How to curb your carbon footprint while traveling? As climate change arises and challenges us to become more responsible, can we decrease our footprint?

The carbon footprint of travel.

Travel does a lot of good for this world. In many countries, tourism is a huge part of the local economy and funds the preservation of historic landmarks and natural wonders. And for travelers themselves, seeing the world is a tremendous force for cross-cultural empathy.

But despite its many social merits, travel has considerable environmental downsides. An estimated 8% of global carbon dioxide emissions are linked to tourism, and this number continues to grow with each year.

If you live in the industrialized world, chances are that your carbon footprint is already high simply by virtue of partaking in a modest middle class lifestyle – much higher than the allotted 3 tons of carbon per person per year that would be necessary to halt climate change. The average American, for example, is responsible for about 17.5 tons of carbon emissions per year.

Few people are in a position to drastically change their lifestyles and entirely remove themselves from the patterns of everyday life in the name of saving the planet – to do so would be a detriment to our careers and relationships. Besides, most of the big, sweeping changes that need to happen if climate change is going to be reversed are outside of the Average Joe’s pay-grade. Governments and corporations are going to have to pave the way for living greener through widespread public transportation and alternative energy if we are ever going to make meaningful headway on reducing global emissions.

But that being said, vacation is one of those times when our personal carbon consumption is especially high. Between the flying, the hotel stays, and the dining out, your two week trip abroad is in all likelihood the most carbon-intensive part of your year.

CO2 travel

But it doesn’t have to be! With a bit of self-reflection and commitment, you can hugely reduce the carbon emissions associated with your travels. Here’s how:

1. Fly less, and fly smart when you have to.

At 54%, air transportation is the single largest contributor to the carbon footprint of global travel. In fact, a single one-way flight from New York to London will already set you back one half ton of CO2. Whenever possible, explore other means of transportation to and from your destination. If you can carpool, bus, ferry, or take a train, doing so will emit just a small fraction of the CO2 that flying would.

travel co2 transportation flight

Of course, some destinations require flying. If plane travel is your only option, there are still a few things you can do to curb your carbon emissions. Wherever possible, only take direct flights, as take off and landing are the most carbon-intensive part of flying, and those layovers quickly add up.

co2 carbon footprint flying travel

Furthermore, try to plan your trips abroad so that you only board a plane twice for your whole vacation – for the trip there and the trip back. For instance, if you live in Australia but want to travel across Europe, you might fly into Barcelona. When you’re done there, you can take a train to Paris, then take a bus to Berlin, and fly home from Berlin when you’re done.

2. Pack light.

Plane travel isn’t so carbon intensive just because of the human bodies on board – it’s also because we insist on bringing so much baggage with us when we travel. The heavier a plane is, the more fuel it burns. For this reason, always making a point to cart as little weight with you as possible can add up to huge savings in CO2 over time, especially if traveling by plane.

3. Leave your bulky gear at home and rent it at your destination.

Plan on hitting the slopes, catching a wave, or spending the night underneath the stars? Before you pack your skis, surfboard, or camping gear, do some research to see if you might be able to rent this equipment at your destination. Not only will this save a ton of weight during transportation, but it will also contribute to the local economy. And furthermore, it’s better for the environment when people share items like these rather than insisting on owning everything for themselves.

4. Live like the locals.

Rent an Airbnb rather than booking a hotel. Take public transportation. Cook yourself dinner with ingredients purchased at a farmer’s market. Drink locally produced wine, beer, and coffee. Don’t buy plastic trinkets make on an overseas assembly line. The more closely your day-to-day activities during your stay resemble those of the locals, and the shorter the distance the products you consume had to travel, the smaller your carbon footprint.

local transportation co2 travel cost

5. Consider carbon offsetting.

Being conscientious when travelling will only go so far to reduce emissions. If you really want to completely erase the carbon footprint associated with your vacation, explore carbon offsetting.

Carbon offsetting is the practice of investing in conservation projects around the world that will help lower the global carbon footprint. Carbon offsetting projects include everything from reforestation, to installing solar panels in schools and hospitals, to replacing outdated and inefficient appliances like ovens in developing nations.

There are any number of carbon offsetting initiatives around the world. Do some research to ensure that you’re giving your money to a reputable organization who is leading a cause you believe in. And depending on the organization you donate to, you may even be able to write your contribution off on your taxes.

About the author:

Alexandra North is an American translator and content writer living in Germany.

the carbon footprint of travel