You might assume that “travel” and “combat climate change” are phrases that inherently just don't go together. After all, travel (and especially air travel) contributes a lot of the greenhouse gases that are currently causing climate change.
According to one recent study, tourism activity accounts for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions around the world. That's not an insignificant number, and it's something I've been struggling with recently.
On the one hand, expecting people to just stop traveling (even if it is in order to save the planet) isn't exactly realistic. Tourism is at an all-time high right now all around the world. And I still believe that traveling and experiencing other cultures is one of the best ways for us to understand and empathize with other human beings better.
But, on the other hand, I know we need to do better if we expect the most beautiful parts of the world to still be around for people to enjoy in another 100 years.
I'm not a fan of counseling people to go to extremes when they want to make changes. Instead, I think the best results come from making smaller positive changes that can eventually add up to a larger one. It's all about baby steps, guys.
And this goes for combatting climate change as a traveler, too.
Below I've compiled 7 things you can do on your travels to lessen the negative impact you leave behind. If everyone made even just a couple of these changes to the way they travel, we could all make a big difference in the lifespan of our planet.
7 ways to help combat climate change as a traveler
1. Consider your carbon footprint
The reason why tourism contributes so much to climate change is because of the transportation industry; it's responsible for the majority of tourism's carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, which are the most detrimental type of greenhouse gas. Air travel is of course the biggest offender here – but it's not always a solution to just tell people not to fly, especially when 4 BILLION passengers got on planes in 2017.
I *do* encourage you to consider alternative modes of transport when possible. Trains, for example, are my favorite way to travel around Europe, and road tripping is the best way to explore the US.
When you do have to fly, try to find flights with the most direct routes (who likes layovers anyway?), pack as light as possible, and prioritize airlines and flights that use newer airplanes.
Should you buy carbon offsets?
Carbon offset programs – usually websites where you can calculate your “carbon footprint” and then make a donation to an organization that plants trees or does something else environmentally friendly – seem to be popping up all over the place these days. But there's been debate over whether they're actually effective (some studies say no, others say yes). After all, paying to plant a tree doesn't make the CO2 emissions from that flight you just took disappear.
The best way to combat carbon emissions is to lessen them.
But, having said that, there ARE organizations doing good things to help combat climate change, and making donations to them certainly can't hurt. Some of the best organizations you can donate to are ones that are working to prevent deforestation and preserve existing forests.
Carbon offsetting sites to check out include:
Just remember that carbon offsetting doesn't erase your carbon footprint. Read even more about carbon offsetting here.
2. Stay in one place longer
Related to keeping your carbon footprint in mind when you're planning your travel, also consider how you can lessen that footprint and your overall impact by staying in one place longer.
Instead of planning a trip to London and Paris and Amsterdam (which would require at least a couple of flights and a few trains), pick just one city to focus on. It lessens your carbon footprint, AND gives you the opportunity to get to know the place better.
When you stay in a place for longer, you don't feel quite as pressed for time – meaning you might be more willing to walk or bike or use other forms of eco-friendly transport.
Staying in one place can also mean that you'll have more of a positive impact on the local economy. And while this doesn't necessarily combat climate change, supporting local economies IS an important sustainable tourism practice.
3. Say no to single-use plastics
All around the world, countries are starting to crack down on single-use plastics. Microbeads in toiletries are out; states (and even entire countries) have banned plastic bags; and we all know about the war on plastic straws.
But these bans and aversions to unnecessary plastic waste aren't misguided. According to Earth Policy Institute, globally we humans use over 2 million plastic bags per minute. In the US, the average American throws away roughly 185 pounds of plastic per year. At the rate we're going, one new study warns that plastics could outnumber fish in our oceans in my lifetime.
Plastic pollution doesn't just make our seas look icky, though. When many of those plastics decompose (and, in some cases, it takes hundreds of years for them to do so), they release harmful greenhouse gases.
The tricky thing is that it can be difficult to recycle or say no to single-use plastics when you're away from your normal routines at home. Many people go into “vacation mode” and don't really think about things like plastic pollution when they're on holiday.
But we need to do better. There are many super simple ways to use less plastic when you travel. Travel with a reusable water bottle and/or collapsible coffee mug. Bring a reusable shopping bag with you. Carry your own toiletries in reusable bottles so you don't have to use the ones provided by hotels. Heck, you can even bring your own reusable straw, cutlery, and even to-go containers!
Alternatives to single-use plastics
Here are a handful of items you can invest in that will make it easier for you to use less unnecessary plastic when you travel:
- A reusable water bottle – In places where the tap water is fine to drink, I travel everywhere with my CamelBak Chute. In places where it's not so safe, you could try a filtering bottle like this one from LifeStraw, or use a SteriPen with your normal water bottle.
- A collapsible coffee mug – If you tend to get coffee to-go a lot on your travels, consider packing your own collapsible mug you can reuse. It'll cut down on all those to-go cups, lids, and sleeves.
- A foldable bag – It's super simple to stuff a reusable bag into your backpack or suitcase. These are great for shopping at markets.
- Toiletry tubes – You can find refillable tubes everywhere. Get a set, and fill at home from larger bottles of shampoo, conditioner, lotion, etc. to cut down on those travel-sized toiletries.
- Steel straws – Yup, you can totally travel with your own reusable straws! The ones I have even come with a brush for easy cleaning on the go.
- Travel cutlery – If you're going to a place with lots of yummy street food, consider taking reusable cutlery with you. Then you can say no to that single-use fork and knife.
- Collapsible to-go containers – To help cut down on both styrofoam/plastic containers AND food waste, take a collapsible container with you for restaurant leftovers.
4. Eat local
Food production and import/export activities are things that contribute to climate change that many people don't even think about. In order to cut down on your impacts when it comes to food, the best thing to do is to eat local and eat fresh.
Skip the chain restaurants and the processed food; instead, eat locally-produced food as much as possible. Not only does this help cut down on your carbon footprint, but it's also just the healthier option. (And it's easy, too – the farm-to-table concept is popular all over the world.)
You can also consider eating less meat and dairy when you travel (and, really, in your everyday life, too). Meat and dairy production contributes a huge amount of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. A recent study concluded that adopting a vegan diet is one of the best ways to reduce your overall impact on the planet.
And, while going vegan isn't right for everyone, it wouldn't be that difficult to pledge to check out at least a couple vegetarian or vegan restaurants in the new destinations you visit.
5. Consider overtourism
Overtourism is the latest hot topic in tourism. It refers to an overload of tourists to some of the world's most popular destinations, which has a negative impact on both the destination AND the experience that travelers have there.
This might just seem like an annoyance, but in some places where basic services (think: sanitation, transport, preservation) can't keep up with the influx of visitors, tourism is having a lasting negative impact on local environments.
While overtourism hasn't quite been linked to contributing to climate change yet, I feel like it's only a matter of time. In destinations that are seeing an influx of flights and bus tours, it stands to reason that the carbon footprint of those places is rising right along with their tourist numbers.
The “fix” for overtourism isn't to completely stop going to popular destinations (after all, most places are popular for good reason!), but to be more mindful of how you can ease the strain a bit.
Alternatives to overtouristed destinations
The easiest thing you can do to combat overtourism is to consider alternatives to the most popular destinations. For example:
- Instead of Paris (which was predicted to have 90 million visitors in 2018), consider visiting other French cities like Lyon or Bordeaux.
- Instead of Venice, consider less-crowded Italian cities like Verona or Bologna.
- Instead of Santorini, go to one of Greece's other islands like Naxos or Paros.
- Instead of Iceland, consider another otherworldly island nation like the Faroe Islands.
- Instead of overcrowded Bali, go to other parts of Indonesia like Lombok or the Gili Islands.
- Instead of Koh Phi Phi in Thailand, hop to another Thai island like Koh Lanta or Koh Tao.
And if you still have your heart set on those black beaches in Iceland or a gondola ride in Venice? Then consider going in the off-season or shoulder season, when it's less crowded.
6. Support businesses committed to responsible tourism
A lot of people assume that only big policy changes can truly help slow down climate change. But I truly believe that our voices as travelers are stronger than many of us realize.
Along with taking steps to reduce your personal carbon footprint, it's important to support travel companies and businesses who are dedicated to doing the same.
For example, the accommodation sector accounts for about 20% of the emissions from tourism, according to the World Tourism Organization. There are ways for hotels to cut down on these emissions by changing the way they approach things like heating/cooling, maintenance, and water usage.
You can make a difference by choosing hotels that are committed to lessening their impacts. (And of lot of the hotels that are going “green” are locally-owned boutique hotels, which means you're being extra sustainable by choosing them over big chain hotels!)
You can also support tour companies that have responsible practices in place. For example, Intrepid Travel carbon offsets all of its tours, G Adventures' Planeterra contributes to the Ocean Health Fund, and Haggis Adventures (a Scottish tour company I love) has a partnership with Trees for Life to help restore Scottish forests.
Our voices as travelers are strong (and yes, “voices” often look like dollar bills), so be mindful of how you use yours.
7. Start more conversations about climate change
Lastly, we need to actually TALK about climate change more – both how we as travelers contribute to it, and also about its effects that we see on the places we visit.
I realize that climate change can be a touchy subject, and one that often seems “taboo” to bring up in casual conversation. According to The Nature Conservancy, 7 in 10 Americans believe that climate change is real and happening. And yet less than half of us talk about it frequently.
How to talk about climate change
The Nature Conservancy stresses that we need to get more people talking about climate change. As they so rightly state, “We can’t tackle the problem if we don’t talk about it.”
But HOW do you start talking about it?
The Nature Conservancy has come up with their “Let's Talk Climate” guide that gives some excellent tips on starting conversations about climate change. The tip that resonates most with me as a traveler is that “Connection outweighs facts.”
This doesn't mean that hard facts should be ignored. But, as The Nature Conservancy points out, “facts alone don’t move hearts.”
As a travel blogger, I know that I have a unique platform to connect with other travelers on topics that I care about. But you can find those connections points as a regular traveler, too. We're ALL seeing physical evidence of climate change as we explore the world.
For example, visiting northern Manitoba to watch polar bears in the wild last year opened my eyes to the effects climate change is having on sea ice – and on polar bears. When I came home, I started telling everyone I could that polar bears might disappear entirely in less than 100 years. I even wrote a blog post about it. It's one thing to tell someone that polar bears are at risk, but another to show them photos of an adorable baby polar bear that is not likely to survive to adulthood.
In other instances, I've told people about things like plastic pollution and overtourism that I've witnessed first-hand. And I feel like sharing those first-hand experiences is a great way to connect with people and get the conversation started about climate change.
If you're interested in even more tips on how to start meaningful conversations about climate change, you can download the “Let's Talk Climate” Guide for free. (I highly recommend it! It's a quick read, but includes very useful tips.)
Download the Let's Talk Climate guide here by by entering your name and email to read the tips and start a conversation today.
Do you think about your impacts as a traveler? What are YOU doing to combat climate change?
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