can fly less people.
- Research your airline. Choose an airline company that actively seeks to offset its carbon footprint.
- Go long. Surprisingly, airplanes use less fuel on long-haul flights, as they usually are flying at higher altitudes, which is more efficient.
- Reduce stopovers. Similarly, non-stop flights are much better for the environment, as you’re reducing both the amount of takeoffs and landings (which are responsible for as much as 50% of a flight’s carbon emissions) and the number of shorter flights.
- One word — Glooby. Think of Glooby as an Orbitz or Kayak that also helps you choose the most sustainable, fuel-efficient flight.
Admittedly, a good road trip is one of my absolute favorite ways to travel (hello, random roadside attractions). And while typically better than flying — according to the math used on environmental news website Grist.org, flying from San Francisco to Boston would generate approximately 1.3 tons of greenhouse gases per passenger, while driving would generate .93 tons per vehicle — choosing the road trip route still comes with a pretty hefty carbon footprint.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, half of toxic air pollutant emissions in the U.S. are caused by motor vehicles. And if current trends continue, that number is bound to increase — in 1970, the number of vehicle miles travelled was 89.9 billion, this number increased to 3.2 trillion by 2016.
In addition to air pollution, cars emit greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming and can further pollute the environment if they leak the toxic fluids they contain. And this doesn’t even cover the impact of the take out you eat along the way, or the impacts of where you sleep or what you pack (all of which I will cover later in this ethical travel series).
But alas, it is sometimes necessary/fun to partake in the classic summer road trip. Below are some tips to help make it environmentally friendly as possible.
- Plan. Before you start up that ignition, take the time to plan out your journey. By mapping things out ahead of time, you can ensure you’re taking the shortest route, and thus using less gas. Netted is a great Google Chrome extension that will not only help you plan your route, but will also calculate your carbon footprint through Google Maps.
- Go Low-Carbon. If possible, trade in that gas guzzler for an electric or hybrid vehicle. This can not only reduce your pollution production, but could also add some extra benjamins in those pockets of yours as you save on gas.
- Reduce stops. Similar to air travel, stopping and starting your car over and over again consumes more fuel. If you can make the most out of your stops — fuel up, grab snacks, take a bathroom break, etc. — the less your impact.
- Check your tires. Keeping your tires well maintained and properly inflated can greatly improve your fuel efficiency — up to 700 pounds of CO2 a year by some estimates. You can also choose tires that are more fuel-efficient that have a low-rolling resistance to further reduce your carbon footprint.
- Be a good driver. How you drive can greatly affect your carbon footprint and emissions. Avoiding heavy traffic when possible, changing gears sooner, watching the speed limit and accelerating and braking slower are all ways to lower your carbon footprint while driving. In fact, not accelerating and braking aggressively can reduce fuel usage by 30%. Using cruise control can also help you easily apply the above tips. And like any good drive, keep your car in good condition with regular maintenance, this will ensure your car will not be overworking or burning unnecessary fuel.
- Pack light. Same as with air travel, if you pack fewer things, the car weighs less. If the car weights less, the less gas you’ll use.
- Think about an offset. If you can’t reduce your emissions, you can potentially balance it by purchasing offsets that support sustainable emission reduction projects. The Road Trip app can calculate your vehicle’s CO2 emissions based on the amount of fuel you have used on your trip; and costtodrive.com will calculate the cost of gasoline, miles driven, and carbon emissions for vehicle trips in the United States.
- Be thoughtful about RV’s. If you’re partaking in the All-American dream and travelling via RV, you can also offset your RV carbon footprint, and check out these 30 additional ways to reduce your environmental impact when you RV.
One of the greenest ways to travel is by bus or train. While, yes these types of transportation still put exhaust into the world, becauses of the nature of these modes of transportation per capita impact is less. Some estimate that it can reduce individual carbon emissions by as much as 5-10%.
Buying train tickets also funds a country directly rather than independent airlines, which means the money is being put back into the local economy.
Added bonus? You get to sit back, relax and actually see the view along the way.
Whether it’s the value, the convenience, or just the fact that cruises are a great all-in-one vacation option for families, cruise ships have been steadily gaining popularity. With a 7.4% average annual growth rate since 1980, the cruise ship industry now has over 20 million passengers per year.
Unfortunately, between heavy fuel usage, sewage dumping and pollution in port, cruise ships are also a pretty environmentally harmful way to travel. They emit three times more carbon than aircraft, and approximately 14 ounces of CO2 is emitted per passenger, every 1000 yards travelled. A recent undercover investiagation from the UK’s Channel 4 Dispatches also found that levels of pollution on decks of cruise ships were worse than some of the world’s most polluted cities. And to top that off, their investigation also uncovered some questionable worker’s rights issues.
That being said, there are some cruise lines that are more environmentally conscious than others. Friends of the Earth’s (FOE) annual report card is a great resource for travelers interested in sustainable cruise travel. The report rates cruise lines on their commitments to air pollution reduction, sewage treatment, water quality and transparency.
But, no matter what way you choose to get to your destination, always a good idea to invest to offset your individual footprint:
- TerraPass makes it easy to calculate your carbon footprint based on how much you drive and fly (as well as home energy consumption), and then will sell you offsets accordingly.
- Trip Zero Carbon Calculator helps you calculate your footprint if you’re flying or driving, and then will offset it if you book your hotel through their site.
- Native Energy Travel Calculator will calculate the carbon emissions from your travel — whether by air, car, rail or bus — and then gives you options to offset.
Also good to keep in mind all of the other transportation sandwiched in between. Try to avoid using taxis on the way to and from the airport and once you’ve reached your destination. Opt for public transportation, walking or biking to reduce your carbon footprint. Empty your trunk before you leave to reduce weight, and keep travel gear to a minimum by taking only what you need on the trip.
What are some of your green travel tips?