It’s as much a holiday tradition as stuffed stockings and ugly sweaters — hopping a plane, train, or automobile for the trip home. (Or at least the journey to reconnect with far-flung family members.)
Next week in the U.S., Thanksgiving kicks off a six-week season of family and travel that culminates at the end of the year with tinsel, trees, and turkey (or whatever your protein of choice). Flights will be booked, staying arrangements finalized (and then re-finalized), and escape plans drawn.
Amid this furious planning, however, it’s important to remember to reduce the impact of your travel on the planet. No one is suggesting you camp out in seclusion in your kitchen for the holidays, but there are steps you can take to reduce your carbon footprint while on the road or in the skies.
Know the facts
In the U.S., the transportation sector is the largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2020, transportation accounted for 27% of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, followed by electricity at 25%, and industry at 24%.
Within the transportation sector in the U.S., road vehicles are the biggest culprit, accounting for a massive 82% of CO2 emissions. On the other hand, aircraft accounted for nine percent and rail just two percent. Ships, boats, and other transport were responsible for the remaining seven percent.
In the European Union, the story was the same — 27% of greenhouse gas emissions were transport-related. In 2019, road transport accounted for almost 72% of total transport-related greenhouse gas emissions.
Predictably, the pandemic significantly reduced transport emissions in 2020, particularly in air travel. International aviation emissions were 54% lower in 2020 than in 2019.
Fly or drive?
Considering the data, you’d think flying is more environmentally friendly than driving. However, that’s precisely the case.
When deciding to fly or drive, you must first consider the length of the trip. A 2014 study by the University of San Francisco revealed that aviation’s landing and takeoff cycle emissions could represent up to 70% of an airport’s total emissions inventory. And since cruising altitude is better on fuel, long-haul and direct flights are more efficient than short trips. Think Los Angeles to New York (long-haul) versus Paris to London (short-haul). U.K. data also shows that driving with one person in the car is comparable to the emissions of a short-haul flight.
When driving, you can lower your carbon emissions by renting or buying a hybrid or electric car that is gentler on fuel. Plus, carpooling and traveling with others in the vehicle will also bring down your overall CO2 emissions per person. In short: Fly (or better yet, take a train when available) for long-haul trips. Drive or take a train for shorter trips. Carpool with others when possible.
Why train transport is best
Depending on where you live, the eco-friendliest mode of transportation might be the train. Trains can hold the greatest number of passengers, resulting in lower CO2 emissions per person. Plus, many trains are electric-powered, so they are generally more environmentally responsible than gas-fueled cars and vehicles.
If you are traveling in Europe or a country offering intra-city trains, traveling by rail is the most efficient and eco-friendly way. It’s almost always better to choose a longer train journey than a short flight.
Plus, when you consider the bus, car, or train you will need to take to get to the airport and out, the CO2 emissions really add up. On the other hand, trains tend to arrive in the city center, limiting your need for additional transportation to your final destination.
10 ways to reduce your carbon footprint when traveling
Of course, choosing a mode of transportation is just the first step of your journey. And if you want to travel more responsibly this holiday season, you must be aware of the impact even your most minor actions have. Consider these 10 steps you can take as an eco-friendly traveler — whatever your last stop may be:
- Pack lightly. Don’t overdo it when packing your bags. Every pound adds up whether you’re flying or driving. Which is one of the reasons to take SaltyLama’s eco-friendly detergent strips along for the trip. Not only is the packaging slim and light, but you’ll be able to keep the few clothes you bring clean and fresh in a sustainable way. And if you happen to be crashing with family, it could be a chance to show them a new way to do the laundry — without the heavy plastic jug of liquid detergent.
- Walk, ride a bike, or take public transport. Hopping into a taxi, Uber, or driving yourself only increases your carbon footprint.
- Avoid bottled water. Bring a refillable water bottle instead.
- If you’re not staying with family, research your hotel and compare their sustainability strategies before booking.
- And in that hotel room? Hang your towels and leave the “do not disturb” sign up to avoid unnecessary cleaning.
- Support local shops and restaurants instead of chains, as this helps to reduce overall environmental impact.
- Don’t grab takeaway coffee or drinks. Enjoy your beverage on the premise or bring your own reusable mug.
- Spend more time in nature and less time partaking in CO2-emitting activities — however chilly it might be.
- Turn off the heat when you’re not in your room. (Or the AC if you have fled to a tropical climate for the winter.)
- And if you have bolted for warmer, more exotic locales, be sure to support sustainable tourism; again, do your research before booking anything.
Eco-friendly travel is the way forward. Know the facts, be conscious of how you can reduce your carbon footprint and help us make the world a greener place. Looking for more ways to live a sustainable lifestyle? Here are 10 easy ways to be more eco-friendly.