With the transportation sector being responsible for over 55% of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions in the U.S. , one has to wonder, is there an environmentally friendly way to travel?
The answer, as with anything pertaining to our impact on the environment is… yes and no. Here’s the thing. No matter what we do, we have an impact on our planet. I’m reminded of something my high school biology teacher said, “You can’t pick a flower without jiggling a star.” This means that no matter what we do, we will affect things around us in some way. This is where a lot of climate-deniers, fossil fuel advocates, and bad intentioned deflectors get it wrong. They assume that as environmentalists we think our solutions (ie renewable energy) doesn’t have any impact on our planet. And that is flat out wrong. Of course, there is some affect. But when you compare things like burning fossil fuels to creating renewable energy, the latter is the clear winner. So, when it comes to travel, we just need to choose the options that will least affect our world.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 12% of U.S. transportation emissions comes from air travel. This accounts for 3% of the nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions. And globally, flying produced 2.4 percent of the total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2018. Though this seems like a small number, look at it this way. If global flying was a nation, it would rank sixth in emission standings. And its only projected to get worse. Flight emissions could TRIPLE by 2050 .
What about driving? Cars, motorcycles, buses, and taxis account for 45.1% of CO2 emissions in the transportation sector .
But these numbers can be a bit deserving as they represent all of our road travels, not on a per trip basis and it doesn’t account for how many of you will be going on your trip. If you are solo traveling, you may see the numbers on the graph below as a clear indication that flying is the better option, but you’d be wrong. Yes, your CO2 output would be lower, BUT you also need to consider the other greenhouse gasses that would be admitted, at high altitudes, that can cause far more damage.
By using the bar graph above, we do see some solid options for travel. In the United States, coach buses, and domestic rail are the way to go. In Europe, Eurostar rail is a clear winner. But let’s be honest, not everyone has a few days to use just to travel to a destination and back. It’s a luxury afforded to only a few in the U.S. What’s the best transportation option? There’s no great answer. No one can expect you not to travel at all. And visiting family may require a flight or two. But when you can, traveling by coach, rail, car, or even better – an electric car, are better options. Research shows that even when a car is charged from an electric grid powered by dirty fossil fuels, an electric vehicle (EV) usually accounts for lower levels of greenhouse gases than a typical gasoline car. The “emissions” from an EV are usually lower than a traditional gasoline guzzling car, even when you factor in the manufacturing of the vehicle . But this is why we need systematic change to create a renewable energy grid, not one run off of fossil fuels.
Our recommendation: Travel via electric car whenever possible. If that’s not possible, try public transit. Your last resort should be flying. Lodging Hotels and lodging can take a toll on our environment. From washing towels daily to overuse of cleaning products and more, its important to consider a hotel’s carbon footprint when booking your travels. This is what we call, voting with your money. It simply means you are encouraging good practices by purchasing from them and not from less planet-friendly hotels. Hotels with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certifications are a great place to start. To be LEED certified, a building is scored on areas of carbon emission, energy consumption, water usage and protection, waste, transportation, materials used, health, and indoor environmental quality . The lowest certification is called “Certified” and requires 40-49 points. To get the highest certification, Platinum, they require 80+ points. Insider.com has a fantastic list of hotels in spots across the country that are all LEED certified. You can view that article here. When traveling, always look to see what a hotel’s eco policy is, and watch out for greenwashing. Do they wash towels daily or is there a program that allows you to use the same towel the whole trip? Do they get energy from renewable sources? Are they giving back to the environment? One hotel we loved was Winter the Dolphin’s Beach Club, in Clearwater Florida. They are certified ocean-friendly by Ocean Allies. Though the details on what Ocean Allies requires for certifications are scarce, we know that Winter’s Beach Club does the following : -Utilizes sea turtle safe lighting -Eliminates single-use plastics -Uses special window treatments to reduce energy use and minimize sun glare -Recycling bins in all rooms and on every floor -Option to avoid daily housekeeping, including being able to reuse your towels -No single-use plastic water bottles -Biodegradable coffee pods -Sale of reusable cups and straws in gift shop If you’re looking for other Ocean Allies certified lodging in Florida, you can view them here. Our recommendation: Research your hotel for their sustainable efforts and if you don’t see any listed on their website, call and ask. Look for hotels that: allow you to keep the same towels the whole stay, use renewable energy sources, restrict single-use plastics, and have a good recycling program. Food When it comes to sustainable eating on vacation, cutting out as much meat and cheese is the best thing you can do. It’s a tough subject for some due to family and cultural traditions, and because many of us have just learned to love the taste of those food. But the greenhouse gas emissions are far higher for meats and cheese as compared to things like vegetables, fruit, nuts, tofu, and rice .
57% of all greenhouse gas emissions from food production specifically comes from animal agriculture , the breeding of animals for the production of animal products. And beef production accounts for 25% of that. In fact, if cows were a country in and of themselves, they would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world . A 2014 study showed that vegans are responsible for about half the amount of greenhouse gas emissions as meat-eaters . To search for earth-friendly meals around you or where you’ll be staying, check out Happy Cow (they have a website and an app). Another consideration is if the food is local. We always encourage local places over chains and local foods over ones shipped from all over. Though transportation of food is small on the emissions scale, it doesn’t hurt to not only reduce animal products, but to eat locally .
You’ll also want to consider the amount of plastic packaging a take-out or drive through restaurant uses. Plastics are created from fossil fuels and when you’re traveling, it’s often hard to find recycling options. Do your best to avoid overly packaged food (whether from a drive-thru or a store) and save whatever you can recycle until you find the proper bin. Our Recommendation: Look for menu items marked vegan or even vegetarian (just watch out for cheese). Eat local foods whenever possible. Also, have a recycling bag or bin in your car to place items that you want to recycle when there is no proper bin around. This way you’re not tempted to throw them away in the trash. Activities
Our last category is vacation activities. Connecting with nature is one of the best, sustainable ways to spend a vacation. From hiking, to kayaking, to just enjoying the beauty of nature, when you connect with nature, you’re more likely to want to protect it . You’ll also want to look into volunteering while away. I know, I know, you’re on vacation, you shouldn’t be working. But you may find that volunteering in nature is not only relaxing but extremely rewarding. When considering other forms of activity, make sure to consider the amount of fossil fuels it will use (like long bus rides from your hotel for only a short time at that location), whether the activity will utilize single-use plastics, and what kind of “footprint” you’ll be leaving on the local area. Our Recommendation: Find activities that help you sustainably connect with nature. Also find ways to help the local area, even if it’s simply picking up trash you see! The last thing I want to say before closing out this article is that our individual choices are very important to show the hospitality industry where our desires lie (in the sustainable world). However, we also need to realize it is systemic change that will really make a difference to climate change. We need to raise our voices to companies and politicians to say that we want renewable energy and less earth-altering products. To learn how to write to your local elected officials, please check out our article, How To: Write A Letter To Your Elected Officials.
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