Last Sunday I attended a demonstration where participants ranging from aboriginal people to labour groups to Jane Fonda raised their voices in an effort to make governments take action on climate change. The occasion was the Climate Summit of the Americas, taking place in Toronto this week. But the whole event got me to thinking about how we affect the environment when we travel. Is there such a thing as green travel?
Baby boomers are one of the first generations in history that have the freedom to criss-cross the globe at will. Around the world in 80 days? No problem. But at what cost? It’s a complex question, but at the end of the day it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that travel helps hasten climate change, and too often harms the environment.
Whenever we travel, we use fuel and create harmful emissions. When we visit developing countries, we create demand for food and other goods that may cause the locals to raid the forests or cut them down to make crop lands. And when we venture out to look at wildlife, we may put pressure on the very birds and animals we came to see.
Of course, travel can also do good. The promise of eco-tourism dollars (and pounds, euros and increasingly, yuan) can push governments of Third World countries to protect fragile ecosystems in order to keep the cash flowing. For example, the interest in African wildlife has resulted in the creation of forest reserves and prompted governments to protect endangered species from poachers.
As well, eco-minded visitors can have a positive influence on countries stuck in the 19th-century mindset that sees rivers as places to dump the garbage and animals as things to be exploited or killed as pests. The influence of outsiders can help push these countries into the 21st century.
Overall, however, we almost inevitably do some damage to the earth as we zip around it having our fun. So how do we minimize the bad effects and maximize the good? Here are a few suggestions:
I know, we love to travel. But one of the most damaging effects travellers have is the emissions we produce getting from one place to the next, especially when we fly. So if you’re travelling multiple times a year, consider combining trips so you fly across the world once instead of twice. And maybe it’s best to forget about flying 1,000 miles for a three-day Vegas getaway. That can end up saving you a few dollars, too.
Take the train
All forms of travel are not equal. According to Carbonfootprint.com, flying produces the greatest levels of greenhouse gas emissions, partly because of how high they’re produced in the atmosphere. Here’s the breakdown for a trip from Toronto to Chicago, about 520 miles: Airplane — 0.38 metric tons of CO2; average-efficiency car — 0.33; train — 0.15; bus — 0.10.
Driving a higher-efficiency car can decrease your emissions, and so can carrying several people, since the airplane figure is based on one person flying. But you’re also consuming a fossil fuel, which has many harmful effects. Where the earth is concerned, taking the train or bus is the least harmful choice. (See, I knew train travel was the way to go.)
Use carbon offsets
Most major airlines now allow you to make up for some of the emissions you create by buying carbon offsets. You make a donation toward projects that help decrease emissions somewhere else, such as retrofitting inefficient buildings or planting forests that absorb greenhouse gases. These credits are controversial: experts say they only offset a fraction of the emissions you actually create, and some of the projects don’t deliver the way they’re meant to. But the dollar amounts are small, so if carbon offsets do any good at all, I guess they’re worth buying.
Look for sustainable tours
Most of us take tours in the places we go, but not all those tours are a good thing. If you’re in an area where the environment and wildlife are fragile, take a look before you book a tour company. Do they have some kind of environmental credentials, and do they have a reputation for being good stewards of nature? In a lot of cases, the cheapest tour may also be the most damaging to the wilderness you came to see – don’t take it.
If you do go on a tour that pollutes and damages the environment, let them know they’re doing it wrong. In some countries, this is just the way things are done, and no one thinks twice about it unless someone makes it an issue. If you see unsustainable practices on a widespread basis, complain publicly. Governments do see the remarks you make in forums like Tripadvisor, the Lonely Planet website, Facebook, Twitter or the mainstream press. And if they see enough of them, they can be embarrassed into making changes.
Check your cruise company
Baby boomers love to cruise, but there’s no doubt sailing around the world in these giant ships has some effect on the environment, from the fuel and emissions they use to the stuff they discharge. The cruise industry by and large is pretty vigilant on these issues: the ships have environmental officers and major spills are rare. Still, more can be done.
For example, in 2010 Royal Caribbean Cruises announced a multi-year program to vet its shore excursions in order to ensure they’re environmentally sound. Check your cruise line’s website to see what its environmental policies are. If they could be better, let them know.
Don’t buy animal products
As a Western tourist, I’m sometimes shocked at the things I see in the marketplaces of undeveloped countries: parts of wild and endangered animals, medicines made from their organs, trinkets made from their bones and tusks, sometimes even live animals kidnapped from the wild and sold as pets.
There are some things that may be sustainable, but to be safe, make it a rule: don’t buy animal products unless you’re sure they came from the barnyard and not the forest. That includes Chinese medicines like tiger balm and especially ivory, for which hundreds of elephants are needlessly slaughtered each year. There’s no excuse to sell this stuff, and yet somehow the trade continues.
Leave fragile environments alone
Some of the really special trips are the ones that take you to the remotest parts of the world to see rare animals in their natural habitat. But in some cases, your presence there, and the infrastructure needed to get you there, are actually helping to destroy the natural wonders you wanted to see. If you suspect your wilderness trip is going to put undue pressure on the place you’re going to visit, don’t go. Some places are best just left alone.
Those are a few steps toward practising green travel. If you know of any others, leave a comment and let us all know. Environmental issues are complicated, and no set of rules is going to make travel completely earth-friendly. But if we help where we can, we can make a difference.