According to scientific estimates, travel is responsible for eight percent of global emissions. This estimate was developed by considering the travel experience “end-to-end”, including the carbon dioxide emissions generated by flights, as well by accommodations, meals, and shopping.
Flights are an especially knotty topic for climate conscious travelers because the means of decarbonizing flights are not yet available. Whereas for other components of our travel - accommodations, ground transport, meals, shopping - the means of decarbonization (think renewable energy at hotels, electric vehicles, eating local and in season) are available and understood, when it comes to aviation, the means of decarbonization is still in development.
Quantifying the carbon emissions associated with travel means considering transport broadly (not only flights) as well as the carbon dioxide emissions associated with tourism activities, such as the fuel burned in vehicles, emissions from waste including creation of single use plastic (for example, water bottles, bathroom amenities), and the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the many purchases people associated with travel - think of the energy used in providing food, accommodation, transportation and shopping. In terms of tourism’s overall contribution, flying is thought to make up 12 percent of the sector’s global carbon footprint.
Aviation’s emissions will ultimately be brought down through:
(1) technical improvements in propulsion, such as planes powered by electricity, new wing designs, and other energy efficiency advances in airplane manufacturing,
(2) increased use of low carbon fuels (including sustainable aviation fuels), and
(3) more efficient air traffic management including routing and landing cycles to reduce emissions.
Until such time as though improvements are manifest, many argue that the only way to reduce emissions is to reduce air travel volumes as compared to the past. Especially because so much of the pollution from any given flight takes place during take-off and landing cycles, re-thinking short haul flights where ground rapid transport exists has been encouraged in the popular press. For example, as noted in the mainstream travel magazine AFAR, and in The Guardian, “the emissions produced per kilometer for each passenger on a domestic route are 70 percent higher than long haul flights–and six times higher than if the same journey was made by rail.”
Flights remain necessary however in many situations and are still often required to bring travelers to places where tourism funding is vital to supporting local conservation initiatives. Travelers grappling with “flight shame” will take comfort in knowing there are ways to minimize the impact of your flying, and make sure the local benefits of your travel are fully realized.
Here’s the playbook for climate conscious travelers:
Find the full report here.