Calculating the carbon footprint of a trip in Vietnam was a stark reminder of how flights and luxury hotels are wrecking balls environmentally.
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One of the many aspects travel gets flogged over is its carbon emissions. If you’d like to contribute to setting the planet on fire, getting on a plane works. What about if you don’t? What about if you’d prefer to reduce your emissions? Skipping domestic flights is the obvious first step, but what next? With this in mind, I decided to track my carbon emissions over my recent three-week trip to Vietnam. Here’s what I found.
Before anything, I needed to decide what I should measure. Transport was a no-brainer, but what about food and accommodation? Although domestic flights removed from the equation, the other two categories can both be significant contributors. But how significant? Well, it depends. How do you travel? What do you eat and drink? Where do you stay? As it turns out, no two travelers are the same.
The two systems I tried out were the Capture app and the Path Net Zero calculator. While Capture has some issues, it is more appropriate for travelers looking to measure their carbon emissions. If you’re a tour company wanting to figure out the emissions of a trip, Path Net Zero is by far the better option. I used Capture during my trip while by the end of it, inputted the data from Capture into Path Net Zero.
There are some important differences between the two. Capture doesn’t include accommodation while Path Net Zero does and each takes a different approach to food. You can calculate the emissions from transport by distance or time, and I used time for both systems. However, the results were often quite different.
For example, Capture calculated 1,229.80 kilograms for my two flights while Path Net Zero came up with 824.52 kilograms. This highlighted how tricky flying can be. How full was the flight? What class was flown as Path Net Zero allowed me to select class while Capture doesn’t. What type of plane was it? How was the weather? These can all impact the amount of emissions allocated. That said, in the scheme of things, does it matter? Probably not — flying is the wrecking ball. Using Capture’s numbers, the two flights accounted for a whopping 74 percent of my total emissions.
OK, we all know flights suck for the planet. But what about if we removed flights? Then it got more interesting. With flights removed, train travel jumped to first place at 43 percent, then food at 26 percent motorbikes at 15 percent and cars at 12 percent. What about accommodation? A mere 5 percent. Why? I stay in small hotels and homestays.
If you thought flights were hard, measuring accommodation was a veritable snake pit. For most hotels, electricity is the main emissions source — air conditioners, kitchens, laundry, pools and hot water all need power. The more rooms, the more pools, the more restaurants, the more power. Despite what five-star resorts might claim, they are, more often than not, abject wrecking balls environmentally. They’re also some of the worst greenwashing scoundrels on the planet.
I stayed at six places during my trip — all but one with twelve rooms or less and only one had a pool. When it came to figuring out hotel emissions, rather than ask the check-in desk for their meter readings, I hit the books.
The most useful was Carbon Footprint Assessment of Home-Stays in Thailand by Jarotwan Koiwanit and Viachaslau Filimonau. It looked at homestays in Ranong Province, using actual data, and threw out real numbers. I took these figures, then doubled them for my stay — inexact, I know. Path Net Zero’s hotel estimate was double mine, but they only go down to two-star properties.
Then I looked for papers on the emissions of flasher properties. You know where this is going right? First I grabbed one that looked at luxury hotels in Taiwan — Analysis And Benchmarking Of Greenhouse Gas Emissions Of Luxury Hotels by Kuo-Tsang Huang, Jen Chun Wang and Yi-Chieh Wang. Then, for mid-range, An Assessment Of The Environmentally Sustainable Hotel Operation: The Case Of Centara Hotels & Resorts, Thailand by Glenn Baxter and Panarat Srisaeng worked well.
Let me save you some reading time. Where the average carbon emissions of my budget digs came in at under two kilograms a day, the midrange Centara was 37.88 kilograms per day and a five-star in Taiwan was 50 kilograms a day. Note, these are average numbers. Calculate a three-week stay and my 21 kilograms was roughly 720 kilograms with Centara and 950 kilograms with luxury. There is a fair chance my estimate for budget emissions was low, but doubling the research numbers was a good baseline. I added more for the property with a pool.
That said, there was no way on earth I was going to get my accommodation-related emissions up to 950 kg. So the best way to reduce your vacation emissions after removing flights is to avoid five-star hotels. They are a garbage fire of emissions masked by certified greenwashing. Instead, stay at small homestays where you’ll save money and possibly have a better time.
OK, now that I got that off my chest, let’s move on.
The next quagmire is food, which Capture and Path Net Zero take different approaches to. The former lists six options: a heavy amount of meat, a medium level of meat, limited meat, pescatarian, vegetarian and vegan. This reflects the fact that less meat equals lower emissions. Path Net Zero takes a different approach listing meals by meal type — for example, American or continental breakfast with other meals split between meat, fish or vegetables, each with a different weight. This was a bit too fiddly for me, particularly as I was stuffing my face with bowls of noodles. I stuck with Capture’s approach.
The carbon emissions of food — or rather, meat — can, like flights, vary. A few strands of some unlucky local cow tossed into a bowl of phở has a very different emission calculation from an imported Australian three-inch-thick grain-fed, massaged-daily air-freighted — but still unlucky — cow. It depends how much you want to get into the number crunching. Concerned? Skip the Argentinian steakhouse and grab a phở on the street.
In my case, all but my four of meals during my three-week trip came from the street, and I chose a low or medium amount of meat. That gave me scores of 4.67 or 5.63 kilograms per day. The total over three weeks a few bowls over 110 kilograms. I don’t drink, so imported alcohol was not on my radar.
Finally, there’s ground transport. For trains, neither tool had an option for “clapped out Vietnam locomotive powered by dirty fuel.” I’d guess the data comes from European trains, but I’m not sure about that. The same goes for vehicles and so on. Is the car or bike electric? I guess these options will appear in the future.
It is most important though to keep a bit of perspective. If you want to go wild and have some crazy imported meal, do so, but try and balance it out with a few extra bowls on the street. If you want to minimize your emissions, here are my numbers-assisted takeaway five points, in order of impact:
- Do not fly domestically.
- Avoid high-end hotels.
- Don’t stay in a place with a swimming pool unless you need or want it.
- Slow down, spend longer in each place so you use ground transport less.
- Eat less meat.
The first two, are in my mind, no brainers. The other three are more calls for moderation. Think about your impact and act on that — and eat more phở.
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org in 2004, a travel planning website that covers much of Southeast Asia. This column first appeared in Couchfish, a travel newsletter McDonald launched in March 2020.
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Photo credit: A street vendor eating her lunch in the old quarter of Hoi An, Vietnam John Burke / Getty Images