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