Enjoying a low-carb, low-impact Vacation

by Theresa Peluso

vacationSchool will soon be out, and families everywhere will be looking for a chance to escape from the daily stress and dull routines, and indulge in some rest, relaxation, and new experiences. Many people, concerned about human-caused climate change and pollution, are looking for ways to reconcile their need for a holiday and their desire to live lightly on the planet.

Hands-down, the most environmentally friendly vacation is one that’s spent close to home. Transportation is minimal, and there are many great experiences on offer, not only in Lanark County, but also in eastern Ontario and western Quebec. Exchange rate worries are nil, and you can experience adventures of all kinds – for the adrenaline-driven and super-fit: spelunking, white-water canoeing and kayaking, cycling, triathlons, scuba diving, windsurfing, and hang-gliding; for those who want to immerse themselves in the outdoors – camping, hiking, bird-watching, horseback riding, swimming, boating, fishing, and cottage rentals. If it’s culture you want, there are no end of arts and music festivals, first-class theatre performances, wine tours and fabulous restaurants, all within a day’s travel by car, or less. The list is endless. Benefits: your carbon footprint is small, your costs are low, you support the local economy, and you spend less time and fuss to get to your destination and back.

But perhaps, instead of having a holiday not too far from home, you have your heart set on a trip overseas. You may have family and friends you want to visit, or have saved up money and vacation days to experience for yourself and your children, different cultures and exotic scenery. That usually means air travel.

Here are the results of research by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), a scientific research institute based in Austria, and the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO), published in the Science Daily in 2013

The study calculated the climate impact for passenger trips of 500-1000 km — typical distances for business or holiday trips. It showed that, while air travel continues to have the biggest climate impact per distance travelled, the choices that people make about how they drive or take public transport make a big difference in how much they contribute to climate change.

“Travelling alone in a large car can be as bad for the climate as flying, but driving with three in a small car could have an equally low impact as a train ride,” says IIASA’s Jens Borken-Kleefeld. A 1000 km trip alone in a big car could emit as much as 250 kg of carbon dioxide (CO2), the researchers calculate, while a train trip or carpooling in a small car could emit as little as 50 kg of CO2 for each traveler.

Air travel has by far the biggest impact on climate per distance traveled, because it can lead to contrails and the formation of cirrus clouds that have a strong climate impact, as well as ozone. These mechanisms have a strong effect on the climate, but cause warming over much shorter periods of time than CO2.

The study focused on the short-lived greenhouse gases and aerosols emitted by both ground transportation and airplanes. In addition, the researchers accounted for vehicle occupancy and efficiency, based on real-world emissions data from cars, buses, trains, and airplanes in Europe….For people wanting to minimize their climate impact, Borken-Kleefeld says, “Try to avoid flying, driving alone, and driving big cars. Instead, when you can, choose the train, bus, or carpool with 2 to 3 people.” (end of quote)

For comparison, Carbon Independent’s carbon footprint calculator  estimates the carbon emissions from the amount of fuel consumed on a long-haul trip by a Boeing 737-400 at 92 kg CO2 per passenger per 910 km, but this excludes environmental damage caused by air travel, such as radiative forcing, contrails, and ozone and cirrus-cloud formation. For a short-haul flight, emissions per passenger are somewhat higher per kilometre.

Another mode of travel, even more environmentally harmful than flying, is cruise ships. An article by Charles Starmer-Smith in the January 19, 2008 edition of Telegraph Travel explains that cruise ships are equipped with all kinds of amenities for their passengers (swimming pools, atriums, games rooms, restaurants, movie theatres, jogging tracks, casinos, nightclubs, etc.), resulting in a lot of real estate to power through the water. One cruise line reported that its ships, which carry, on average, a maximum of 1,776 passengers, emit 401 g of CO2 per passenger per kilometre. That’s more than three times the carbon emissions of a passenger on a standard Boeing 747 or a passenger ferry. In addition, on average, a cruise ship passenger produces an average of 3.5 kg of garbage daily, compared with 0.8 kg produced by people on shore. Based on this information, it’s clear that taking an ocean cruise is incompatible with having an environmentally sustainable holiday. you do decide to travel by plane, there are still ways to lighten your carbon footprint. Here are some suggestions from The Independent Traveler on how to plan an eco-friendly vacation:

  • Travel light.
  • Choose a direct flight, or one-stop flight – the fewer stops, the better.
  • Stay in lodgings that practise green-living methods (e.g., use renewable energy, non-toxic cleaning products and contain recycling facilities). Conserve water by taking short showers and shallow baths, using a refillable water container and sterilizing water (if necessary) rather than buying bottled water, reusing your hotel towels and bed linens, and minimizing the use of hotel-supplied toiletries by providing your own.
  • Choose cycling, walking, travel by bus or train if possible, once you arrive at your destination, for sight-seeing and additional travel.
  • Plan activities that minimize the use of carbon-based fuels and maximize your experience of the uniqueness of your destination: Explore nature and historical sites by hiking, biking, horseback-riding, sailing, rowing, and using public transportation.
  • Show respect for the people and places you visit by doing research ahead of time on the history, geography, language, culture, and religious beliefs of your destination. When you arrive, try to immerse yourself in the experience by speaking (or trying to speak) the local language, dressing appropriately, eating local cuisine, participating in local events and exhibits, and learning as much as you can about the people and places you encounter. Also, show respect for nature and historical monuments by staying on walking trails, and not feeding animals or touching cultural artifacts.
  • Support local industries as much as possible. Eat at locally-owned restaurants, and take part in local activities, such as farmers’ markets and craft fairs, and guided tours by local experts.
  • Participate in a project at your destination that promotes environmental or social improvements (e.g., tree-planting, building wells or schools, cleaning beaches).
  • Minimize the garbage you produce by avoiding disposable containers, such as bottled water and plastic bags. Find out about local recycling facilities and use them.
  • Never ever buy products made from endangered species.
  • Consider making a donation to a reputable environmental organization to help offset your unavoidable carbon footprint.
  • Pack eco-friendly items, such as reusable water bottles, rechargeable batteries, and your own supply of shampoo and soap, or buy these once you arrive at your destination.
  • Get information on eco-friendly holidays from a site such as the Independent Traveler for suggestions on a satisfying holiday that minimizes your carbon footprint. Having said that, check the recommended sites to be sure that they are actually green. Flying to Thailand for a week to experience vegan cuisine, for example, is far from environmentally friendly.

Have a wonderful, restful and earth-friendly vacation!