Responsible holidays

We need to talk about carbon

Last updated 19th July 2022

Responsible travel specialist Holly Tuppen explores the uneasy relationship between the climate crisis and our globe-trotting habits

For the past 30 years or so, climate change has been simmering beneath seemingly more pressing daily demands. But in 2019, that all changed. The oil industry is now struggling against a wave of activism (having silenced scientists since the 1970s). Extinction Rebellion, Greta, Sweden’s flygskam movement and Attenborough’s latest documentaries have given us a kick up the butt.

If you’re not familiar with the science bit, here’s a quick recap. The global average of atmospheric carbon dioxide is now approximately 407.4 parts per million (ppm) – an increase of 25 per cent since we started burning fossil fuels on a mass scale in the 1950s. Oceans are warming 40 per cent faster than the United Nations predicted five years ago and scientists believe we’re experiencing the highest level of carbon in 800,000 years. This change is creating temperatures unknown since prehistoric times.

As we hurtle towards the fatal 1.5 degrees Celsius rise, climate change has become a climate crisis. Unless we reduce fossil-fuel consumption with urgency, the world as we know it will alter beyond our control.

Freak weather events will obliterate communities, rising sea levels will flood vast coastal areas and soaring temperatures will render parts of the world uninhabitable. Tragically, it won’t be the most polluting nations that suffer first: in 2019, consecutive cyclones in Mozambique killed more than 1,000 people and it became too hot for farmers to work in parts of Pakistan.

Pledging not to fly doesn’t mean going without holidays

Knowing this somewhat dampens my wanderlust. The travel industry accounts for almost 10 per cent of global carbon emissions and is by no means slowing down. In many ways, it’s having a crisis of its own. Should we fly? If we do, should we offset? Do we have a right to travel? And what about all those people and economies that depend on the travel industry to survive? The answers are not clear cut, but there are a few facts we should consider every time we book a trip.

Flying is the single most carbon-guzzling activity that any individual can do. The aviation industry emits almost as much carbon emissions as the whole of Germany. Meanwhile, only five per cent of people in the world fly. As a family, we flew once in 2019, to South Africa, and that trip alone amounted to 3,983.4kg of CO2 – that’s more than the average carbon emissions per person per year in Brazil.

Confronted with facts like these, thousands of people have signed pledges to go flight-free for 2020. In 2019, one-third of Americans reduced their air miles due to climate awareness and in Sweden, air traffic has fallen by 4.5 per cent.

Of course, pledging not to fly doesn’t mean going without holidays. It’s an excellent opportunity to remember the wealth of experiences right on our doorstep and embrace slow travel – overlanding to far-flung corners of the UK or Europe is often far more intrepid than jetting off to the other side of the world.

An overland adventure: The Glenfinnan Railway Viaduct in Scotland

Some have turned to carbon-offsetting to appease guilt. Carbon-offsetting schemes work out how much carbon you’ve put into the atmosphere and pay to remove the equivalent. This could be through investing in renewable energy, planting trees or protecting forests. Unfortunately, many of these schemes have been discredited: an EU report in 2017 found that more than 70 per cent of offsetting schemes don’t work. It also seems to miss the point – we’ve gone beyond the point of merely needing to offset our carbon.

If not flying and offsetting sound a little unsatisfactory, it’s important to remember that small steps are better than none. We need to reduce our travel emissions wherever possible, just like the ‘flexitarian’ eats less meat.

Rather than whizzing off for several weekends a year, perhaps we should only fly for one longer trip. When booking flights, we can ‘vote with our wallets’ by choosing carbon-efficient airlines and those that invest in clean fuels and electric tech. There are also campaigns to join, such as Responsible Travel’s one to introduce a Green Flying Duty, and being mindful of our footprint once on holiday: seeking out hotels with sustainable creds, limiting meat intake, taking public transport and supporting conservation projects.

Combating climate change used to be for the sake of ‘future generations’ or ‘the grandkids’, but now it’s for the sake of us and our kids. It’s right here, right now. Whatever steps you’re willing to take, commit and make it count. Just make sure you’re not the one rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.

Get involved: If you’d like to support conservation projects that empower local communities, take a look at Cool Earth, TreeSisters and Forests Without Frontiers.

Read more of Holly’s articles on responsible travel