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Posted: 2008-01-28 23:16:29, Categories: Travel, Ecology, Cycling, 482 words (permalink)

On board a sailing boat with a worn out sail in Jaitapur, Maharastra, India. A Californian girl asked in a message on CouchSurfing how to see the world in an environmentally friendly way. As she said, there are eco-tourism companies out there, but traveling IN nature is not the same thing as treading lightly ON it. I've gathered some of my ideas below and I'd be happy to hear some of yours, too.

Be slower, be smarter. If you take your time when moving around and don't have a tight schedule, you probably end up consuming less.

Travel at least partly by foot, bicycle or other non-motorized transport. Not only is the method of transportation ecological, it also gives a positive example for others who see you travel. When cycling in rural India, locals would often ride their motorcycle beside me and ask why I don't buy a motorcycle. I happily answered "Ah, because the bicycle is better!", which often left them a bit surprised. If they were interested, I explained more.

Eat local, buy local. Don't be fooled by eco-labels: vegetables bought from the local market or directly from a farmhouse are probably much more ecological than an imported product in a supermarket marked as "organic". It may be difficult to know how much dangerous pesticides are used on the local farm or how they otherwise treat the environment, but at least I still generally prefer local stuff. The question becomes more complex when the climate is hostile for plant life: tomatoes grown in a greenhouse in Finland during winter might be healthy but their production is certainly not energy efficient.

Inexpensive is often also ecological. Especially in less wealthy countries, being green is still surprisingly well connected with money. Vegetarian food in India is half price compared to a meal including meat. A cheap guesthouse in Cambodia is not going to have superfluous light installations, because electricity is expensive. Even low end hotels might offer air conditioning and hot water, but they are options which you pay for separately. Unfortunately, for proper waste management the rule doesn't apply — cheap places often do poorly, but expensive is no guarantee for better.

Make people think. People often ask why and how you travel, where did you go, what you liked and how do you live back home. That's a splendid opportunity to bring forward some ideas which you consider important. I believe it's best to avoid commenting negatively on others' actions, but rather spread positive thinking and personally set a good example. If you want to be more active, you can of course systematically promote your ideas, write articles and participate in environment related events, but that already goes a bit beyond simple travel.

Thanks to Päivi and Santeri for the private correspondence on responsible tourism which influenced this article. They've also raised the issue of social footprint, which is even more difficult to estimate than the environmental one. I might write about that later.


Hi Arto, Liked to read you. Very reasonable, valid point of view. Yet expressed in such a “serene” way ;) I guess it’s really a characteristic of someone that has travelled a lot ;) Keep your attitude, and I would love to continue to read your emails ;) Joao (from BikeTour)
2008-01-29 @ 01:29
Comment from: Ville Savolainen  
Hello Arto! Have you found reliable quantitative information on the effect of air travel on global warming? I’ve been lately wondering whether all effort to eco-travel is really just fooling your conscience, if you get to your destination by flying. How much your annual carbon etc. budget gets increased by, say, one Trans-Atlantic round trip? Is the only real form of eco-travel domestic travel - or starting from home with bike or train and taking your time to go wherever you go, and back?
2008-01-29 @ 05:40
Comment from: Ania Buncler  
I agree! Especially to the sentence: spread positive thinking and personally set a good example instead of critising. Bingo! And I am of course for vegetarian food which is much cheaper, much more healthy and doesn’t cause that much suffering! Greetings from Poland! A.
2008-01-29 @ 13:27
Comment from:

Thanks for the comments. It’s quite difficult to get a good overview of how much greenhouse gases are produced by which area of human activity or even more specifically, which type of travel, but I’ll try.

Roughly one fifth of the global carbon dioxide emissions seem to be from transport. According to Wikipedia, which uses data from EDGAR, the figure is 14%. WWF claims that transport accounts for 26% of the emissions, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has come up with a 27% figure for the U.S.. European Environmental Agency arrives to a 20% share of total CO2 emitted in Europe. Rather different figures, but in any case transport, both cargo and passenger travel, is one of the major factors in global warming. The biggest culprit seems to be production of energy, for both electricity and heating.

The share of airplane emissions of all transport is still low, below 10% according to most sources, but rapidly growing. For the energy efficiency per kilometer, air travel doesn’t do too well. The previously referenced EPA report states that in 2001, energy required to move a ton-mile of air cargo was 7.5 times greater than heavy-duty trucks, over 17 times that of ships, and 83 times greater than rail. For person traffic, they estimate about 4.5 liters of fuel spent per 100 km and per seat. Aviation Environment Federation (AEF), a UK non-profit, has a very readable comparison between car, rail and air travel, which lacks credibility by not listing references, but uses a very similar fuel consumption figure (4.8 liters of fuel per 100 km per seat). That calculates to about 150 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger kilometer — the same than a fairly fuel-efficient modern car with only the driver inside.

Various sources (see e.g. Aviation and the environment in Wikipedia) estimate that the total global warming effect of air travel is about two times compared to the carbon dioxide alone, due to other gases emitted and the high altitude. They are usually referring to The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has published a report on Aviation and the Global Atmosphere. I found that report rather hard to read and interpret.

Altogether, flying seems to be approximately as harmful or somewhat more harmful per kilometer than driving a car alone. A car full of people or traveling by train is clearly more efficient. It was more difficult to find data on sea travel, but the efficiency figures of the EPA report would place ships somewhere between planes and trains. However, due to the larger amount of cargo transported by sea, the total impact of shipping seems to be even larger than airlines. For personal travel, worst of all are probably high speed motor boats, which can consume really excessive amounts of fuel per passenger. Fortunately such boats are rarely used for traveling very long distances.

Overall, flying to a far-away destination is clearly not eco-travel. Even if the impact was only the same than a fuel-efficient car (the minimum figure), a trans-atlantic round trip flight would be equivalent to 15000-20000 km of driving, a distance which a typical car owner covers in one year.

Personally, I’m trying to proportionate the length of my trips to the time spent at the destination. I’m not going to fly to Hong Kong just to spend a weekend there, even if I’d find a ridiculously low price for the ticket. However, I could still take the same flight to start a two month excursion in China. Of course the environmental impact of the flight is exactly the same, but this way I end up taking less of such flights per year. Having enough time I’ll also enjoy the trip much more, making it better worth the high cost.

2008-01-30 @ 14:34

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