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Around the world in 80 ways: A guide to green travelling

Around the world in 80 ways: A guide to green travelling

As the world continues to shrink, many globetrotters are now wondering how they can reduce the size of their carbon footprint from travel.

The biggest worry is flying. Flying is simply the single most damaging mode of transport there is. A return trip from London to New York emits more greenhouse gas than the CO2 saved in an entire year by going vegan.

Driving is nearly as bad. A solo passenger’s carbon footprint per mile on the road almost matches that of a long-haul flight.

But can you still see koalas in the wild within a day’s worth of travelling without causing their extinction?

Flowchart outlying how you can make a difference to your travel carbon footprint. Click on the image to enlarge.

Green travel with minimal net sacrifice is possible. All it takes is a little creativity. Hopefully, a solution to minimising your travelling carbon footprint will be found in one of the following sections:

The UK: should I stay or should I go?

The first question you may ask yourself when making plans for a holiday is whether to stay in the UK or go abroad. And if you’re not planning on staying in the UK, why not?

The UK has ten national parks, 1500 beaches, 60 000 pubs and 88 848 restaurants.

There are 28 UNESCO world heritage sites and around 2500 museums.

It is home to 5 species of dolphin, 107 species of land mammals and 620 species of bird.

The average temperature in July and August is 21℃ and that of the sea is 17.5℃ in the Summer.

There are 11 languages spoken as a mother tongue and 37 dialects of English.

There are more miles of canal in Birmingham than there are in Venice, and the number of hills on which the city of Sheffield is built matches that of Rome.

Picture showing a UK beauty spot, demonstrating the British isles do have a lot to offer.
Areas of Scotland are often mistaken for other locations in continental Europe for its dramatic landscapes and stunning scenery. Photo: Isle of Skye, United Kingdom

Insincerity aside, the British isles are oft-overlooked by adventure and pleasure seeking holidaymakers alike. In any case, the distance travelled within the UK makes a domestic holiday likely to be as green as can reasonably be.

Baby you can drive my car

Of course, not all methods of domestic transport are equally green.

For most, the default mode of transport within the UK is by car. It provides door-to-door travel, can be packed with an excess of luggage and is useful for when you arrive at your destination.

Personal transport is currently the biggest culprit for household causes of climate change, due to the greenhouse gases produced by petrol and diesel engines. According to data from the European Environment Agency, it is also the only common source of CO2 emissions not currently in decline. 

However, the average number of passengers in a car is 1.6, despite the most cars having the capacity for around four.

So, if a couple is planning a holiday, it is statistically probable that another car somewhere on the road will have space for them and their luggage, reducing the total carbon emissions by just under half.

In other words, lift sharing in personal transport can have an extraordinary impact on the environment. 

Lo and behold, car share schemes exist.

There are many to choose from, including liftshare.com, blablacar.co.uk and a whole host of lift-sharing forums on facebook.

So while it may seem convenient to travel to your UK holiday destination in your own car, this simple act of cooperation is a step to drastically reducing everyone’s carbon footprint. It will also save you waiting on a clogged-up A303 past Stonehenge, along with saving you money on fuel expenses. 

You could even try hitchhiking. Whilst hitchhiking is not nearly as dangerous as made out to be, it is important to hitchhike only when the risks are fully understood. Personal safety information is plentiful on the web.

But there are two clear stand-out modes of transport suitable to travelling to a UK holiday destination: rail and coach.

The holy rail of Europe

The somewhat more appealing of the two, rail travel, has a carbon footprint per passenger per mile of 23% that of a solo drive and 16% that of a domestic flight. Coach travel, meanwhile, has an even greater impact. Each coach passenger has a carbon footprint of 15% that of a solo drive and 11% that of a domestic flight. Travelling within the UK couldn’t be greener than using public transport.

But for all its beaches, pubs and severely underestimated landscape, there are, inevitably, things the UK cannot offer.

For green travelling to continental Europe, rail travel is victorious once more.

Whilst the concept of ‘interrailing’ is often considered exclusively for youths, it nearly always turns out to be the most cost-effective way of travelling by train to any European destination. For example: a return trip to Istanbul from anywhere in the UK can cost as little as £226 for youths and £300 for an adult.

A great benefit of interrail passes is that the prices can be flexible. The less travelling required for your trip, the cheaper the pass will be. A round trip in France, for instance, can cost from around £150 for a youth and £200 for an adult. Both figures include the cost of the Eurostar outgoing and returning legs.

An added bonus of continental rail travel is, of course, the opportunity to make stops in other locations en route. 

I am the greenest!

If the cost of an interrail pass is outside your budget, then there are still many green options available for travel overseas.

Ferries can take you to Ireland, France, The Netherlands, Belgium and Spain, with some passages costing less than £100 for a return ticket. The shortest ferry crossing is just thirty six minutes from Folkestone to Calais. 

As with UK travel, hitchhiking and car sharing are also options. Elsewhere in Western Europe, hitchhiking is incredibly popular, particularly in Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Germany. 

But the absolute most green you can be when travelling is a relatively newly popularised style: sail-boat hitchhiking.

Skippers of sailing yachts often appeal to the public for an extra set of crewing hands. Whats more, the person specification need not include sailing experience, if all the skipper is looking for is a cook.

This labour-intensive way of travelling across oceans has a carbon footprint of as close to zero as travel can be.

How to find a sail? Join the facebook group ‘Sailboat hitchhikers and crew connection’ to find when and where people are sailing. There is a wide variety of popular European routes, from sailings across the Channel to exploring the Nordic sea.

Note that not all routes are safe to sail year-round and that different seas have different sailing seasons. It is recommended for the benefit of both parties to get to know your skipper’s experience and personality before setting sail.

Come fly with fee: carbon offsetting

Green travelling further afield than Western Europe on a budget is more tricky.

Whilst hitchhiking tends to be easier in Eastern European countries, a trip across an entire continent by hitching rides is an expedition in itself and requires some fierce dedication.

Without the time to hitchhike, the money for an interrail pass or the sea-legs for sailing, there are few alternatives to a cheap plane ticket. 

But flying is the single most damaging mode of transport there is. Worse still, the gases they produce have an even greater impact on the environment due to the section of the atmosphere in which they are emitted.

In a 21st century attempt to leave no trace, many airlines now offer carbon offset schemes; a voluntary way of ‘cancelling out’ the carbon dioxide produced by your flight for a fee.

Be aware. These schemes can be nothing but a mere guilt tax. There are also question marks surrounding the ethics of a pay-to-pollute programme.

However, there are some worthy schemes available. 

Picture showing deceptive vision of carbon offset schemes.
Carbon offsetting your flights can be an effective way of travelling green. It can also be a scam.

Skyscammers: good vs. bad carbon offsetters

A worthy carbon offsetting scheme is one that funds services that would not already happen without the passenger’s fee. It should also fund a permanent change.

An example of carbon offsetting is by investing in forestry projects – planting trees which absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Other examples include investing in renewable energy programmes, often in developing countries.

It is questionable how worthy a scheme may be if it uses the carbon offset fee to ‘invest’ in forests that are already planned, only for its trees to be chopped down shortly after your flight lands.

Some airlines have good reputations. KLM, for example, uses optional carbon offset fees to invest in CO2 reduction projects certified by the Golden Standards for Global Goals.

Other airlines…do not (*cough cough* Ryanair).

These airlines do not make it clear how they use passenger fees , which, as a rule of thumb, should indicate the fee is a scam. 

For intercontinental travelling, where there really are few feasible alternatives to flying, the star carbon offsetter is Qantas.

They invest passenger fees into reforestation and forestry protection for regions in Australia prone to wildfires. They also offset their staff travel. Other reputable fleets include Austrian Airlines, Air Canada and Brussels Airlines. 

In general, it is best to research carbon offset schemes offered to you: if their work and how they invest the extra fees is well documented and easily accessible, then the scheme is trustworthy. And, of course, the golden rule of the internet still applies: RTFM – the small print can say it all. 

It is also possible to invest in airline-independent carbon offsetting programmes. Examples include non-profit organisations like UK-based Climate Care and Germany-based Atmosfair. These two sites have useful tools that calculate your carbon footprint for you. The organisation goldstandard.org is a useful resource that lists many worthy carbon offsetting schemes.

Sounds good? Not so fast.

It is any globetrotter’s dream to be able to fly anywhere in the world with a net-zero carbon footprint. Carbon offsetting works by balancing the Earth’s overall level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, not taking into account effects on local levels of pollution.

The issue? Poor air quality kills.

Whilst the net emissions of a flight from London City Airport may be zero, the carbon offset is unlikely to impact the poor local air quality in Newham, whose residents can expect to live in good health for a brief 57 years.

In other words, carbon offsetting can be a worthwhile investment to reduce net CO2 emissions, but the impact flying has on creating pockets of dangerous levels of pollution should not be forgotten – the issue still needs tackling.

Intercontinental ballistic lifestyles

If you have lots of time on your hands, there are a handful of maritime alternatives to intercontinental flying, all of which involve a degree of creativity when it comes to planning.

For example: how could I get to Morocco? Easy!

Take the ferry from Portsmouth to Santander, then travel across Spain on local trains and then take a shuttle across the strait of Gibraltar.

What’s the best route to Beijing? Piece of cake.

Hitch a sail to Stockholm, then board a ferry to St. Petersburg and from there travel along the trans-Siberian railway to Beijing.

This form of travel requires research of the destination’s geography and the region’s local transport networks.

Furthermore, cargo ships offer a small amount of space for commercial passengers. And if you are feeling up for an adventure, hitching rides across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans is also an option. 


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