Finding a way to balance my love for travel and my concern for our planet and climate change is very hard. On one hand I am incredibly saddened and worried by the state of our planet and actively try and reduce my carbon footprint in my daily activities. On the other hand, I love to travel. I love to discover new places and meet new people. I never feel more alive than whilst learning about a new culture, trying new food or discovering new landscapes. However, how can I balance my two passions when they seemingly work completely against one another?
We brandish the word sustainable travel often, with most companies using it as a marketing tool to convince climate conscious travellers to book through them. Of course, sustainability isn’t just about climate, it is also about communities and conservation. It is about putting practices in place that don’t have a negative impact and can stand the test of time. For the purpose of this article though, I will be specifically focusing on the CO2 emissions created by my most recent trip to Spain and how I have gone about offsetting them.
Getting to know my homeland
I flew to Spain on a direct flight from London Heathrow to Bilbao, in economy class. I then hired a car so that I could explore the country I had grown up in. Having lived in Spain for 17 years I realized I didn’t really know much about the country as a whole. Spain is very regional, with each region boasting a different culture, cuisine and in some cases even a different language. I had considered travelling through Spain using only public transport, but I found it to be expensive and restrictive. Had I wanted to focus predominantly on the tourist sites and cities then I would have been OK. But the truth is I love nature, and my most cherished memories of this trip happened whilst out in the middle of nowhere.
In the Natural Park of Monfrague I watched as 80 Griffon Vultures circled above me, gliding effortlessly through the air with just a swoosh. When I was in Las Medulas, which is an old Roman gold mine, I experienced some of the best hiking with red sand soil, impressive peaks and not another human in sight. In the Natural Park of Grazelama I took to the air in a tandem paraglide where I was able to see all the way from Sevilla to the sea. I wouldn’t have been able to do any of these without the hire car.
But what was the impact of my enjoyment?
My two-week road-trip around Spain saw me completing 4,000 km. It was epic, and I loved every moment. But as soon as I had finished I regretted the impact I had had on the environment. Could I have done it in a better way? Should I have focused on staying more local and exploring an area in more depth? Should I have given up on those experiences and caught the train instead? Or should I have set off on foot or on a bike?
I don’t have the answer. I know what climate activists would say, but unfortunately life isn’t quite so black and white. I could argue that by having chosen not to have kids I am making a bigger contribution to reducing carbon emissions than any choices I make when it comes to transport. But that kind of thought process isn’t going to solve the crisis that we have.
That is why I decided to work out what my carbon footprint was for the trip and thus find a way to offset it.
What is worse, the car or the plane?
I asked this question on Instagram) and the majority of respondents voted for the plane. That was my expectation too. In fact, when I read the results I triple checked them using different calculators as I didn’t actually believe them!
The flight emission came back as 0.48 tonnes of CO2 whilst my 4,000 km trip in a car came back at more than double! A whopping 1.1 tonnes is what my road trip cost the planet. I was shocked! I had definitely never expected it to be this way round!
In total, I needed to find a way to offset 1.58 tonnes of CO2. But how was I going to do this?
How to offset CO2
In trying to figure out the best way to offset my trip’s emissions I read no end of articles. It is a confusing subject with pros and cons for every one of them, some of these often hidden or not discussed depending on the agenda of the article. Nothing is ever easy! I have made a note below of the ones that I considered and finish off with the option I opted for. If like me you want to see how you can be a more conscious traveller then please read on!
Offsetting travel related carbon emissions by planting trees
I would hazard a guess that most people’s initial thoughts when it comes to offsetting their carbon emissions is to plant trees. Planting trees after all has become synonymous with combating climate change. Trees take carbon out of the atmosphere and through photosynthesis convert it into oxygen storing the carbon within. Bingo! Surely this is our solution? Just plant loads of trees and all our problems will be solved.
Well, it isn’t quite that simple. For starters the benefits are realised over a long period of time. If I planted a single tree in my garden, once matured, it would remove roughly 21.77kg of carbon a year. So it would take a lone tree 72 and a half years plus however long it takes it to mature, to undo the harm I did on my trip! I would be nearing my 100th birthday when the damage of this sole trip was undone!
You might be thinking. Doh! 1 is obviously not enough! If I wanted to rectify my damage in a shorter period of time, I would need to plant in excess of 72 trees to absorb my Spanish trip carbon footprint in a single year (after they have reached maturity). Thereafter I could continue doing a similar trip once a year and feel confident that the trees are taking care of it.
How do you go about planting trees?
There are of course many companies that will plant trees for you relatively cheaply, or those that focus on reforesting areas. For as little as £13 I could have slept soundly knowing I have done my bit. But realistically how many trees can we plant without then impacting other ecosystems if we think of using them as the sole solution to the travel industry? Well, it simply isn’t possible!
And of course, this theory only works if those trees never get cut down, never burn and never die. In all those cases all that stored CO2 will simply be released back into the atmosphere.
My above argument doesn’t mean I am against planting trees! Far from it! In fact, I plant a tree every single week by taking part in the DAYMADE travel raffle as well as by supporting reforestation projects, however, I don’t think that is enough, which is why I continued searching!
Offsetting travel related carbon emissions by donating to Community Projects
If you ever use a carbon calculator, chances are that they will give you different options for you to chose how you can offset your emissions. Many of the options provided focus around supporting developing countries to make greener choices as they navigate through their own industrial revolutions, as well as educating them on better agricultural practices that limit deforestation. Many of them caught my eye, but I have used just one as an example.
Efficient Cooking Stoves
For only £38 My Climate promised I would be able to abolish all guilt knowing I have reversed all damage done during my road trip by providing more efficient cooking stoves to women in Kenya.
In many rural communities across the developing world, households still cook daily over an open fire, generally using coal or firewood. Cooking using these solid fuels and technologies not only results in household air pollution but is also estimated to produce a gigaton of carbon dioxide per year. Ignoring the environmental factors for a minute, living in such conditions causes a high percentage of respiratory illnesses. In fact, it is estimated that it is the cause of more than 4 million pre-mature deaths every year, 50% of which are children under the age of 5.
According to the World Bank, more than 3 billion people around the world do not have access to clean cooking fuels, not only endangering themselves but also having a negative impact on the planet. Residential solid fuel burning accounts for approximately 2% of all global emissions.
My Climate focuses specifically on efficient stoves, rather than green energy stoves, with a claim that it would reduce the use of wood by up to 50%, therefore reducing deforestation and saving the families money.
How much does it actually offset though?
Word Bank suggest that 1.7 million improved stoves reduced CO2 by 3 tonnes, therefore if my maths are correct, I calculate that each stove will reduce CO2 by 0.0017kg or 1.7g! So in order to offset the 1.58 tonnes that I created on my two week road trip I would need to provide 850,000 stoves to households in the developing world. I’m not quite sure how £38 is going to achieve that?!
The program works by investing in healthcare and education, both of which will also have a direct positive impact on CO2, however, I couldn’t quantify this. Although I don’t begrudge any company ever trying to improve the lifestyle of others, I can’t help but feel that these companies let us off too easyly. Of course, if they shared the real cost they might get a much lower uptake and thus have an overall smaller impact.
Are we ready to be greener?
According to the Harvard Business Review 65% of consumers say they want to buy greener but only 26% actually do. This study was published in 2019 however I have struggled to find any more recent surveys to get more up to date numbers. I would hope that this gap continues to decline, however, my opinion is that as a whole we are only willing to be green if it doesn’t cost us more and doesn’t inconvenience us.
Because I felt that £38 would not in reality offset my carbon I decided to keep searching for something that did.
Offsetting travel related carbon emissions by eating less meat
“Eating less meat and dairy is the single biggest way to reduce your carbon footprint” says The Guardian. This could easily be the statement of the century and one that you will find as part of any climate argument.
I agree, we eat too much meat, but it isn’t just about how many times we have meat a day or a week, the conversation should also be about where this meat is sourced, how that meat was raised, and what meat we actually ate.
Lets take two made up examples:
Couple A eat chicken 3 times a week. They only eat chicken breast because it is much healthier. They normally roast it and have it with a salad or vegetables which provides a really healthy protein rich meal. They buy the breasts in twos, one for each night. This is not only easier to store, but they can order them by date to ensure it is always at its freshest.
Couple B also eat chicken 3 times a week. They buy a whole chicken at a time from the local butcher. They tend to roast the whole bird which serves them for a yummy Sunday roast dinner. On the second night they use the remaining flesh to make a lovely thai green curry and on the third the carcass is turned into a delicious soup.
If we compare the carbon footprint of Couple A and Couple B it is significantly different.
Firstly, couple A has killed 3 chickens, whilst couple B has killed only the 1. Secondly, couple A have bought the breasts in three separate plastic containers whilst couple B received the chicken in just a plastic bag. Lastly, supermarket chicken is rarely free range, whereas chances are that the chicken bought from the butcher is.
Let me be clear. This is no scientific experiment. It is just me thinking through both options and playing devils advocate. Although they have both eaten meat 3 days in a row, the reality of their consumption and their impact on the environment will be significantly different which begs the question, is “eating less meat” enough, or do we need to educate the masses on what their choices actually mean?
Not all meat is made equal
Although I am definitely an advocate of eating less meat, I personally put a much bigger emphasise on where I source my meat from and how much of the animal I consume. I was brought up on a small holding where we ate predominantly off the land. We couldn’t afford to eat out of season fruit and veg that had travelled half way across the world as so many of us do these days. Instead we survived and thrived off of what we grew on the farm.
This is going to be very controversial of me but I truly believe the biggest problem isn’t whether we have a meat or veggie diet, but rather how much we consume, where that food is sourced and how those animals and plants are raised. It is true that beef in particular makes a significant contribution to greenhouse gases. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the production of beef contributes to 41% of all agricultural emissions. That is a lot! Per gram it produces 20 times more emissions than pulses such as beans and lentils. Which stats like that it isn’t hard to see why people assume a vegan or vegetarian diet would be the best option.
But is all beef bad for the environment?
Lets talk about the differences in beef, because not all beef is equal! We can’t compare the carbon footprint of intensely farmed cattle vs the carbon footprint of grass fed cattle which are managed as part of a regenerative farming scheme. When the media talks about the impact of cattle they often focus on the fact they “burp”. Cattle are ruminants which means the microbes in their guts produce methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, which is then released into the atmosphere.
However, not all cattle burp the same and in fact the amount of methane produced by cattle has shown to have decreased as a result of better breeding and better diets. How those cows are managed can make all the difference to how much methane is released into the atmosphere (Raymond et al. 2012). Did you know that rice is also a massive greenhouse contributor? In fact, the climate impact of rice is on a par with the climate impact from aviation!
But let’s get back to beef! When beef is raised as part of regenerative agriculture, beef can be carbon neutral due to the benefits I am about to explain and the fact that the amount of land they graze on offsets the carbon generated by them (Matsumoto, 2019). Ruminants play an important role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Their manure returns nutrients to the soil, the land doesn’t need to be ploughed (soil contributes to 5% of carbon emissions which is more than aviation and shipping combined!), there is no need to grow grain to feed them, and it allows deep rooted grasses that prevent erosion to flourish. Maybe what we need to do is stop eating intensely farmed beef! Of course, there isn’t enough land for our beef consumption to be met through regenerative farming which is why we should reduce our consumption and only buy ethically produced beef.
Nothing is ever easy
I am no expert on the subject and by this text I’m not wanting to argue whether eating meat is good or bad, I suppose I just want to highlight that nothing is ever black or white, it is generally rather grey, with benefits and negatives every way you look at it!
My initial thoughts as a way of offsetting my carbon for the trip was to go meat free for a month. This appeared to easily offset my trips emissions. However, when I looked at what the alternatives involved, especially if I opted for meat substitutes, I started to realise that actually, I wasn’t that convinced I would be making that much of a difference!
Following hours of research, I decided that I will offset my 1.5 tones of carbon emissions by paying very close attention to the carbon footprint of what I eat both in terms of the carbon generated in “making” that product, its packaging but also in the miles it needs to travel to make it on to my table.
Offsetting travel related carbon emissions by buying local
The reason I opted for this approach is because I feel it is the most sustainable and long lasting of the actions I can take at this point in time. I know I can do better and I am determined to continually improve. Although I have not yet offset my 1.5 tonnes of CO2 produced as a result of my trip around Spain (at the time of writing I have been back 3 weeks), I am well on my way thanks to taking the following steps:
1. Reduce the mileage of my produce
My breakfast prior to this trip generally consisted of a smoothie with a dollop of almond butter, an avocado, some mango, some pineapple, strawberries, blueberries, some cocoa powder and a dash of soya or coconut milk.
Having looked at the origins of those ingredients I realised they came from California, Chile, Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Spain, Ghana and the Netherlands! To make matters worse I found that some of those products had more than just a high carbon footprint! Did you know that as a result of our love for avocados there are now water cartels? In Chile, avocados are being given preference to water over locals. Villages that previously had access to water from wells now rely on water being delivered in tanks once a week. I’m not quite sure I could continue to eat avocado with a clean conscious!
But if we leave ethics aside and focus only on carbon emissions, my breakfast alone was contributing to 66kg of CO2 a month! That is shocking!
I have now put together a diet that uses locally sourced in season products to reduce my carbon footprint. Simply changing my breakfast for the next 3 months will save 50kg of carbon! I will be doing this with every meal, which I have worked out will save me circa 155kg over 3 months. I used the basic calculator I found on the BBC website.
2. Buy seasonal
Another big factor is how the product has been produced. Buying fruit and veg raised in the UK out of season has been shown to be more carbon heavy than produce brought from abroad but grown in season. We are now not only buying our meat from the local butcher, so as to know exactly where it has come from, but we are also buying our fruit and veg from the local farm shop, and therefore making sure it is fresh and in season. Studies have shown that eating only seasonal produce can reduce your carbon footprint by 10%!
According to WWF the average households daily carbon footprint from food is 5.17kg/CO2. So over the course of 3 months that would be 465.3kg. If buying seasonal reduced my carbon footprint by 10% then simply by supporting our local farmers I will be reducing my carbon footprint by 46.53kg.
3. Buy items with less packaging
Another great advantage of buying from the local farm shop and butcher is that there is much less packaging, and especially much less plastic. Removing plastic packaging can reduce the carbon footprint by a further 5% and therefore if we used 465.3kg as the assumed carbon emissions for food over 3 months, it means that this step will help reduce my carbon footprint by 23.27kg.
4. Reduce chocolate consumption
OK, it is fair to say I have a very sweet tooth, however, what I didn’t know was just how bad for the environment chocolate was. Reducing my chocolate consumption to only 1 bar per week (I’m too embarrassed to tell you how much I actually ate!) would result in a reduction of carbon of 187.5kg over the course of 3 months! What?!
5. Reduce processed food
Not only is this important for our overall health, and in my particular case my marathon training! It is also a great way to reduce our carbon footprint.
When I talk of processed foods, I don’t mean those minimally processed such as chopped veg, dried fruits or frozen fruit. It can actually be more beneficial to buy them this way than do it at home, and of course you get the added benefit of additional longevity and therefore reduced food waste.
When I say processed I mean the ultra processed foods such as cakes, ready meals, and meat substitutes. Extra packaging aside, these items often include products such as palm oil as it enhances the life of a product. However, palm oil is responsible for half of all deforestation in some parts of Asia and as we learnt above, deforestation expels huge volumes of CO2 into the atmosphere. I haven’t been able to find specific stats to see how much an acre of forest would release but according to EDF it accounts for 20% of our annual greenhouse gas emissions. WOW!
Will this be enough?
It is hard to measure exactly how much I will save by taking these actions. I believe that by sticking to the above over the next 3 months. As well as the 12 trees I will be planting with DAYMADE, I will be able to offset the carbon I created during my 2 week road trip around Spain. However, is that really enough? Should I just be offsetting it, or should I be offsetting my entire existence? Or do I need to create a deficit to make up for everything I have already released during my 35 years on this planet?
I thought I’d be writing a simple “here are 5 tips to offset your carbon emissions” kind of post. Turns out I’ve gone down many rabbit holes reading about the pros and cons of every option available. Just because on the tin it sounds like “THE” solution, if you search long enough you always find the negative side to it as well.
I have enjoyed this project a lot. As I mentioned elsewhere in the article, I am no expert, I am simply someone interested in learning and trying to do a better job at looking after the planet whilst at the same time balancing my love for travel. So please, if I got anything wrong, do let me know. And if you want to share how you offset your emissions, I would love to hear from you.
This is a great, thought-provoking post. It’s definitely important to think about sustainability not only in daily life but also while traveling, and there’s a lot we hadn’t yet considered. Thanks so much for sharing this and being so thorough! Xx Sara
Thank you so much for taking the time to read it, it is really appreciated!
I like the idea of eating locally-sourced foods and less-processed foods to help offset carbon emissions from travel. I had no idea about the problems that palm oil is causing with deforestation in Asia! I’m an obsessive label reader, so I’m going to avoid buying products with palm oil from now on. These may be small changes to make, but every bit counts!
The palm oil industry is devastating 🙁 And you are right, every little does count. If everyone did a little bit we would certainly make a lot more traction than if just a few do a lot!
These are some great tips – both for reducing travel related carbon emissions and for general day to day life! I’m constantly looking for ways to make my travels more sustainable and while I’ve done a lot of work around reducing waste and single use plastics (both at home and during travel) I haven’t done much research into offsetting carbon emissions. I’m definitely going to take your advice on board and start implementing some of your suggestions! It breaks my heart to know how much is produced in making chocolate though – I have a sweet tooth too! Thanks for the great guide!
Thank you. It is was such an interesting article to write, I found myself down so many rabbit holes and learn so much. A really fascinating topic. We’ve certainly taken steps whilst travelling, but we can definitely do better!
I LOVE the intentionality and thought behind this article. Travelers can work to reduce their impact on the environment during their travel, but they don’t often think about how they can offset their impact in other ways. These are some great ideas I will have to implement in the future.
That’s very kind thank you. I think we should approach carbon like a calorie counting diet, if you do something that creates carbon, then figure out where you can reduce it to offset. Just like when I’m dieting, if I fancy that chocolate bar what should I forgo that day to make the calories still add up!
Good tips, and I really appreciate how you work through each scenario rather than just stating how we can offset carbon from our travels. We’ve started gardening again and are growing a food forest on our small suburban property. It helps feed us local, seasonal produce plus we have more trees and and bushes. And most of the lawn has been replaced with these plants or native plants. Every little bit helps!
That is a great way of doing it, and a good excuse to be outdoors too! We’ve also got a small veg patch although after out first harvest we realised we had only planted enough to feed us for three days!! Lets hope we’ve done a bit better for the next harvest!
I love the idea of making more conscious decisions to travel sustainably. I started cutting out meat in 2020 when I found out it’s one of the most impactful things a regular individual can do to help fight climate change, and I would love to start incorporating some of your other suggestions into my lifestyle as well! I really like the thought of donating to community projects. Thank you for sharing!
Thank you for reading. I always thought of cutting out down on carbon as pretty radical things but in fairness we can make a big difference with some simple changes.
This is an interesting perspective on how to travel. Often we don’t think about how much damage we are doing just by travelling. Crazy that a car gives off more emissions than a plane!
I know, I really didn’t expect that!