Whether for business or leisure, the vast majority of us travel a lot. One study across 189 countries found that tourism accounted for 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. So should we travel at all?

Each year, we see more and more news stories appear. We’ve all followed the Brexit saga, the Iranian situation, the protests in Hong Kong and the trade stand-off between the U.S. and China. While these are undoubtedly important events that affect many millions of people, another issue that is just as important fails to receive the same kind of news coverage. This is the pressing and wide-reaching effects of climate change.

Science has offered us a prescient glimpse into what our future looks like and if things continue as they are, our world is in dire straits. In fact, we’re all already living with these consequences. While we could spend time castigating corporations for their mass manufacturing, pillorying politicians for sitting on their hands and flaying friends for their plastic bottle usage, our energy is better spent on trying to mitigate the effects of climate change before it becomes too late.

For those who love travelling and seeing the world, this is proving to be a particularly difficult quandary, as travel also happens to be one of the biggest contributors to the climate change problem. Some have argued that we shouldn’t even travel at all. Yet, there are other arguments too. For example, there are millions of people who rely on travel and tourism to survive. Travelling can also help visitors understand, experience and accept the cultural and societal differences that exist around the world. Despite these benefits, the drawback of throwing humanity’s existence into question is incomparable with anything else.

So what are the consequences of climate change? What is the true impact of travelling on climate change? Are there types of travel that are more environmentally friendly? And what can be done to offset and mitigate our carbon footprint? While we don’t have an answer to solve the climate change problem, we do have answers to these questions.

What do ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ mean?

First of all, let’s explain what some of the terms that often surround this topic mean. Despite how the term is often used, ‘climate change’ isn’t something that’s tangible in and of itself – it’s the term we use to refer to the on-going changes to the world’s weather patterns and rising temperatures over a sustained period of time. The increase in temperature is referred to, more generally, as ‘global warming’. So when we say ‘climate change’, we’re referring to the primary cause and effect of this change (i.e. warmer temperatures leading to extreme weather and the consequences); whereas ‘global warming’ only refers to the primary cause (i.e. the Earth’s increasing surface temperature).

Climate change is something that has been observed by scientists since the 1800s – correlating with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution – but it wasn’t until the 1900s that it could be so obviously observed that changes to the climate were being influenced by human activity. Since then, we’ve seen carbon dioxide levels rise by about 40% across the 20th and 21st centuries – taking us to levels unseen at any time in the past 800,000 years. This ‘human activity’ is what we refer to as our ‘carbon footprint’, a metaphor referencing the level of greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide that is released as a result of our activities (i.e. our ‘footprint’). When we talk about ‘our’ carbon footprint, we can be referring to our own personal impact on greenhouse gas emissions, the footprint of a community, industry or nation, or the human race’s collective participation in producing greenhouse gases.

Greenhouse gases and carbon emissions

The reason for these long-term changes is due to ‘greenhouse gases’. This term refers to any heat-absorbing gases within the Earth’s atmosphere that are causing an excess level of warmth. There are a plethora of gases that could be referred to as greenhouse gases (or GHGs), with some of the primary types being: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), water vapour, nitrous oxide (N20) and ozone. Not all of these gases are equal. Some can absorb a lot of heat but dissipate relatively quickly, whereas others don’t absorb as much heat but last for a long time. Greenhouse gases are both natural and human-made. Regarding the latter, we contribute GHG to the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels (such as coal stations to produce electricity and fuel used in vehicles), deforestation, rearing livestock and the manufacturing of cement and aerosols.

The ‘global warming potential’ (GWP) index – as set out in the Kyoto Protocol – details the differing effects of these gases in comparison to one another. In the GWP index, the primary gas used as a reference point is carbon dioxide. It , equals 1 (meaning 1kg of carbon dioxide) in this ratio; whereas a more potent gas, such as methane, has a value of 25. This means that 1kg of methane produces 25 times the warming effect of 1kg of carbon dioxide over a given period of time, usually 100 years. Therefore, because the effects of 1kg of methane are equal to 25kg of carbon dioxide, the 1kg of methane can be referred to as 25kg of ‘carbon dioxide equivalent’ (CO2e).

This conversion is especially useful because carbon dioxide is often used as the reference point for all greenhouse gases. The terms ‘carbon dioxide’, ‘carbon’ or ‘carbon emissions’ are generally used when talking about our greenhouse gas emissions, even though that does not include the impact of other gases. Converting them all to CO2e allows us to see the impact of all GHGs while still using a common unit. However, nowadays the term ‘greenhouse-gas emissions’ is becoming popularized over simply ‘carbon emissions’.

Consequences of climate change

While climate change can still be viewed by many as an event of the future, the reality is, climate change has been happening for a long time. It’s now becoming a pressing issue because world leaders and the general public are finally beginning to recognize the effects.

The current day consequences of climate change are multiple. Firstly, there’s the warming effect. The destruction of polar ice shields and melting ice are a result of global warming which, in turn, increases water levels. In addition, water expands as it gets warmer. Therefore, we are seeing sea levels rise as a result of melting ice and increasing water temperatures. This not only leads to more flooding, but increases the potential for the erosion of both coastal and low lying areas around the world.

Additionally, extreme weather is becoming more commonplace. We’re seeing more heavy rain and extreme weather events occurring – sometimes at times of the year when they haven’t happened traditionally. This can decrease the quality and availability of water in certain regions. In extreme heat waves, the chance of forest fires increases and people find it more difficult to cultivate their land for resources. More people are becoming sick or dying as either a direct or indirect result of these conditions. Additionally, many species of wildlife face extinction, as they are not able to adapt to climate change quickly enough.

Ultimately, the effects of climate change could displace many millions of people as regions of the world become uninhabitable. Some environmental activists warn of a ‘doomsday’ scenario of the Earth where food supplies are strained and life is no longer sustainable. While many scientists reassure us that this outcome is unlikely, this nightmare-ish prediction should serve to illustrate the graveness of the situation. These consequences can arise if the current level of greenhouse gas emissions is sustained, global warming continues unabated and climate change goes unchallenged. Thankfully, continual efforts over the years by environmental campaigners – and recent events such as the Extinction Rebellion and #FridaysForFuture campaigns – have helped to further speed up the processes that will likely mitigate the more extreme outcomes of climate change. However, much more needs to be done to reduce the devastating impact of global warming and climate change.

Impact of travel on climate change

One talking point in the discussion surrounding climate change is the degree to which consumer and commercial trends have affected the creation of greenhouse gases. Many people are now looking to the effects of their own behaviours, such as the items they buy, the appliances that they use and, in particular, their travel arrangements.

Whether for business or leisure, most of us travel – a lot. It could be part of our everyday commute, to get to a business meeting, for a short domestic break or a long-haul flight as part of a family holiday. Whatever the case, our travel arrangements play an indirect role in the creation of greenhouse gas emissions. Forms of travel such as cars, buses, trains, ships and planes are huge producers of greenhouse gas emissions, primarily due to the burning of fuel. While the effects of driving in a car with multiple passengers or travelling on public transport (such as a bus or train) can help to ease our carbon footprint during our commutes to work, this mitigation is out the window when we have to travel further afield or internationally.

Just take, for example, a flight from Los Angeles to New York. If you have a seat on such a flight, you’ll be adding months of human-generated emissions to the atmosphere from a single, 5-and-a-half hour journey. One analysis has even found that an individual on a return flight from Edinburgh to London will contribute more CO2 than the mean annual emissions of a person living in Somalia or Uganda. While this is a common short-haul journey for those working in the corporate world, people in places like Uganda are being made to pay for a debt they never accumulated in the first place. Homes, crops, businesses and human health are already being damaged in ‘the Pearl of Africa’ due to heavy rain and flooding in some regions of the country, and droughts in others. The cause? Climate change.

Tourism, the travel industry and greenhouse gas emissions

One 2018 study across 189 countries found that tourism accounted for approximately 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. This figure not only includes the impact of flights, but also the impact of producing cheap, plastic souvenirs and even eating out. The countries causing the most harm in the study were, unsurprisingly, the U.S., China and Germany – countries known for both their size and wealth.

Despite factors other than the impact of transportation being included in the overall figure, the major contributor to GHG emissions was air travel. From 1990 to 2006, GHG emissions resulting from aviation increased by 87%. Things haven’t got any better over the past decade. In fact, researchers in the 2018 study found that these numbers are set to increase as the world gets richer and demand for luxurious travel arrangements grows. And with the global tourism industry growing by about 5% every year, this problem doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere. The finger could be pointed at the aviation and travel industries, but it could also be argued that such flights are only happening as a result of consumer demand.

Other alternative forms of travel, such as cruise ships, don’t fare much better. One industry expert claimed that the most efficient cruise ships actually release up to 4 times more carbon dioxide per passenger-mile than jets. In addition to damaging the ocean, cruise ships impact the quality of air out in the ocean. One study found that, in some instances, air quality was comparable to a heavily polluted city such as Santiago or Beijing. However, trade groups in the cruise ship industry are currently working hard to comply with both air and water quality standards set by the U.N.’s International Maritime Organization.

Hotels are also a problem. A UK charity recently stated that 200m miniature toiletry bottles (such as shampoo, conditioner and body gel) from UK hotels are dumped into a landfill annually. Thankfully, there is progress to be found. InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), the parent company of brands such as Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza and InterContinental, has pledged to remove these amenities from their 843,000 rooms in 5,600 hotels worldwide by 2021. Meanwhile, legislators in California aren’t leaving the decision up to businesses, as they are currently looking to ban miniatures altogether.

While aviation and plastics are often talked about, as these are things all travellers directly encounter, what is often overlooked is water equity. The demands of tourists to have fresh, clean water is in turn placing demands on the water supply of certain destinations, leading to a loss in water quality for locals in favour of tourists. Bali is one example of a tourism hotspot where there is a gulf in water equity between tourists and local people. Tourists on Bali are thought to consume about 65% of local water resources while households on the island face a reduced water quality. With approximately 80% of the island’s economy reliant on tourism, some have accused the local government of kowtowing to tourists. While hotel associations do appear to be taking action to encourage their members to implement solutions to this problem, Bali is but one of many tourism hotspots around the world continuing to face this problem.

Conflicts of interest

Huge barriers to mitigating and even reversing the impact of climate change are the commercial and political worlds. Inaction, refusal to accept the facts and ignorance – both of the purest and wilful variants – is common. The multitude of obstinate behaviour has proved frustrating for campaigners whose interest is in safeguarding the environment that we all live in.

However, conflicts of interest in both the political and commercial spheres have played a huge part in the creation of buffer stops and signal failures on the increasing popular ‘Climate Change’ line between the stations of ‘Acceptance’ and ‘Action’. Civil society groups and NGOs have been critical of the United Nations (U.N.) failure to adopt clear and defined regulations regarding Conflict of Interest (COI) in regards to climate change.

A COI is when an individual or institution is faced with two (or more) contradictory interests. This is not necessarily a suggestion of individual duplicity, instead it references the situation rather than the person. One recent example is the case of United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft. Craft is married to billionaire coal magnate Joseph Craft and there have been concerns that this relationship may affect Ambassador Craft’s ability to act on climate change due to this conflict of interest. More widely, environmental activists have pointed to the lack of U.N. guidelines as a huge barrier to overcoming conflicts of interest. Research shows that big energy corporations have sent larger delegations to U.N. climate change talks than that of entire nations.

Within the travel and tourism industries, the conflicts of interest are also apparent. Airlines, travel businesses and tourism workers are reliant on a steady stream of travellers using their services and visiting their countries. Essentially, short-term profit and economic boosts are being traded for long-term losses on environmental sustainability and, perhaps, even profitability. After all, if parts of the world become unbearable or uninhabitable as a result of climate change (for which the tourism industry contributes 8% of the total GHG emissions), the global travel and tourism industry will have no choice but to contract.

To travel or not to travel

The question of whether or not to travel is undoubtedly a decision that has to be taken at an individual level. There are benefits and drawbacks to such a decision. One benefit is the knowledge that you are no longer contributing to the high levels of GHG emissions produced as a result of travel and tourism. However, for such a decision to really have impact, this is a choice that has to be adapted collectively. Airlines will, after all, continue to run flights if there is demand – irrespective of your choice.

Then there are the drawbacks. As aforementioned, many people are reliant on tourism to provide a means to live for their families. This is true for airline pilots and other middle-class occupations within the travel industry, as well as for local people at tourist destinations, such as tour guides, indigenous communities and gift shop workers. Another drawback is the loss of a hobby and cultural experience. Travelling is a terrific way to get away from everyday life and brings with it cultural enrichment and even educational value.

So if you want to keep travelling, but are struggling to justify the harmful effects of the travel industry and tourism on the environment, what else can you do?

Mitigating and offsetting your carbon footprint

There are a number of ways to continue travelling while also either offsetting or mitigating the impact of your journey. One way is by calculating the amount of carbon emissions that will be released as a result of your travel. This will allow you to see your individual carbon footprint, ensuring that you can make a more informed decision before you go. Additionally, finding out the impact of your journey can allow you to offset the emissions.

Offsetting is when you pay an amount of money to a broker who will spend the money on efforts to negate the GHG emissions released into the atmosphere from your flight(s). For example, the money can be put towards the planting of trees, the construction of a wind farm or methane capturing efforts. However, it’s important to find a provider that performs on-going vetting of offsetting efforts to ensure that your money is being spent in the correct manner. Additionally, you could make a contribution to an environmental charity that helps to preserve the area or region that you are visiting.

There are also a number of smaller efforts you can make while on your journey. If possible, try to walk more or rent a bike instead of taking taxis and buses. Of course, make sure to keep your safety in mind when making such arrangements. Avoid littering, keep lights off if they don’t need to be on and make sure to re-use your towels. Another great tip is to make fewer trips, but make those trips last longer. This can reduce your air miles without necessarily reducing the amount of time that you are travelling.

There’s also often a temptation to see areas before they are ravished or destroyed by climate change – such as Antarctica – and this is often referred to as ‘last-chance tourism’. Some experts have offered criticism of these marketing tactics claiming they cause an even greater strain on environments that are already struggling. Thankfully, there are sustainable tourism companies out there who do care about the impact of tourism on fragile environments. As such, it’s always important to examine the environmental preservation efforts of any companies you choose to use.

Then there is, of course, more activism-related mitigation. You can write to local, national or international political representatives, sign petitions and spread the word on social media or amongst your friends and family circle. If you are an employee, talk to your employer about their commitment to reducing unnecessary travel when more environmentally friendly options are available; such as conference and video calls. If you are an employer, look to use these methods when they are available.

There’s no real right or wrong answer to these questions. However, if you have a passion for travel, you needn’t give it up. Rather, a smarter, reduced approach to travelling may be a better way to offset the effects of your carbon footprint.