Understanding Your Travel Carbon Footprint

Understanding your travel carbon footprint, sustainable travel

What is Your Travel Carbon Footprint?

Let’s start with explaining what carbon footprint means. Carbon footprint is the “total of all the greenhouse gas emissions that had to take place in order for a product to be produced or for an activity to take place” (Mike Berners-Lee).

To expand on that further, based on the US Environmental Protection Agency, the major greenhouse gases refer to:

  • Carbon dioxide: enters the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, oil), solid waste, trees and other biological materials, and also as a result of certain chemical reactions (e.g. cement production). Carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere when it is absorbed by plants as part of the biological carbon cycle
  • Methane: emitted during the production and transport of coal, natural gas, and oil. Methane emissions also result from livestock and other agricultural practices, land use, and by the decay of organic waste in municipal solid waste landfills
  • Nitrous oxide: emitted during agricultural, land use, and industrial activities; combustion of fossil fuels and solid waste; as well as during treatment of wastewater
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Carbon Footprint Calculation

Now to understand how carbon footprint is calculated. The calculation of your greenhouse gas emissions isn’t an easy process, it’s actually near impossible to calculate the accurate measurement, yet there are guides to help measure it.

Take airplane travel as example, Berners-Lee explains in his book “The Carbon Footprint of Everything” there are various factors to consider, yet still relatively simple:

  • How much fuel the plane burns and how many greenhouse gases are emitted during the flight, divided by the number of people on the plane
  • How much cargo the play is carrying, as depends on the weight
  • The altitude at which the plane flies, to reduce contains (the white streaks aircraft leave in the sky)
  • Yet the footprint is higher for business and first class passengers, as they take up more space, have more staff to passenger ratio and higher standard of meals

The calculation becomes more difficult to measure when it comes to food consumption. As you need to factor in emissions from:

  • Farms; think water usage, food to feed the animals, fertilizers for crop production, methane from cattle digestive process, machinery to maintain the farm etc,
  • Factories to produce the food: equipment to cut down from the initial raw product/animal/plant, etc,
  • Transportation, packaging and refrigeration; from storing and delivering food from factory to supermarkets
  • Then either home or restaurant preparation

Although quite a complex calculation, thankfully there are food calculations in place for us to use as guides, such as BBC Food Choices and Carbon Footprint calculator.

Due to the focus of our carbon emissions, calculators have become available online to make it easier to calculate, which provide approximate greenhouse gases emitted based on your actions. There are many available online, try using Transport Calculator and Greentripper.

When you think of those examples of airplane travel and food consumption, you start to realize how your everyday life choices impact your carbon emissions. And on the flip side, how it can be reduced from making a few small changes, especially when you travel.

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How to Reduce Your Travel Carbon Emission

We all travel differently, which is great and why we’re all unique as a species, so the following doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone, it will depend on how you travel.

Transport Options 

  1. Walk: the optimal transportation is walking, as it solely uses your own body power with no assisted equipment or vehicles, so opt to walk to local attractions or daily sightseeing
  2. Public transport: for local trips and visits at a destination opt for public transportation, as the vehicle will already be operating regardless, whilst your carbon emissions will be shared amongst other passengers, plus fares are usually quite cheap too
  3. Overnight transport: where you need to travel short distances see if overnight trains, buses or ferries are an option, as it combines your transportation and accommodation in one, both for your carbon emissions and your bank account
  4. Economy airplane travel: if you essentially need to fly to a destination, as there are no other necessary options, then opt for economy fare, as business and first class fares take up more space
  5. Direct flights: opt for direct flights instead of multi stop routes, use for taking off and landing planes utilize more fuel, which increases your carbon footprint


Food Choices

  1. Buy seasonal fruit: stop by road side food stalls to buy locally grown fruit which is in season, it also ensures income is kept within a community rather than going to larger supermarket chains
  2. Attend markets: visit local community markets to grab juices and meals that are usually prepared using locally grown produce
    Eat healthier meals: eating more plant rich emails can reduce foods which are harder on our planet, as meat can have 1000 times more carbon emissions than fruit and vegetables
  3. Buy meals to suit your hunger levels: only purchase meals and portion sizes to suit your hunger level, as it means your carbon emissions contributing to that food being thrown out could’ve been avoided
  4. Buy imperfect produce: just because fruit and vegetables don’t look “perfect” they still taste the same, so buy them, otherwise they’ll get added to landfill

Overall the aim is to increase your awareness of how much your actions contribute to greenhouse gases, then make informed choices to reduce where possible. Even small changes can make a difference.

Fresh local produce