The Climate Crisis in Travel: Are We Missing the Bigger Picture?

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Last Updated on November 13, 2022 by Audrey Scott

As we respond to the climate crisis and consider tourism’s role in it, we wonder if we might be missing a bigger picture – and a greater opportunity — by focusing so squarely on flights. We offer some research and tools to travelers and the tourism industry to help season and expand our thinking on the topic.

Travel and the Climate Crisis
The end of the iconic airplane wing shot?

As we read about the climate crisis and the role that travel and tourism plays, we’ve noticed a prevailing theme: carbon emissions from flights and aviation are the problem.

Sure, this is a central and pressing issue. The reality is that flights do contribute considerably to global carbon emissions and this is only expected to rise as passenger numbers increase. In recognition of that, we’ve examined our own thinking and committed to the Tourism Declares framework in an effort to reduce the number of flights we take per year for professional and personal reasons.

However, flights aren’t the only problem at the intersection of tourism, carbon emissions and the climate crisis. In fact, even if we stopped flying altogether, we’d miss some of the travel industry’s greatest environmental impact and carbon emissions reduction opportunities of all.

We'd also lose out on many of the potential socio-economic and conservation-oriented benefits that travel and tourism deliver to the places we fly to and the people who live there.

In addressing one undesirable outcome we run the risk of unintended negative consequences because we failed to see the interconnectedness of it all.

Note to travelers: Although the first part of this article is more industry-oriented, you might find the background interesting as to how travel companies can measure and make changes to reduce their carbon footprint. However, in the Tools section below you can more directly see the impact of your actions and decisions — on holiday and at home.

Climate Crisis and Travel

To date, carbon offsets have served as the tourism industry’s form of penitent indulgence or get-out-of-jail-free for flight-based carbon emissions. However many experts argue it doesn't really solve the problem. We tend to agree.

Fortunately, the actions that travelers and tourism companies take on the ground once the plane has landed and their holidays begin has gained greater attention and scrutiny.

For example, recent research from Responsible Travel regarding carbon emissions from holidays found a surprising result: that the carbon footprint from food — or foodprint —  can sometimes be greater than that of the transport used to reach the holiday destination.

Travel and the Climate Crisis, Role of Food
Although this Dungan family dinner in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan is an impressive feast to behold, one of the things we worked on with this family provider was to find the optimal balance between a smaller quantity of food to reduce food waste while still maintaining the Dungan cultural tradition of serving a minimum of eight dishes.

This aligns with a project we advised on from 2019 – 2022 with the Mediterranean Experience of EcoTourism (MEET) Network which developed the Ecotourism Ecological Footprint calculator, a tool to measure the environmental impact of a tour or itinerary (after arrival in the destination). At the time, its results highlighted that the carbon footprint from food can be greater than that of transport or accommodation when on the ground during a vacation.

Repeated tests on MEET ecotourism itineraries indicated that making changes to food and meals — cutting portions to reduce food waste, replacing meat-heavy restaurant meals with lighter picnic lunches in nature, sourcing more products locally to reduce transport distance from the food source — often had a greater impact on reducing carbon emissions than making adjustments to accommodation or modes of local transportation.

This doesn't mean that accommodation, transport and activity choices are irrelevant. They matter. However, what this research shows — and why measurement like this is so important — is that sometimes the areas that get the most press and attention may not actually carry the biggest impact, positive or negative.

There’s also an environmental bonus of thinking on this particular area of behavior. We can bring this thinking about foodprint, food consumption and food waste back home, too.

Let’s Be Pragmatic: Not Just Reduction, but Optimization

The point of the MEET Network approach to measurement and monitoring was pragmatic. It was not to achieve the lowest footprint possible at the expense of an enjoyable experience (e.g., eating local vegetables exclusively, staying in an electricity-free lodge and avoiding transport).

Rather, it was to identify an optimal balance between the quality of travel experience — which includes experiencing local cuisine, the culture of hospitality, comfortable accommodation, and a diversity of locations and activities — and the sustainability of the tour.

Travel and the Climate Crisis
A light picnic lunch outdoors can be preferable to a big restaurant meal.

The online calculator — which is free and available to all tourism companies — allows tour providers to adjust different segments of their itineraries and to understand the environmental impact of those adjustments on the fly. Tour operators may realize that it’s more impactful as a whole to make select small changes across all tours than to make only a few tours zero-waste and perfect. But the first step is to understand where the biggest culprits of carbon’s emissions lie.

Environmentally aware travel is not just about flights, but instead about recognizing how the different dimensions of travel and human behavior interrelate and work at scale.

Tools to Understand Your Carbon Footprint in All Dimensions

What does this mean for the individual traveler?

Recent research and some basic tools can provide a more holistic view on one’s environmental impact, then guide which actions to take.  And I’ll continually reiterate: this isn’t about guilt-tripping about one’s travel behaviors. Instead, it's about having some context about the impact of one’s choices so deliberate decisions can be made.

Ecological Footprint Online Calculator

Check out the Ecological Footprint online calculator. It’s an easy-to-use online tool that helps you understand more holistically your carbon footprint and how different dimensions in your life and travels play a role.

The point is not so much about your final score (your personal Overshoot Day, the date when what you consume has outstripped the Earth's regeneration capacity), but instead about developing your awareness of what is relevant. The tool illustrates how choices of transportation, food, electricity/electrical appliances, home, shopping, and other activities can have an impact and just how big or small that impact is on your total carbon emissions.

Travel and the Climate Crisis, Ecological Footprint

It's worth running the online calculator process several times and changing responses to represent actions you might consider taking, then watching the corresponding change in total footprint. For example, we've adjusted the number of flight hours we take, percentage of locally sourced foods we buy, overall amount of stuff we purchase, and other factors to see in each online calculation iteration what difference each of these changes makes to our total carbon footprint.

The idea: to use the tool to increase your understanding and to find your own optimal yet realistic equilibrium.

We don’t imagine that the output of the tool should set you off with a list of how you might deprive yourself of life’s pleasures and live a hermit's life. Instead, the tool illuminates how our individual behaviors — as well as those of the companies we do business with — have an environmental impact.

WWF Environmental Footprint Calculator

The WWF Environmental Footprint Calculator is a similar questionnaire-based tool whose approach can help you better understand the environmental impact of different aspects of your life. It's a bit simpler and less precise than the Ecological Footprint Calculator, but still provides a good overview. It also allows you to compare your footprint to national averages (only available in certain countries) and see how your results measure up to those around you.

Adjusting your Travel Footprint

Most of the carbon footprint dimensions highlighted in these tools apply in travel as they do in daily life: food choices and food waste, transportation options, accommodation choices, and other activities.

The more broad-minded we are of the impact of all our travel choices — not just flights — the more both travelers and tourism companies can make informed, effective and impactful decisions across the spectrum of our behaviors.

And therein lies a fuller solution.

There’s a great deal we can change, if we look at it right.

About Daniel Noll and Audrey Scott
Daniel Noll and Audrey Scott are the husband-and-wife storytelling team behind Uncornered Market. Through their advisory, stories, and speaking they are creating a movement of travelers, businesses and destinations at the intersection of adventure, travel, and caring for our planet and its people. They help travel brands and tourism organizations develop sustainable and community-driven products and destinations through our boutique consultancy. They also connect travelers to meaningful experiences as they travel the world with curiosity and respect through our award-winning blog. You can keep up with their adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about them on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

8 thoughts on “The Climate Crisis in Travel: Are We Missing the Bigger Picture?”

  1. The focus in the tourism industry has been so focused on flying, and I was thrilled to see the study put out by Responsible Travel last week. Food waste is a huge problem in this industry, and it was awesome to see some numbers actually tied to the issue. These trip calculators are awesome for empowering travelers to make informed decisions. Hopefully this will get some traction and people will begin to consider the overall carbon footprint of their travels.

    • JoAnna, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Like you, I was glad to see more research and attention being paid to the tourism industry’s entire environmental footprint vs. just focusing on flying. I hope that more measuring and monitoring is done and becomes the norm (and more accessible) so that tourism companies have a starting point to understand their footprint and work on ways to reduce it in a holistic way. Same goes for empowering travelers to make educated decisions and choices about reducing their impact. Thanks to these studies and calculators I noticed that during our recent trip to Asia I was more aware of eating and transportation options than before. This has also carried over into awareness and decisions at home.

  2. Great article and love the online ecological footprint calender. I also agree carbon offsets are increasingly used as a get out of jail free card and don’t really address the underlying issues associated with the excessive carbon emissions from the travel industry. I also agree that carbon emissions from flights aren’t the only issue and that we need to look and other parts of the industry to see how we can better reduce emissions and help our planet.
    Laurel Christine

    • Laurel, thanks for your comment and glad that you like the idea of the online ecological calculator. I agree with you that offsets are certainly not a pass for lots of flights or other carbon emissions heavy activities. There’s lots the travel industry can do to reduce it’s overall environmental footprint, but it needs to better understand and measure the impact of its different activities.

  3. Thanks for this – such an interesting read. The numbers really are pretty damning – foodprint is a huge problem with travel. Without completely disregarding offsetting carbon emissions when flying (I still believe that there’s no action too small), you’re completely right to talk about the wholesale changes that need to be made.

    Instead of just jumping on a ‘Zero Waste’ bandwagon (even though the intention is good), breaking everything down and actually analyzing how each aspect of tourism can be optimized will yield much better results. Unfortunately, that process isn’t really standard yet. We can only hope that it will be soon – for everybody’s sake. Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks, Daniel! Yes, the goal of this article is not to disregard the carbon impact of flying, but to emphasize that there are other decisions we make when on the ground that can also greatly impact our full environmental footprint from a trip. TBH, I didn’t realize the impact that food choices had on this until working on a project that measured this.

      Completely agree with you that breaking down components and understanding where the biggest problems are will be the best way to address environmental and other damage. Trying to go “Zero Waste” just isn’t a reality for most businesses and so if companies and travelers make adjustments to address the main problem areas that will go a long ways.

  4. Such good information. As a travel agent I want people to travel more and see more of the world and quite honestly I don’t normally see the negative side of travel. But it’s there. Some of it can be solved more easily. For starters, utilize technology for cleaner fuel. As well as each traveler doing their part in keeping the world clean and in tact for generations to come. As stated, taking deliberate actions!

    • Thanks for commenting and sharing your perspective as a travel agent. When travel is something you love and it is also part of one’s work it is easy to not “see” or realize all the potential negative sides and how it can do harm to the environment and local communities. But, there are opportunities through the actions of travel companies and travelers to try and minimize the negative impacts and maximize the positive impacts. Hard to do, but not impossible 🙂


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