Aviation makes up 75% of the transport industry's greenhouse gas emissions so it is a fair question to ask, can you travel the world sustainably? There are certainly ways to reduce your impact while travelling which can benefit the environment and countries you are visiting. But as we rush to visit places like Venice before it sinks or the Great Barrier Reef before it dies, there is no denying that our wanderlust is contributing to their destruction.

I know I am not alone in feeling guilty when booking flights, fully aware my carbon footprint is about to skyrocket. And while it is our responsibility to reduce our impact on the planet (which is what this post is all about, sit tight!), it also falls to large corporations and governments.

The United Nations named 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. They aimed to work in collaboration with governments and relevant organisations to promote the role of tourism in their Sustainable Development Goals. As this work continues, we can work from the bottom to promote and implement sustainable travel. It's the combination of our efforts that will hopefully reduce the impact of tourism on the planet. Currently, tourism accounts for 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions so what can we do to lower the industry's impact?

Can You Travel The World Sustainably By Air?

Some major airlines such as Lufthansa and American Airlines have taken matters into their own hands by investing in more efficient aircraft. However, flying is the least sustainable way to travel, closely followed by cruise ship holidays. Trains produce fewer emissions than planes and cars so travelling by train is the best solution for long distances. When booking train tickets in the UK, many companies actually calculate how much CO2 you have saved in comparison to driving to your destination.

Of course, the only way to really travel sustainably, in terms of transport emissions, is to walk or cycle. Travelling the world by bike is growing rapidly in popularity as people fall in love with the sport and the freedom it gives to visit undiscovered areas. There are lots of blogs dedicated to touring by bike which provide solid inspiration for future trips. Simply Cycling is a great blog and 1 Bike 1 World has over on 700,000 followers Instagram. By touring you can travel the world sustainably, without producing any transport emissions.

What is Carbon Offsetting?

If you have to take a plane to get to where you are going, then you can offset your flight emissions. Carbon offsetting is a relatively new concept but such a simple way to balance your impact on the planet. Start by finding an emissions calculator online such as this Carbon Footprint Calculator. Calculate the total amount of CO2 produced by your flight then, using a credible charity such as The Gold Standard, offset those emissions. There are many worthwhile projects to donate to which combat climate change, develop infrastructure in poverty stricken areas and support local communities. There are pros and cons to offsetting, especially when it is used by large corporations to greenwash, which makes it a controversial idea. But on a small scale, it is a great way to reduce your impact. 

What About the Social and Local Impacts of Tourism?

Transport isn't all that needs to be considered when trying to travel the world sustainably. The impact tourism has on local communities, business and environments can be extremely destructive too. Thailand's full moon parties have attracted a lot of negative attention in recent years, as over 13 million tourists visit the country each year. Parties on Ko Phangan produce approximately 12 tonnes of rubbish per day, most of which ends up in the sea. Situations like this highlight the reality that sustainable tourism doesn't solely revolve around cutting transport emissions.
Social implications of tourism are broad. Irresponsible travel, directly and indirectly, supports systems like modern-day slavery, dilution of traditional cultures and the violation of human rights. Commodifying other cultures is an issue western countries need to address on a larger scale, highlighted recently by the Black Lives Matter movement. From a viewpoint of what we can do when travelling, being open minded and respectful of locals is an important start. As is supporting local businesses and when in poorer areas of the world, providing support in the right way. Donating to well established and verified charities is, generally speaking, the best way to help locals living in poverty. 

Travelling sustainably goes hand in hand with travelling ethically so taking animal welfare into account is also important. A subject close to my own heart, animal exploitation is a huge issue often perpetuated by tourism. Swimming with elephants and petting tigers in Thailand for example. These are not animal friendly activities and should definitely be avoided when trying to travel sustainably.

Clearly, it's a complicated subject with many aspects that could be explored in much more detail than I have in this post. But to summerise I will say, travelling sustainably and travelling generally is an opportunity of privilege. So personally, even though the guilt is still there when I book a flight, I recognise and try to use my privilege to positively affect the environment and communities I encounter. In a way, this makes travelling the world sustainably and reducing our impact as much as possible a personal decision. One I certainly encourage we do to the best of our abilities once travelling becomes an option again, post Covid-19. The pandemic has highlighted that as travellers we need to be as mindful and responsible as possible! 

Useful Resources

The Gold Standard - the carbon offsetting charity I use
Carbon emissions calculator - again the one I use
Carbon Offsetting - information on the pros and cons of carbon offsetting
Your carbon footprint calculator - use this to calculate your entire footprint (not just travel related)