how to travel sustainably

A basic guide to low carbon emissions travel

THE BIGGEST ETHICAL CONCERN confronting today’s traveler is how to still see the world without leaving environmental destruction in your wake. This is, to be totally honest, a pretty impossible task — to get to most places on a normal schedule, you have to use some sort of carbon-emitting means of locomotion, and that in itself is contributing to man-made climate change. Presumably, you’ve already thought about this, and have decided that the benefit of traveling outweighs the negative impact of the emissions. It’s cool, I’ve done the same thing a bunch of times, and am in no place to judge.

We’ll assume for the moment that you’ve decided you want to travel somewhere, and want to get there as green as you can. Congrats! The fact that you didn’t just go blundering out into the world with no consideration of the environment around you means you’re already less of a dick than most people. Here are the basics.

Zero-Emissions Travel

Photo:  Peter

Photo: Peter

This may seem blindingly obvious, but it’s worth noting that the best way to get from Point A to Point B in terms of low carbon emissions is by going the non-motorized route. There’s no such thing, incidentally, as zero-emissions travel, because you’re a carbon-emitting organism, and as such, nothing you do is zero-emissions. Presumably, you also fart, and farts contain methane, which is also a greenhouse gas. So the best thing you could do for the environment is to… well, not exist. But let’s assume you’ve rejected that option, and want to keep the emissions as close to zero as possible.

Your options tend to be slow, labor-intensive, expensive, or some mix of the three, and they’re fairly obvious — in the no-vehicle camp you’ve got walking or running, in the very-small vehicle camp you’ve got cross-country skiing, skating, and skateboarding, and in the larger vehicle camp you have bicycles, recumbent bicycles, tricycles, rickshaw cycles, and velomobiles. You also have water-based and sky-based forms of transportation, such as kayaks, canoes and sailboats for the former, and pedal-powered airplanes and helicopters for the latter.

The drawbacks for these forms of travel are obvious — the quicker ones tend to be pretty expensive, and the slower ones are, well, super slow, and limit your options significantly. There is a movement for this type of travel, though. It’s called slow travel. Slow travel is its own philosophy: not only does it focus on low emissions, but it also aims to reduce the element of rush from the travel experience, while emphasizing enjoyment and connection to locals and patronage of small local hotels and businesses.

Even if you don’t have a lot of time for, say, a slow travel trip around Europe, taking a walk or a bike ride is a pretty great way of seeing the area immediately around you. On top of that, walking has been proven to be good not only for your physical health, but for your emotional and mental health and for spurring creativity. So if you have the time — or have something particularly cool within walking or biking distance — this is absolutely a cool and legit way to travel.

Motorized travel

Okay. You’ve decided to go somewhere, and you’ve decided not to walk. What are your best options for low-emissions? Fortunately, the Union of Concerned Scientists has done some research in this field, and has found that the greenest mode of travel is…

Drum roll…

Photo:  joshr0ckx

Photo: joshr0ckx

Motorcoaches. Yup. Taking a Megabus, Greyhound or BoltBus is the most eco-friendly (and usually the cheapest) way of getting from Point A to Point B.

You might have been expecting something along the lines of a motorcycle or a small car to be the answer here, but the UCS’s reason for saying motorcoaches have the lowest carbon emissions is simple: busses split their emissions among a lot of people. So yes, a bus with 30 people on it will emit a lot more than a car, but it will emit a hell of a lot less than 30 cars.

The best of the rest

After motorcoaches, your options vary depending on how many people you’re traveling with, how far you’re traveling, and what type of vehicle you’re traveling in. Taking a train is usually the best form of travel otherwise, especially if the train is powered by electricity (which is common in some parts of the world, but not in the US outside of the Northeast Corridor).

When you’re driving by car, you cut your emissions every time you add a new person into the vehicle with you. So doing a one man (or woman) road trip is going to have about four times higher emissions than traveling with three other people. Buddy road trips are better anyway. It also helps to plan your trips so that you’re not going to be spending much time in traffic. Idling in traffic is a great way to pump poison in the atmosphere while not getting anywhere.

For cars, it also matters what type of car you use. Obviously, fuel-efficient cars, hybrids, and electric cars are the best, and obviously, gas guzzlers are the worst. Gas guzzlers, however, are not the most fuel-inefficient form of travel in every circumstance. That honor belongs to the first-class flight. The rationale behind this is that first class seats take up space that may otherwise have fit two or three other people. Flights aren’t eco-friendly regardless, but by taking up space that another person could have sat in, you’re effectively doubling your personal emissions.

The Union of Concerned Scientists put together a tremendously useful little chart breaking down what the most efficient mode of travel is based on your circumstances (specifically, based on the distance you are going and the number of people you are traveling with).

This graphic was made by the  UCSUSA .

This graphic was made by the UCSUSA.

You can check out the full report here.

What about motorcycles?

Photo:  Phlubdr

Photo: Phlubdr

UCS didn’t include motorcycles in their analysis because they are a ridiculous way to travel, especially if you have more luggage than a Camelbak1. Your instinct may be that, because motorcycles have more fuel efficiency, that they’re a really great way to get around. While it’s true that they’re more fuel-efficient, Mythbusters proved that they’re not particularly better than cars because they tend to release a lot of other harmful particulates, like the ones that cause smog, hydrocarbons, and carbon monoxide. Mythbuster Adam Savage says: “At best, it’s a wash. Motorcycles are just as bad for the environment as cars. At worst, they’re far worse.”

I personally don’t recommend riding motorcycles because a) they are wildly impractical for hauling luggage, and b) they’re suicide machines. I mean, have you seen the highways lately? They’re totally jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive.

Tips for air travel

Flight isn’t ever the best way to get around, but it’s also not always the worst. Flying economy is, if you’re going long distances by yourself, a better choice than taking a car. And on top of this, there are ways to lower your emissions as much as possible. The UCS suggests doing the following to keep your flight emissions down:

  1. Fly economy. If you have to fly, just suck it up and fly cramped. Your discomfort is good for the environment. If you want to get really serious about it, some airlines offer more economy seats than others on the same type of plane. Use these airlines when you can. Southwest and JetBlue both offer economy-only flights, and these are better to take from an environmental perspective2.

  2. Fly non-stop. You’re adding to your total emissions by zig-zagging. If you have to connect, try and make it as straight a line as possible. Don’t, in other words, go Chicago-Atlanta-New York when you can go Chicago-Cleveland-New York.

  3. Fly at airports that aren’t super congested. Much like driving in traffic, busy airports mean more airlines taxi-ing on the tarmac, which means more idling emissions. Go to less-used airports to limit the congestion.

How about offsets?

No, this is not an offset. Photo:  Ekke

No, this is not an offset. Photo: Ekke

Okay, so you’ve decided to go somewhere, and you’ve decided to go by plane. Is there a way you can maybe counteract some of those carbon emissions?

The short answer is yes: Carbon offsets are basically programs you can invest in that absorb carbon or other greenhouse gases in some way shape or form. Some of the programs are geared towards capturing cow farts. I’m not kidding about that. Others simply plant trees, while others still are basically simple investments in renewable energy (wind and solar) companies. 

The longer answer is more complicated. Lots of environmentalist sites don’t advocate the use of carbon offsets because they see them as a kind of half-assed attempt to make ourselves feel better about our excessive carbon emissions. The truth likely lies somewhere in between: we should try to lower our carbon emissions on an individual and collective level, but carbon offsets are also worthy of our investment.

If you’re looking to offset your flights with a carbon offset, you need to shop around. Not all carbon offsets are created equal. But respected Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki recommends the Gold Standard as having the highest standards for offset quality. Suzuki also put together a guide for buying offsets which is worth checking out.

I also personally like Stand for Trees. They focus on conserving forests and communities that might other be clearcut or destroyed, thus depriving the world of a very natural way of absorbing carbon. They’re also spectacularly easy to use, and are pretty affordable as well.

In order to figure out how much carbon you’re dumping into the atmosphere by traveling, visit this travel carbon calculator, enter in your info, and it will give you a number. You can then buy carbon offsets that are equal or greater to that number and your damage has (theoretically) been offset.

Other solutions

On an individual level, the best thing you can do to lower your total travel emissions is to quite simply travel less, and to only travel by plane when totally necessary. Here are a couple more ideas:

  1. If you own a small business, or have the say over these types of things, try and do videoconferencing instead of actual conferences as much as you possibly can. If you don’t have control over this type of thing, then maybe lobby your bosses for it. Business travel is becoming less essential in the age of the internet, and if you can make cuts, you should make cuts.

  2. Set aside a year or two and spend zero time on a plane. Treat your hometown and the area around it as a tourist destination. Bike around one weekend. Try local restaurants and bars. Visit the touristy things you’ve never visited before. Learn about the history. Treat your home like it’s Paris. Mercifully, for most of the world, air travel is still a luxury, which means that this is something that you, as a flying member of the privileged few, have an opportunity to make a big impact in. You can fly less while traveling the same amount.

It’s worth noting, however, that while individual efforts to lower carbon emissions are worth making, they are ultimately insufficient to adequately address the problem of climate change. The solution to climate change is going to have to be a collective one. If you want to fight climate change, here are some really solid non-profits you can support:

On top of that, if you really care about this issue, get involved! Go protest something! Travel and environmentalism go hand in hand: if you love seeing the world, you should fight to keep it from being destroyed.

Featured  Photo: Everett Taasevigen

17 incredibly easy things you can do to be a more eco-friendly traveler

1. Buy reef-friendly sunscreen if you're going to swim in the ocean.

Some sunscreens contain a chemical called oxybenzone. Even small amounts of this chemical can do a lot of harm to coral reefs, so if you're going to go swimming, try and buy a reef-friendly sunscreen instead. A bunch of them are available at this link.

2. Get a reusable water bottle.

The water restriction in airport security is a pain, but there's no reason you can't still bring an empty reusable water bottle and fill it once you're through security. The less plastic you use, the less plastic ends up in the oceans and in landfills.

3. Take a bus or a train.

Motorcoaches and trains have way lower emissions than planes, and are usually better options than driving a car.

4. Travel close to home.

If you've got a long weekend, instead of traveling far away, check out someplace close to home that you've never been. This not only helps reduce your carbon footprint, but it also makes you look at your home in a new light.

5. Rent a hybrid.

Or an electric car, if possible.

6. Don't overdo your hotel electricity use.

Just because you're on vacation doesn't mean you should overdo it with the hotel's electricity -- if your room doesn't have a key slot that turns off all of the power when you leave, do it yourself. And keep the A/C low when you're in the room, and off when you're out.

7. Don't use the hotel soaps.

All those little plastic bottles get restocked with every visitor. Don't open them -- just bring your own.

8. Make use of the "Do not disturb" sign.

Hotel cleaners at nicer hotels want you to feel like you're in a hygienic environment, so they're going to overclean, if anything. If you don't want them washing your sheets and towels and wasting water, just keep up the "Do not disturb" sign. Some hotels also have posted policies -- towels on the floor get cleaned, towels hung up don't. Look out for these signs and help the hotel be greener.

9. Stay with friends when possible.

Get rid of all that energy that would be expended on you at the hotel: stay with friends.

10. Spend locally once you're at your destination.

Aside from helping the local economy, spending your money on food that's grown locally or on crafts that are made locally is generally better for the environment.

11. Stay on the trail.

If you're hiking, don't leave the trail. You don't know what you might be damaging by blazing your own trail.

12. "Take only pictures…

"...leave only footprints." Pictures are better souvenirs anyway.

13. Stay at eco-lodges or accredited hotels.

Some hotels are better than others. Check out this resource to find an accredited green hotel.

14. Take care of your home before you leave.

TVs that are plugged in still draw power from the socket. So unplug your appliances at home before you leave, and put a halt on your newspaper delivery (if you have it) so as to not waste that extra paper. Better yet, go for a digital subscription.

15. Fly direct.

If you want to limit your carbon emissions but still have to fly, you can cut back on them by simply taking the most direct flight. If you have to make a layover, try and pick the flight that has the layover that's the least out-of-the-way.

16. If you're trekking, do your washing indoors whenever possible.

If you've been on a long hike and want to get clean, it can be tempting to just take a bath in the lake with some soap. Just go for the rinse instead: soaps, even biodegradable ones aren't great for local water ecosystems. So just hold off until you get back to the lodge. It's okay to be stinky for a few days.

17. Fly coach.

The more people who fit on a plane, the more ways the emissions are split. Flying first class (while delightful) means you're taking up more space that might otherwise be used for another seat. So fly coach, and fly on planes that have more coach seats and fewer first class seats.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network.

Here's how to offset your carbon emissions as a world traveler

THE TRAVEL COMMUNITY OVERLAPS pretty heavily with the environmentalist community. This isn’t surprising: it’s hard to go out and see the world and not want to preserve it as much as possible. But this presents a dilemma for travelers: unless you’re traveling by hand or bike or maybe some sort of solar powered car, you’re contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. The activity that made you care about the planet in the first place, paradoxically, is actually harming the planet.

There are, of course, ways that you can try to limit your carbon emissions while traveling -- you can travel by motorcoach, you can carpool, you can fly economy instead of first class -- but ultimately, the emissions are still getting into the atmosphere, and sometimes, taking a motorcoach isn’t an option. And how do you weigh the value of becoming a kinder, more well-rounded, tolerant person against the value of protecting the environment? There’s no common currency in that trade off -- no matter how you justify it, you’re going to be rationalizing one way or the other.

The good news is that there are a couple of ways to still travel and, at the very least, take a few actions that will make your trip carbon neutral.

Carbon Offsets

Carbon offsets were originally a tool that were first conceived of as a way to help businesses try and reduce their overall carbon emissions. The way it does this is simple: you try and match the amount of emissions you actually put into the atmosphere by putting money towards programs that absorb or reduce greenhouse emissions at the same level that you’ve put them into the atmosphere.

There are a lot of carbon offsets out there, and not all are created equal. But the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) has put together a short guide to buying offsets. They recommend using independently certified projects, such as the ones that are approved by Green-e Climate Certified Carbon Offsets. These projects include landfill gas capture programs, cattle methane capture programs, and coal mine gas capture programs.

Stand for Trees

Similar to carbon offsets are programs like Stand for Trees. Trees are nature’s natural carbon absorbers, so when people advocate for sustainability, they frequently advocate the planting of new trees. But even more effective is to simply protect our already-existing forests. A major source of a lot of our environmental and climate problems is massive deforestation, as when trees are chopped down, they cease to absorb carbon, they release their carbon back into the air as they decay, and they cease to be a home for vital ecosystems.

Stand For Trees allows you to make donations to specific projects that are protecting forests and ecosystems around the world, and also tells you, by protecting forests that may otherwise have been chopped down, how many tonnes of greenhouse gasses you are offsetting. It’s surprisingly cheap -- $10 per tonne -- and it also is cool in that it allows you, if you want, to pick specific spots in locations in Asia, South America, Africa, Oceania and the Caribbean that you can put your money towards.

How to do it

First, go to this carbon emissions flight calculator and enter in your flight origin, destination, and whether you’re flying first class or economy (first class tickets are bigger carbon emitters because they take up more space on the plane which might otherwise have sat more passengers to split the emissions between). This will tell you the amount of greenhouse gasses your flight can be expected to emit. For example, a roundtrip flight from New York to LA will emit about 0.75 tonnes of greenhouse gasses.

Then, you can buy carbon offsets for that amount. This is easier on the Stand for Trees page, as they generally are geared towards smaller amounts of money, which offsets may not be. Grist recommends, if you want to go the offset route, simply investing or donating money to your local renewable energy products or to nearby environmental groups -- this may ultimately have the same effect, and may cut out the middleman.

It’s important to note that the best thing for you to do isn’t to just keep emitting greenhouse gasses at your current rate while simultaneously buying carbon offsets. It’s better than not buying offsets, sure, but overall, the point is to try and lower your personal emissions as much as humanly possible. But regardless, this is one way that you can cancel out some of the harmful effects of your travel without having to give it up entirely.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network.

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