How to take the environment into account while travelling

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As climate activist Greta Thunberg traverses the Atlantic in a zero-emissions sailboat for a climate conference, the rest of us are left wondering about our own options for environment-friendly travel.  

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Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel, says while we might not be able to find a zero-emissions boat to take us on an oceanic voyage, we can still reduce our carbon footprint from long-distance as well as short-distance travel.

A lot of travel will have to involve a flight, especially for people who do not have time to sail across the Atlantic,” he said Thursday. 

READ MORE: Is flight shaming the next climate change conversation?

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More people are flying, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Last year saw 4.4 billion passengers take to the air worldwide — a 6.9 per cent increase over 2017. 

The UN World Tourism Organization has warned of tourism’s impact on climate change, stating that tourism is behind approximately five per cent of worldwide carbon dioxode emissions, with air travel being the main culprit in tourism’s contribution to global warming.

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Francis suggests researching sustainable choices when planning a vacation. His company’s website, for instance, speaks of never selling vacations that come with “no responsible tourism policies,” or vacations that fall under “mass tourism,” with too many visitors descending on a particular destination and wreaking environmental havoc. 

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The U.K.-based company even has a checklist for those hoping to travel more responsibly.

“Consider a holiday closer to home,” Francis said in an email. “If you’re flying, go for longer.”

He also suggests packing light, taking a direct flight in economy and avoiding connecting flights. “Every item on a plane increases the carbon it burns,” he said. 

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Other ways of travelling while minimizing environmental impact include buying local produce, reducing meat consumption, and choosing transit and lodgings that use renewable energy, he added.

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While Thunberg is crossing the Atlantic in a zero-emissions sailing boat, sea voyages are not exempt from large carbon footprints.

“It depends on the boat,” Francis said. “Travelling by train is best where possible, as this is the most environmentally-friendly and easily available public transport in most countries.”

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Another option for air travellers looking to mitigate the environmental damage of their flight is carbon offsetting.

Now Air Canada’s official carbon offset partner, Less Emissions is a company that allows you to calculate the carbon footprint of your travel and then pay towards projects such as a wastewater treatment plant in Thailand or a solar cooker project in China.

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In the past year we’ve really taken off tremendously,” said spokesperson Carly Thrasher.

“It’s definitely people being more aware about climate change.” 

READ MORE: Reality check: Do carbon offsets work?

Merran Smith from the think tank Clean Energy Canada points out that while aviation is “one of the more challenging transportation systems to electrify or reduce to zero emissions,” other transportation sectors — such as bus travel — are seeing an uptick in electric vehicle use.

“When it comes to long-haul transportation, things like airplanes and large passenger ocean-crossing ships, we’ve still got a ways to go to get to zero carbon,” she said.

“But again, there are things that those industries are doing to reduce their carbon. They’re in some places shifting to LNG (liquid natural gas), which is lower emissions than diesel, and we’ve got other experiments going on using bio fuel being mixed in with fuel to reduce the carbon.”

But it’s not all in the hands of our personal choices as consumers.

Political science professor Matthew Hoffman points out that focusing on structural changes is more important in the conversation around living or travelling in an environment-friendly way.

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“Personal travel choices are far less important in terms of climate action than working to overcome structural dependence on fossil energy,” he said by email.

“Personal choices and structural change are related, but I fear that too much emphasis is sometimes given to the personal.”

The ultimate goal, according to Francis, is “decarbonised air travel,” which is “a long way off.”

“Unfortunately the aviation industry has for too long hidden behind offsets and ignored reduction,” Francis said. Reducing how much we fly in the short to medium term is “necessary to meet emissions targets and keep global heating below two degrees.”

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