No, the carbon footprint of travel is not four times as big as we thought

selfies in hong Kong
© ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

A new study looks at the full carbon impact of travel, but it is probably being misinterpreted.

A new study, The carbon footprint of global tourism, is causing a stir, with news sources writing headlines like Global tourism's carbon footprint is four times bigger than thought, study says or Tourism's carbon impact three times larger than estimated. They all report that the study claims tourism accounts for 8 percent of carbon emissions, but that "previous estimates of the impact of all this travel on carbon suggested that tourism accounted for 2.5-3% of emissions." Almost every story is illustrated with a photo of airplanes.

TreeHugger has been on this case for a while, starting with George Monbiot's Flying is Dying, when he noted that "If we want to stop the planet from cooking, we will simply have to stop traveling at the kind of speeds that planes permit." That's why a lot of people have given it up and others (like me) buy offsets to assuage their guilt.

But this study doesn't just look at the impact of the flying; it looks at the entire picture of tourism, including what people do when they get to where they are going. They look at the carbon footprint of what happens when you get off the plane: getting around, staying at a hotel, buying food in restaurants and shopping. They look at the supply chains getting all this stuff to where the tourist is visiting.

It adds up to a lot of carbon, and as the world gets richer, more people are doing it. But in general, as people get richer, their carbon footprint increases whether they are traveling or not. And that is what I think is so confusing about this report; it is not as much about the carbon footprint of travel as it is the carbon footprint of living, with some transportation thrown in.

The emissions from road transport are larger than those from air transport. The emissions from buying goods is almost as high as flying. The agriculture to make the food, combined with the food service and food is almost as high. In fact when you total them up, the stuff of living while traveling is just about as much as the traveling itself.

And that is the biggest issue here; wherever people are, they gotta eat, they gotta sleep. Where people get richer, they eat more and spend more. Yet, the authors of the study note (my emphasis):

It could be argued that food, shopping and ground transport be counted net of what tourists would have eaten, purchased or traveled had they stayed at home. If only additional emissions were counted with reference to a stay-home scenario, air travel may well come out as the dominant emissions component. We do not attempt to quantify additionality for a number of reasons, but most importantly because food, shopping and transport by international visitors increase the carbon footprint of destinations, as opposed to the carbon foot-prints of the visitors’ home country. These activities matter for international embodied carbon transfers.

Carbon Movements© Blue is international travel; yellow is for domestic holidays.

In other words, this is more about carbon transfers than it is about consumption and carbon generation. You do learn interesting things, watching how carbon takes a vacation; Americans and Chinese tend to stay in their own countries while Canadians and Mexicans visit the States a lot. In fact Canada, with a tenth the population of the USA, has more traveling carbon in total that all of the USA. But so what? My carbon footprint may be higher when I travel because I eat out more often, but I also walk, bike or take transit and don't use a car. I may shop for stuff, but I do that at home too.

Should we be flying all over the place? Of course not. Eric Holthaus, Grist's meteorologist, gave up flying in 2014 and tells the Christian Science Monitor that he is taking local trips instead.

“What we’re talking about is a change in culture, getting happiness from more local travel, or slower travel,” Holthaus says. A jet-setting culture in which people travel around the globe for a few days or a week is “not compatible with a future that is livable.”

He is right. More people are flying, new and bigger airports are being built, and travel is having a bigger footprint as people get richer. But this study is, I think, being misinterpreted. CO2 doesn't recognize borders, but this study seems to be all about them.

The carbon footprint of travel is not three or four times as big as we thought; we are just taking our carbon with us. You have to subtract the stuff of daily life.

On sister site MNN.com, Starre Vartan looks at this study and concludes that when we travel, we can still do our best to reduce our carbon footprint once we are there, all of which are sensible and help.

What are the solutions to reducing impact if you love to travel? Vacationing closer to home is one simple way to cut emissions. (Let's bring back the summer lake vacation!) You can always refuse housekeeping when you stay at hotels, or better yet, seek out smaller, family-run, eco-friendly accommodations. Use public transportation instead of renting a car, and pack light.

No, the carbon footprint of travel is not four times as big as we thought
A new study looks at the full carbon impact of travel, but it is probably being misinterpreted.

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