Sarah Faith is a content and values writer for activist travel company, Responsible Travel.
Book a flight and you’ll usually have the option to pay to offset your carbon emissions. Essentially, your contribution funds tree planting and other projects intended to offset the carbon you emit.
It’s a smart marketing ploy. But carbon offsets are a dangerous distraction from the need to reduce emissions.
While global aviation emissions have nearly halved during the pandemic, they are expected to reach pre-pandemic levels by the end of this year. In fact, they are well on their way to increase by another 25% by 2030 – with disastrous consequences for communities vulnerable to nature and climate.
Carbon offset programs perpetuate the idea that the climate crisis should not prevent aviation from developing. They assuage climate guilt, while transferring the problem to someone else.
Experts also agree that they don’t work. In 2017, a European Commission report revealed that 85% of compensation programs established under the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol has failed to reduce emissions. And last year, the EU stopped counting offset programs as emissions reduction targets.
There are better ways to reduce your vacation emissions. So what should travelers do instead?
Fly less and stay longer
Limiting the number of flights you take is the easiest and most effective way to reduce the carbon on your vacation.
Data from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) calculates that a return economy class flight from London to New York emits around 0.62 tonnes of CO2 per passenger. This represents 11% of the average annual carbon footprint of a Briton, and equivalent to the total annual emissions of the average Ghanaian. The more you fly, the heavier your footprint will be.
So fly less and stay longer. You will enjoy a more relaxing holiday and also have the opportunity to explore your destination in greater depth.
Trade planes for trains
Making travel a part of your holiday is an achievable option in much of Europe. Good connections connect a multitude of popular holiday destinations. Taking the train from London to Madrid, for example, emits about 174% less CO2 than flying according to the Ecopassenger calculator.
Responsible travel now offers over 160 flightless holidays to Europe, while other tour operators such as Byway Travel, Exodus and Cycling For Softies also offer rail travel as part of their package tours. Alternatively, The Man in Seat 61 is a great resource for independent travelers looking to travel by train.
If an international flight is unavoidable, cut other domestic flights if you can and explore your destination at a slower pace overland.
Explore destinations actively or with emission-free transportation
Human-powered exploration is not only emission-free, but often wonderfully unexpected and hectic. Walking, biking or kayaking lends a more intimate perspective to your vacation and can lead to memorable chance encounters with locals. E-bikes can handle the pressure when the lungs or the legs can’t.
On the electric front, some safari lodges in places like Kruger National Park, South Africa or Ol Pejeta Game Reserve, Kenya now have low-emission electric safari vehicles. These have the added benefit of being quieter and less disturbing to wildlife.
Watch your ‘foodprint’ on vacation
With 37% of global greenhouse gases come from food productionwhat you eat on vacation can also have a significant impact on your total carbon footprint.
Choosing to eat locally limits the distance your food travels before reaching your plate. Farmers markets and restaurants serving fresh, local produce are a good place to start. As a bonus, it usually gives you the chance to try local specialties and discover the dishes that make your destination sing.
If you want to go further, a plant-based diet can reduce your personal footprint by up to 73 percent.
New alternatives to carbon offsets
Major airlines, including British Airways, Lufthansa and KLM, have recently launched programs allowing passengers to finance the use of sustainable aviation fuel (FAS). Blended at a 50% ratio with standard aviation fuel, SAF has the potential to reduce flight emissions by up to 80%.
However, their long-term effectiveness in decarbonizing travel is still unknown, and these programs are still voluntary and expensive. It remains to be seen what impact they will have.
When you fly, make it count
The pandemic has highlighted what can happen when tourism comes to a halt.
According to non-profit organization Conservation International, COVID-related lockdowns have led to an increase in illegal mining and deforestation in Colombia and Brazil. In Africa, according to the charity, the collapse of the tourism industry has led to an “alarming increase” in poaching and wildlife trafficking.
The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that tourism accounts for 319 million jobs worldwide. In addition to protecting forests from extractive industries, it funds crucial anti-poaching patrols and has helped establish marine and terrestrial reserves that preserve global biodiversity.
Saving the planet will require both carbon emission reductions and extensive reseeding. If you choose to fly, look for nature-positive vacations that actively benefit wildlife and habitats, and choose trips that ensure the money you spend ends up in local hands.
Carbon offsets are not even an adhesive solution to our climate crisis.
Want to be a greener traveler? The truth is, you’ll need to fly less and do more at your destination to reduce your carbon footprint. And when you fly, make it count. You might find it makes your vacation more memorable for you too.