Travel is imperative for a healthy planet — it helps us better understand the world and its boundless diversity. But ‘sustainable travel’ isn’t just a contradiction in 2020, it’s damn near impossible. And that has to change.
In late 1974, the German filmmaker Werner Herzog walked 600 miles from Munich to Paris to visit his dying friend. He believed that the act of walking might help keep the friend alive. The cold, snowy hike was documented in Herzog’s 1978 book, Of Walking in Ice.
In August 2019, climate activist Greta Thunberg crossed the Atlantic in a yacht powered by wind, solar, and underwater turbines. She was traveling to New York to attend the U.N. climate summit. The trip took two weeks and the boat lacked a kitchen, bathrooms, or shower.
If you want to travel a great distance and you want to do it in a zero-emission, carbon neutral, eco-friendly manner, Werner and Greta have exhibited two of your best transportation options. If you want all of those wonderfully responsible things and an otherwise pleasant experience — aside from a handful of railways, you’re pretty much out of luck. That’s ironic because travel unquestionably makes the world a healthier place — it’s one of the most effective ways to develop empathy for different cultures and concern for the unique challenges they face.
Humans need to keep traveling. And traveling sustainably needs to be easier.
We’ve written quite a few times in the past year about sustainability and travel. We wrote about the frustrations of high-speed train travel in the United States. We wrote about the effects of climate change on Venice and Puerto Rico. We wrote about the battle for Alaska’s wilderness, and the rise of doomsday tourism across the world. We even wondered if social media might wind up destroying some of our favorite places and pigs.
But we haven’t yet addressed the subject of sustainability and hotels because, honestly, we’ve been a little unsure about how to most appropriately proceed. There are plenty of hotels that are wholly committed to being sustainable and eco-friendly, like the Six Senses group, and they should be applauded for their efforts. Six Senses Con Dao helps run a turtle sanctuary and provides environmental and life skills education to the island’s children, while Six Senses Ninh Van Bay repairs coral reefs and implemented a filtration system that provides clean drinking water to locals. Others, like the Proximity Hotel in Greensboro, make an entire style out of the concept, forging their very DNA on meeting exacting LEED certifications.
But is it ever enough?
Look at the Maldives. Surrounded by ocean in the world’s lowest-lying country, a hotel like Soneva Fushi is rightly lauded for building with recycled materials, measuring its carbon emissions to a fault, and pioneering sustainability to the point that they have a machine to transform washed up plastic into souvenirs. We’d love to point to these examples and say they’re solving the sustainability crisis, one hotel stay at a time. But the truth is that no matter what Soneva Fushi does for sustainability, the depressing fact is that attracting tourists is a strain on the environment.
Forget the impacts of over-tourism. Forget the loss of natural habitats. Unless you’re going the Greta route, just getting to the Maldives is problematic.
Although air travel contributes only about 2.5 percent of global emissions, it takes on outsize influence because it is — as one writer put it back in 2013 — the “most serious environmental sin” for most of us on an individual basis. Fast forward to today and the continuing proliferation of affordable air travel means airplane emissions are on pace to triple by 2050.
The most responsible solution is to just stop flying. And because that’s such a daunting prospect — like so many of the answers to climate change — we can lose perspective on how to actually contribute to the solution. Most people aren’t going to give up flying any more than they’re going to go vegan.
Then you look at someone like Greta Thunberg. Continuing with her rejection of air travel, the activist cruised from New York back to Europe on a sailboat as recently as this past December, refusing to raise her carbon footprint. That’s not an option available to most of us. Nor is it one most of us would ever want to consider. And that was exactly Thunberg’s point. As the 16-year-old icon told the media, “I am not traveling like this because I want everyone to do so. I’m doing this sort of to send the message that it is impossible to live sustainably today, and that needs to change. It needs to become much easier.”
Thunberg’s protests aim to force governments to take responsibility, step up to the plate, and make drastic emissions cuts in their countries. And to her point, charting a successful course for the long-term health of the planet will require massive solutions, fundamental restructuring, and the will of entire nations. The charity and voluntary sacrifice of private citizens and small businesses is encouraging and necessary, but it won’t be enough.
The most popular solution for the costly carbon emissions of air travel is called carbon offsetting. Like any climate change solution, it’s riddled with criticism and contradictions — but short of actually not flying, it might be the best option you have to mitigate your carbon footprint before takeoff.
Utilized by many of the major airlines for the last decade, carbon offsetting means the funding of projects around the world that counter CO₂ emissions. “Those might include projects to develop renewable energy, capture methane from landfills or livestock, or distribute cleaner cooking stoves,” writes one guide to buying them. If you buy a carbon offset for your flight, you’re trying to take the same amount of CO₂ out of the environment that your plane put into it.
It’s not just something facilitated by airlines. Websites and resources around the web can help you calculate the fuel cost of your trip and point you towards Gold Standard offsetting projects to purchase as an individual.
In theory, offsetting sounds great. But that’s the problem. Frankly, it’s just too easy. At the outset of offsets in 2011, one writer referred to the practice as the modern equivalent of buying Papal indulgences in the middle ages, a convenient way to eliminate your guilt without actually changing any habits. What travelers “need to fully understand,” said one professor, is that “the most effective way to address climate change is to stop emitting. There is no absolute reduction [in pollution] when buying an offset.”
Plenty have made the point that airlines need to curb their emissions. As a counterpoint, the founder of Beyond Green Travel — a consulting firm for sustainable tourism — wrote an editorial in November arguing that without air travel to service tourism in certain parts of the world, the financial incentives for particular conservation efforts would disappear. “When local communities benefit from tourism, they become partners and allies in saving nature,” argued Costas Christ.
Along with Tanzania and Colombia, one place he sees the positive effects of tourism is in Rwanda and Uganda, where — as we wrote in August — the tourism industry has been consistently “praised for funding the protection of the extremely endangered mountain gorilla, as well as schools and infrastructure for local communities.” Christ defends carbon-costly air travel with the benefits of this kind of ecological interest, extrapolating that “without tourism, it’s easy to imagine the Serengeti turned into cattle ranches.”
Of course, this argument only makes sense if you’re traveling with a responsible operator that makes sure tourism dollars reach the local community, in a sustainable way, and actually fund conservation. That’s something of a bright spot in the world of tourism: there’s no shortage of travel operators to connect you with responsible, locally beneficial guides and experiences. G Adventures, Adventure Alternative, and plenty more all focus on ethical, sustainable tourism around the globe. It’s one way you can both travel and make a commitment to sustainability.
But just as obvious is the rebuttal that preservation tourism in some corners of the world, no matter how restorative, doesn’t justify frequent air travel to urban centers. Even saving the mountain gorilla comes with a jet-sized grain of salt.
It’s saying something that the environmental conversation in travel is repeatedly framed in Christian terms, reflecting the apocalyptic nature of the situation. Air travel is the “most serious environmental sin.” Offsets are the modern day “indulgences.” Meanwhile, critics of eco-tourists confuse caring and commitment for a messiah complex.
In October, Booking.com ran a test that saw travelers specifically avoid booking with hotels flagged as eco-friendly. Whether those guests felt that their stay would somehow be worse at an eco-friendly hotel, or they were cynically sticking it to the tree-huggers, the test results prove that we still have a long way to go (and that not everyone sees the world on the edge of an Old Testament reckoning).
Creating a true awareness of the problem is the all-important first step, one that requires efforts both great and small — from carbon offsets and charitable donations all the way up to historic multinational agreements.
And that all starts with the attention brought on by the activists like Greta Thunberg. According to the Guardian, it’s the “Greta Thunberg effect” that has “driven demand for carbon offset schemes” in recent years. And the hope is that it will lead to much more. Governments need take the lead and enact policies that spur innovation and overhaul the fundamental framework of how we interact with the natural world. Working to ensure the future of the planet should be a priority across the board, not just a game played out on the margins.
Nothing in this world is guaranteed. Not even this world. One only needs to look out at the rest of our own solar system to see how the odds stack up against planetary life. In the grand, cosmic scheme of things, it wouldn’t take much to wipe this all away.
That’s why every action counts — but nothing counts as much as a full-throated revolution. So cut down on flying if you can. Take trains when possible. Stay at green hotels more often. Definitely do all of those things and more — but also continue to put pressure on your government and its representatives. Tell them that living sustainably needs to be easier. And don’t be discouraged by those who agitate for the status quo. Change will come slow, but eventually, the status quo will become a sustainable planet.
What Can We Do to Help?
It’s hard to travel sustainably, but it’s even harder to relate to different people and places if you can’t visit them. As a company that celebrates hotels and hospitality, we want you to travel and experience all of the world’s cultures, but we also want to incorporate principles of sustainability and do our part to preserve the health of our planet. In the poll and comments below, let us know what you’re most likely to take us up on when it comes to providing you with options for greener travel.