green travel

How to lower your carbon emissions while traveling

TRAVELERS TEND TO THINK of the world as something worth preserving, which forces them to confront a problem: Travel can actually be pretty damaging to the environment. A lot of forms of travel have high carbon emissions, and a lot of tourist activities do significant damage to the sites being visited.

There are plenty of things you can do, of course. There’s the famous “Take only photos, leave only footprints,” mantra, there’s ecotourism, and there’s political involvement. But on a more personal level, how should you travel if you want to travel with the lowest possible carbon emissions?

The obvious answer is to travel by your own power. This could mean walking, biking, kayaking, paddleboating, skateboarding, scootering, or pretty much any other form of travel that doesn’t involve an engine. You could sail, or you could put together a skiff like Huck Finn and only visit places that are downriver. In a lot of cases, like international travel, these aren’t practical. Here’s how to travel with the lowest carbon emissions possible while still using an engine.

How to get there greener

Back in 2008, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) put together a guide titled Getting There Greener. It basically took apart each mode of travel and calculated its total carbon emissions over certain distances. The answer isn’t as cut-and-dry as you might suspect — there are three main factors you need to consider when you’re calculating total carbon emissions for your trip.

The first is the distance you’re traveling, as some options become more efficient and more reasonable over longer distances. For example, planes tend to be big carbon emitters. But if you’re traveling a distance of a thousand miles, the plane is going to be running for about two hours while a car could be running for 15 to 20.

The second thing you have to consider is how many people are traveling with you. If you’re traveling in a car and you have two people instead of one, you’ve already cut your collective carbon emissions in half. If you’re traveling on a plane, you’re splitting those emissions with anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred other people. But if you’re in first class, you’re taking up more space on that plane — space that could seat another passenger.

The worst modes of travel

Unsurprisingly, the worst mode of travel is first-class airplane travel. This is because of the high emissions of the plane and because of the space you’re taking up. That said, if you’re traveling on your own and are traveling more than 500 miles, the worst way to travel is by SUV. SUVs are huge polluters, but this doesn’t mean that in some situations they aren’t a viable option — if you’ve got a family of four or more, an SUV comes in the middle of the pack for efficiency.

But flying first class is always a mistake, and is never recommended by the UCS. If you can, book your trip on an all-economy flight, and fly direct whenever possible. If you have to make a connection, still try and travel in as straight a line as possible.

For one person going long distances, even the average car is a big polluter. Back during World War II, US propaganda attempted to convince Americans to carpool to save on fuel. The famous tagline was “WHEN YOU DRIVE ALONE, YOU DRIVE WITH HITLER!” A little heavy-handed, yeah, but now we could just as easily say, “WHEN YOU DRIVE ALONE, YOU DRIVE WITH MASS EXTINCTION!”

In short: When it comes to cars, carpool whenever you can.

The best modes of travel

It turns out there’s a single answer to this in literally every scenario: If you can’t bike where you’re going, take a motor coach. Every time. This is especially good news for budget travelers, because in the absence of a solid public transportation system in America, we’ve seen an influx of budget bus companies like Megabus and BoltBus. These are not only some of the cheapest modes of travel, but they’re universally the best. And, hey, free wifi!

The reason is that, while buses use a lot of gas, you’re usually splitting it with a couple dozen people, and that dilutes the emissions more than any other form of travel. So take the Megabus if you can.

If buses aren’t your thing, the next best option is usually to take the train. Trains have way more in the way of carbon emissions than motor coaches, but they also split them among hundreds of passengers. The Northeast United States is the best place to take trains because there’s more of them here, and many run on electricity rather than diesel.

If you’re traveling with a family of four, though, it turns out the second-best mode of travel is actually taking a road trip in a typical car, and if there’s just one or two of you traveling, and you’re going a long distance, the second-best way is to fly economy.

A few more tips

The UCS did a full chart of travel modes by rank. They also provided some useful tips as well. If you’re traveling by car, for example, try to travel when there’s little or no traffic, as traffic increases your emissions. And obviously, if you travel with a hybrid, an electric car, or at least a car with very high fuel efficiency, you’ll be doing a lot to lower that carbon footprint.

Do your research before traveling. You can still see the world and keep your carbon footprint to a minimum.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network. Photo:Thorsten Koch

5 ways to be a greener traveler

1. Travel slow.

The slow travel movement was started somewhat separately from just trying to reduce environmental impact. It was initially an attempt by travelers to more fully immerse themselves in the places they were traveling by spending more time in a place and allowing themselves to get to know the people and culture, rather than flying in, ticking items off a tourist to-do list, and then flying out. But as it turns out, slow travel is pretty compatible with ecotourism.

By moving slowly and intentionally, you’re likely to spend less time on forms of transport that emit a lot of pollution and greenhouse gases. You may even choose to bike or walk from place to place, if you have light enough luggage. And ultimately, human-powered means of travel are the most environmentally friendly ways of getting around.


2. Know the traveler’s hierarchy of carbon emissions.

If you have to travel in a way that leaves a carbon footprint, try to keep it as small as possible. The Union of Concerned Scientists put together a handy guide for the best way of doing that, and while the best method of getting from place to place changes depending on the number of people you’re traveling with and the distance you’re going, there are some basic rules you can follow.

First, the worst way to travel is almost always by airplane in first class. You’re taking up a lot of space on that plane, and the plane is spewing a lot of bad stuff into the atmosphere. Second, the best way to travel in pretty much all of the scenarios is to take a motor coach. Yes, buses have carbon emissions, but you’re sharing those emissions with dozens of other people. Third, if you have to drive, carpool, and always drive in the most fuel-efficient cars possible. Check out the other tips and travel methods here.

3. “Take only photos, leave only footprints.”

This aphorism changes depending on what you’re doing — for scuba divers, it’s “Take only photos, leave only bubbles” — but the basic sentiment remains the same. The rule is usually geared towards people taking part in outdoor activities, and basically means, “Hey asshole, don’t leave your plastic water bottle in the woods in Yellowstone.” But it can just as easily apply in cities. You should still try to recycle as much as possible, and you should still never litter.

4. Use water like there’s a finite amount of it.

Peak water is a thing, and it turns out those of us living in the developed world use a lot of it unnecessarily. It’s estimated that the minimum amount of water needed for drinking, cooking, bathing, and sanitation per person per day is 13 gallons. The average person in the US uses between 65 and 78 gallons. Honestly, this is an average you should try to work down a bit in your daily life even if you’re nottraveling, but it’s important to remember while traveling, too, especially if you’re in a country that struggles with water scarcity.

Most of the ways of doing this are fairly simple. Follow the “If it’s yellow, let it mellow” rule in your hotel or hostel, make sure the hotel doesn’t wash your towel every day, turn off the water in the shower when you’re not rinsing off, turn off the water while you brush your teeth, and so on. For more tips on how to conserve when you travel, check out this post at The Frog Blog.


5. Do your research before you leave.

If you’re planning a short trip or an excursion, make sure you read up on the places you’re going ahead of time. Does that dive shop take care of the local reefs? Is that hotel a known polluter? Is there a way I can give back to the community I’m visiting while I’m there?

Keep in mind that just because something claims to be “ecotourism” doesn’t mean it’s actually helping the environment. Ecotourism is still a niche of tourism, and some less scrupulous tour operators will use the label to pull in well-meaning tourists. You should also keep in mind that many of the ecosystems you travel to may be quite fragile, and that your desire to “get out into nature” and having a low impact on the environment around you may not coincide.

For example, if you were to travel to a national park, you may want to leave the trail to get away from any trace of humankind. But there may be an environmental reason the trail goes through one section of the park and not the other. Know the rules and then follow them when you go.

This article was first published on the Matador Network. Photo:Kyle