How to travel better: a beginner's guide to sustainable travel in 2023 and beyond

Sustainable, green, responsible — planet-friendly ways to explore the world are more popular than ever but how do you start to make better decisions when you travel? The first step is to understand what sustainable travel is and why it’s important.

In Europe, where many trains are electric, the emissions from rail travel can be as much as 10 times less than flying.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Richard Hammond
Published 9 Nov 2022, 15:00 GMT

What’s sustainable travel?
Sustainable travel is about travelling in a way that’s sensitive to the climate and nature emergencies while ensuring that the wellbeing of the places we visit gain long-term benefit from us travelling there. It’s a balancing act between maximising the positives of travel while reducing or eliminating the negatives.

What’s happening and why?
The concentration of carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere is well over 400 parts per million higher than at any time in at least 800,000 years — and it’s still increasing, causing global temperatures to rise. The consensus is that a rise of just 1.5C will cause dangerous warming of the planet. The stability of our world’s climate hinges on whether we can keep this small rise in global temperatures in check and time’s running out. This is the decade that counts.

How does this impact the natural world?
Commensurate with the climate crisis is the nature emergency: worldwide, 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction due to the intensification of agriculture and forestry, resource extraction, hunting, invasive species, urban sprawl, pollution and climate change. Yet, this is not just about the disappearance of remote rainforests or polar bears at the extremities of the planet – habitat and biodiversity loss are happening on a colossal scale in the UK, to our hedgerows and forests, our garden birds, and the fish in our seas.

What can you do about it?
Being a sustainable traveller is not about making grand, one-off gestures, it’s a state of mind, an ongoing attitude to conscious adventure that influences all aspects of how we holiday, including what we pack in our luggage and how we travel out to destinations, as well as the choice of hotels and activities we take part in while we’re there.

The nature emergency, which is commensurate with the climate crisis, affects us all.

Photograph by Getty Images

How do I even get started?
To begin with, consider packing less: travelling lighter will reduce the chances of having to dispose of items; it makes it much easier to travel around, especially on foot, by bike or on public transport; and it’s more fuel efficient — especially noticeable if you’re travelling in an electric car. A useful device for packing economically is to consider the three Rs: Reduce: What can I get away with not taking; are there items that can double up for several uses? Reuse: What can I take that I can reuse over and over again? Recycle: What can I take that can be recycled once I’ve finished using it? Try to avoid taking single-use plastic, such as bottles, bags and straws, which break down over time into tiny microplastics that enter the food chain when they’re consumed by marine wildlife and ultimately cause serious health issues for humans. Instead, pack a refillable water bottle, coffee cup, Tupperware containers for food and toiletries, and a shopping bag — it’ll be handy not just as a replacement for buying a plastic bag at a supermarket, but also when you’re out buying food and groceries at a local market.

What’s the most important change that I can make?
The single more significant way to reduce the carbon emissions of travelling is to tackle the transport portion, which is often responsible for at least 70% of the carbon emissions of a holiday. The most effective way to do this is to reduce the distance travelled and to travel in a way that burns less or, even better, no fossil fuels, using more sustainable modes of transport; or by not travelling in a vehicle at all, choosing instead to travel on foot, by bike or under sail. There’s a steep difference in terms of the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by aeroplanes compared with most land-based vehicles. There are concerted efforts to decarbonise air travel using alternative fuels and methods of propulsion (such as via electricity and hydrogen), but even the most optimistic predictions support that this change is at least a decade away for most airlines. For the time being, the emissions from just one long-haul flight can be more than those caused by someone driving a standard petrol car for a whole year. Taking the train within the UK emits about six times less than flying and taking the bus emits about nine times less. In Europe, where many trains (including Eurostar) are electric, the emissions from rail travel can be as much as 10 times less than flying.

And what if I do need to fly?
If you do fly, bear in mind that there’s quite a large disparity between the carbon emissions of aircraft and the operating procedures of airlines, so do use online tools such as the ‘Greener Choices’ label on the search results provided by the flight search engine skyscanner.net, which flags up those flights that have less than average emissions.

While flying continues to be such a large polluter, consider adopting a more selective approach to flying: just as with the flexitarian approach to food where you eat a mainly plant-based diet and only occasionally eat lean meat and sustainably sourced fish, a similar attitude to flying could be that you mainly travel overland and only occasionally fly, staying for longer, and making the most of the flight by choosing a positive-impact holiday that benefits nature conservation and/or genuinely benefits the wellbeing of local communities.

Travelling lighter makes it much easier to travel around, especially on foot or by bike.

Photograph by Getty Images

What does my carbon impact look like once I get to a destination?
There are other factors that will affect your carbon emissions when you’re at the destination, including your choice of hotel and the food you eat. The average carbon footprint of a night in a typical hotel in the UK is about 31.1kg CO2, according to the Hotel Carbon Measurement Initiative, so choosing a hotel that has lower than average carbon emissions can make a significant difference to your holiday’s footprint. Thankfully it’s becoming easier to find green accommodation — keep an eye out for the green filters on specialist accommodation booking sites, such as Airbnb’s ‘off-the-grid’, Sawday’s 'Sustainable stars'  and i-escape's 'eco rating', there are several online agencies that specialise in green accommodation, such as fairbnb.coop and myecostay.eu, and even the big online agencies, such as Booking.com, TripAdvisor and Google, now flag up eco-certified hotels in their search results. Many of these eco-certified accommodations do much more than reducing their carbon emissions, they’ll also reduce the amount of waste they send to landfill and reduce the use of chemicals and the amount of water they use.

Feasting on local, seasonal food washed down with the local tipple conveys a sense of place better than any travel brochure. It’s also much better for the environment as there are significant emissions of carbon arising from the ‘food miles’ associated with transporting food great distances. Whether it’s freshly baked bread for breakfast, salad from the local market for lunch, or the catch of the day at the nearby restaurant, choosing local isn’t just good for the planet, it’s also healthier and a great way to put money into the local community.

Where to go
Some of the most colourful cities in Europe are a great choice for a green break, such as Bristol, Angers, Nantes, Zurich, Ljubljana and Copenhagen. Here, pragmatic local authorities are implementing the circular economy to create sustainable transport, housing and economic development policies that are accelerating their transition to net zero, which has the knock-on effect of improving the experience for sustainable travellers. For example, regenerative wetlands and connected green spaces help manage storm water, air quality and improve biodiversity, but also provide wonderful green sanctuaries that are great for appreciating urban nature or for just chilling out in parks and gardens across urban villages.

Choosing to travel by bike is one of the most effective ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

Photograph by Getty Images

And how to get around?
Countries that have a modern, high-speed rail infrastructure make it easy to travel with a lower carbon footprint. Switzerland has an extensive public transport network across the country (the Swiss Travel Pass provides free admission to 500 museums as well as unlimited travel on trains, bus, boat and public transport in cities), while France, Spain, Italy and Germany have impressive high-speed rail networks, particularly between major cities.

What about long haul?
Further afield, some countries have made concerted efforts to include tourism in their sustainable development goals. Following decades of tree clearing for agriculture and livestock production, in the 1980s the Costa Rican government implemented policies that have halted and reversed this deforestation. Today, over half of Costa Rica’s land is covered by forest, compared to just 26% in 1983, allowing it to make the most of the biodiversity in its rainforests and pioneer the concept of ecotourism, developing small-scale, high-end eco lodges that have contributed to the conservation of its rainforests. Guyana, too, is developing community-based ecotourism to fund the protection of its rainforests. Lodges such as Iwokrama River Lodge, Rewa Eco-Lodge and Surama Eco-Lodge enable visitors to enjoy the country’s incredible biodiversity, while contributing to its conservation and to the livelihoods of remote communities.

Where can I look for more information?
Richard Hammond is a sustainable travel expert and founder of Green Traveller and the author of The Green Traveller: Conscious Adventure That Doesn’t Cost the Earth (£18.99, Pavilion).

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