It's a very small sample size at a very small travel company, but this study points to a possible way forward for the travel industry. If consumers can get a better idea of the environmental impact of their vacations, they can then make more informed decisions.
Over the last couple of years the environmental impact of air travel has started to gain a wider audience with the phenomenon of flight shaming gaining plenty of attention, particularly in northern Europe.
What is perhaps less well understood is the carbon footprint associated with other parts of the holiday experience such as food and accommodation, something that new research commissioned by UK-based activist travel company Responsible Travel hopes to shine a light on.
The study only looked at four holidays so it’s difficult to extrapolate the data across the whole industry, instead the findings point to a future where consumers can work out the true value of their trips. More information will allow people to make better informed decisions on how they can reduce their environmental impact.
Many airlines — as well as metasearch sites such as Skyscanner — show the carbon cost of a flight but this study shows it’s also possible to calculate it for other parts of the experience as well.
The authors — Professor Stefan Gössling, of Lund University and Dr. Ya-Yen Sun of the University of Queensland — looked at four different holidays and calculated emissions for food, accommodations, as well as two different transport options: one high polluting and one low polluting.
“It would seem feasible to apply the method to a greater number of packages with limited resources, and to create a benchmarking database that can be translated into a carbon label to inspire holiday choices,” the authors said.
In most cases the transport element, especially when it contained a flight, had the highest carbon footprint but what was interesting was that the share attributed to food and accommodation increased as the length of holiday got longer.
Taking fewer, but longer holidays is still better overall because it would reduce carbon intensive flying but it’s worth remembering that it would increase the footprint associated with food and accommodation. The pilot study also shows the importance of finding other ways to get to a destination, instead of getting on a plane.
(The authors choose not to take into account the significant non-CO2 warming effect caused by air travel at flight altitude.)
Hotels could lower their impact by offering a plant-based menu, seasonal produce and switching to renewable power.
“We know we have to fly less, but that’s not the only significant contributor to the carbon emissions of your holiday. Your food is a significant, and sometimes the single biggest source of CO2 emissions from your holiday. To get to net zero carbon 2050 we’ll need to fly less and change what we eat. This is a small pilot study, but it starts that conversation,” Justin Francis, founder and CEO of Responsible Travel, said.
Understanding the Carbon Cost of Holiday
The travel industry as a whole has been pretty slow to wake up to the climate emergency. Airlines are using carbon offset to try and disguise the fact that the aviation industry looks likely to play a much bigger role in climate change over the coming decades.
Aside from some tinkering at the edges — reducing the amount of single-use plastics in hotels for example — there’s been little done to try and reduce the overall environmental impact.
In 2015 nearly 200 countries signed up to the Paris Agreement, which set out to limit warming to below 2 degrees centigrade. Last November the Trump Administration notified the United Nations that the United States was pulling out.
The U.S. aside, many counties across the world are looking to drastically reduce their carbon footprint over the coming years. Flying looks like it will be a target for tax rises.
But apart from this, it’s relatively easy for travel companies to ignore environmental concerns.
In Europe and North America the wealthy are continuing to travel and the growing middle class in counties like India and China is fueling a further travel boom. In the short term that’s OK but what happens, for example, when extreme whether becomes more commonplace? Will tourism still be able to escape relatively unharmed?
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Photo credit: Vegan food. Is a plant-based menu the way forward for hotels? Ella Olsson/ freshnlean.com / Flickr