Back in the before times, when the word “pandemic” sparked vague thoughts of Ebola, and Siberian wildfires were the stuff of nightmares, not news, I made the bulk of my living as a travel writer. Splitting my time between Bali and Britain, I crossed the 8,000-ish miles between the two islands at will: When my autistic brother was contending with Stage 4 cancer, I commuted between continents for two-week stints supporting him on his ward. I earned my keep through an anarchic mix of off-the-path adventures, jollies to luxe hotels and restaurants, and commercial copywriting.
Several years ago, it began to dawn on me that, as an eco-conscious person—who voted for the Green Party, recycled punctiliously, tended a compost heap, set my A/C to 79°F (26°C), and used it only at night—my entire life would have to change. Not only was I chewing through as much carbon annually as an entire Eritrean village, I spent quite some time churning out content (“48 Hours In…” “Top 10 Things to Do on a Weekend in…”) which served essentially to encourage others to get on planes, often for trips as short as a weekend. Hell, I wrote regularly for inflight magazines, a publishing sector that exists entirely to get more people flying more often.
I decided that, by 2030, I would decarbonize my life. I would be writing primarily about the environment and sustainability, phasing travel out of my portfolio unless I could find a way to do it sustainably; I would be based somewhere where I could visit my son and parents by train, flying rarely, if at all; and I would be leading a lower-impact life, one without A/C and a swimming pool.
Then came the pandemic. And, alongside the pandemic, arrived the sinking realization that climate change was hitting harder, faster, and deeper than anticipated.
But as the pandemic wanes, environmentally-minded travelers have a few reasons to be optimistic about the future. United Airlines announced the world’s first passenger flight fueled by unmixed sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Japanese researchers created a lithium-air battery with roughly double the energy density of a Tesla battery, while Rolls Royce’s Spirit of Innovation electric plane broke electric vehicle speed records at 345mph.
“I decided that, by 2030, I would decarbonize my life.”
While these headlines are exciting, the industry still has a long way to go to make travel environmentally sustainable. As the travel industry struggles to get back on its feet, both professionals and travelers are grappling with how to continue experiencing the best the planet has to offer without annihilating it. There are ways to do that, and I’ll get to those later, but first a look at the magnitude of the problem.
Counting the Environmental Cost of Travel
The great irony of travel in the 21st century is painfully obvious: We fly thousands of miles to watch polar bears or dive coral reefs, while our flights’ emissions cause ice caps to melt and coral to bleach. We may embrace environmentalism at home, but on vacation, we abandon our mindful habits: Few people recycle abroad, and many destinations struggle to manage waste. In Bali, 52 percent of waste is mismanaged; every year, 452 tons of waste enter the water, 824 tons are burned, and 944 tons remain in the environment.
Tourism CO2 emissions soared by at least 60 percent between 2005 and 2016. The transport element of tourism alone contributed 5 percent of global emissions in 2016. On the existing path, tourism emissions could rise 25 percent or more over 2016 by 2030.
Behind those headline figures lie other environmental impacts such as coral reefs or fragile karst dynamited for construction, communities plunged into drought by thirsty golf courses, marine ecosystems devastated by toxic sludge from cruise ships, plastic souvenirs mass-produced in polluting factories, or the peak season energy surges in resort towns.
There are glaring systemic issues that are, theoretically, fixable. Aviation tax breaks and subsidies incentivize travelers to fly: Flying over 1,000 miles to a Spanish island from London (the equivalent of 652kg of CO2) currently costs well under half the price of a 250-mile train journey to Cornwall (25.6kg of CO2). EU airport rules mean that over 100,000 empty or near-empty “ghost flights” could be flown this year to maintain airlines’ takeoff and landing slots at a cost of up to 1.2 million metric tons of CO2. Luxury hotels train staff to blast A/C in empty rooms to cool them down for guests’ arrival.
There’s a social cost to travel, too, from vacation rentals gutting neighborhoods and reshaping cities to overcrowding in the most scenic quarters of the developing world.
Finding Balance in a Beneficial Industry
Yet there are undeniable reasons why travel has long been viewed as a positive. The industry is a major economic driver. Before the pandemic, travel and tourism made up over 10 percent of the world’s GDP and contributed one in four new jobs worldwide, providing a route out of poverty for many workers and valuable foreign exchange for many economies. In the Maldives, an island nation likely to sink beneath the waves by the end of this century, tourism contributed more than 52 percent of GDP in 2019.
I reached out to Costas Christ, who helped formulate the concepts first of ecotourism and then of sustainable tourism and cofounder of Beyond Green Travel portfolio of hotels, to see whether flying for tourism could ever be justified.
“I can say without hesitation, as someone who worked in Africa and conservation for a long time, that we would lose the Serengeti, probably in the next five to 10 years at most, if travelers weren’t going there on holiday to see the great wildebeest migration,” he says. “The Brazilian Pantanal is the largest inland wetland on Earth. Right now, half of the Pantanal is owned by subsidiaries of the global beef industry, and we’d lose the other half if it wasn’t for a mosaic of small eco-lodges and ecotourism.”
“We would lose the Serengeti, probably in the next five to 10 years at most, if travelers weren’t going there on holiday to see the great wildebeest migration.”
As Christ points out, from Costa Rica’s resurrected rain forests to the Galapagos Islands’ marine protected area, ecotourism has a major role to play not only in protecting biodiversity but also in sequestering carbon. And ecotourism is big business: In 2019, international nature-based tourism generated around $181 billion, or around 5 percent of the world’s tourism direct gross domestic product.
It goes without saying that travel can be culturally enriching, expanding horizons and creating a deeper connection with nature. Scientific studies seem to bear this out: living in and adapting to foreign cultures enhances creativity, while exposure to other cultures enhances cultural intelligence.
It’s hard to argue that tourism has proved an unmixed blessing for Bali. But it has been a major generator of wealth, and pandemic lockdowns wreaked economic havoc and human misery. Can places like Bali build back without reverting to the overtourism that has created such an impossible burden?
A New Path Forward for the Industry
The good news begins on a global scale: The world is planning to decarbonize, travel included. Like agriculture, tourism is both a major source of and victim to climate change. Agriculture is moving toward a sustainable future, and so is travel.
The UN is leading a range of sustainable tourism programs, including on plastic pollution, hotel energy use, and resource efficiency. At COP26, over 300 tourism stakeholders, including the Accor hotel group, which operates over 5,000 hotels in 110 countries, committed to cutting emissions in half by 2030 and achieving net-zero by 2050. Hotel groups including Marriott and IHG have banned or are phasing out the wasteful miniature plastic toiletries that have been a travel staple for decades, while many chains are working to cut food waste. It’s a drop in the ocean compared to what’s needed: To stay within 3.5°F (2°C) of warming, hotels need to slash emissions by 66 percent from 2018 levels by 2030. But it’s a start.
And, of course, airlines are endeavoring to reduce their carbon footprint. Airbus hopes to have a plane fueled by sustainably produced hydrogen, or green hydrogen, in the air as early as 2035. That’s certainly ambitious: Green hydrogen has yet to be produced at scale, while fuel tanks capable of safely storing enough liquid hydrogen to power a passenger jet would be large, complex, and heavy. Battery advances are in the works in aviation, but the current electric planes are tiny. SAF is a great hope of the industry, but it’s very early-stage: At the moment, the world’s total production of SAF makes up less than 0.1 percent of current jet fuel consumption, and sustainable feedstocks are hard to find. While SAF can reduce fuel emissions by around 75 percent compared to kerosene jet fuel, it can cost up to eight times as much. And contrails may account for as much as 57 percent of aviation’s warming impact (a factor most flight offsetting programs ignore)—and both hydrogen and SAF will produce contrails.
Many destinations are waking up to the need for sustainability. Many European countries are promoting hiking and biking routes, encouraging travel by public transport, and pushing longer stays and eco-friendly accommodations. Local governments in the US, Canada, and Europe are rethinking tourism on a more sustainable model. Venice has banned cruise ships from its historic center; Lisbon and Barcelona have brought in restrictions on Airbnb; Amsterdam has hiked its tourist tax, created measures against tourist bad behavior, and adopted ordinances against new hotels and souvenir shops. Hawaii is introducing booking systems and fees for its most popular parks, as well as working to address the colonialism that has shaped state tourism.
Yet the tourism industry is fragmented across sectors and geographies and many tourism-dependent economies are desperate to bring back business at any cost. It was the travel industry that gave the world the term greenwashing so, while these moves in the right direction are collectively a positive, close scrutiny will be vital.
How Travelers Can Reroute
So what’s an eco-minded traveler to do? Two things: Take meaningful steps to travel more sustainably, and keep your impact in perspective. About half of the world’s aviation emissions come from 1 percent of people who are super-emitters. Since only 11 percent of the world’s population travel by air, that means 1 in 10 air travelers is a super-emitter, with Americans well overrepresented in those numbers.
Travelers who choose flight for their annual vacation are in a different category than those taking to the skies for day trips, long weekends, or endless cross-country business meetings. “There’s a big difference between flying to a place in Africa and staying with community-based organizations and jetting off for a weekend to go party with friends,” Christ tells me. “Miami from New York, or Barcelona from London, can I really justify that?”
I spoke to Megan Epler Wood of EplerWood International, who advises governments and industry on sustainable travel and is leading a sustainable travel program at Cornell University. She was clear that traveling better will mean, for most of us, traveling less often and for longer. “Try and spread your travel out into a longer set of excursions,” she says. “The whole model of going frequently is not sustainable.”
Traveling more sustainably also involves contributing more to local communities, which might involve redesigning local economies. “Essentially, you need to lower the number of tourists and increase the number of benefits locally,” Epler Wood explains to me. “We have a great opportunity now to build, say, good, healthy food economies around a lower volume of tourists, which can show three times the local economic benefits for local people than the current system.” Rather than mass food systems where supplies travel vast distances, hotels can support local farmers and cut down their food miles, too.
But the imperative to reduce tourist numbers does not mean that ordinary folk need to entirely abandon their travel dreams. “With all of the climate shocks that we’ve seen [recently], it’s very important that all of us take a step back and think about what the priorities are in our lives,” Epler Wood says. “Think about allocating travel, if you’re a planner, over your life. Even I haven’t done that yet! But I think we’re going to have to start thinking that way.”
That’s something I’m trying to take to heart. I have a lease paid down in Bali until 2024, so there’s still some long-haul flying in my future, although much less, and the days when I’d gaily hop on a plane to Singapore, Malaysia, or far-flung Indonesian islands every few weeks are gone. Travel has been a huge part of my life—I spent four years traveling with my son—and I’d love to go back to a time when I couldn’t see the consequences of it. I am envious when I watch fellow travel writers jetting off without a care for their carbon footprint; I will, undoubtedly, miss my Bali life intensely, and I’m still figuring out how the next chapter of my life will look.
“Once you’ve looked at your carbon footprint, it becomes impossible to unsee … But there are great joys to traveling slowly.”
But once you’ve looked at your carbon footprint as a travel writer, it becomes impossible to unsee. Yes, I will be sad to not dive coral reef again, although much of the world’s coral reef is doomed by now; I’m sad that I’ll likely never ski Japan or the Canadian Rockies. But there are great joys to traveling slowly, to taking the train, to discovering your local neighborhood. And, if I’m lucky enough to have grandchildren, I’d like to have an answer to the question: “What did you do about the climate crisis?” that’s better than “I flew around the world and encouraged other people to get on planes.”