Recent summers have brought about seemingly more extreme weather events, while every new report about climate change results in oft-repeated warnings and calls for immediate action. It can feel as if humanity is hurdling towards an abyss, and yet we can't stop traveling, which also contributes to the problem. Unfortunately, every vacation has a direct impact on the environment.
According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, 8-10% of global CO2 emissions are caused by the travel and tourism sector. The majority of such emissions are caused by travel to and from a destination. Needless to say, the longer the route, the more CO2 is emitted.
Mankind emitted 36.6 billion tons of CO2 this year, according to the Global Carbon Budget Report. In 1950, global CO2 emissions were only 6 billion metric tons, whereas in 1990 emissions reached 22 billion metric tons.
The choice of transportation one takes while traveling can make a difference. At the same time, blanket statements such as "a train trip has a lower environmental impact than a car trip" are not always accurate, according to a study released by the German Federal Environment Agency.
A large carbon footprint
Whether it's by bus, train, plane, ship or car, every means of transport needs to be powered somehow, and this requires energy, which is typically generated by fossil sources such as oil and gas. When fuel is burned, as in the case of the most cars, and airplanes— which are fueled by kerosene — climate-damaging carbon dioxide is released. This enters the atmosphere and heats it up. The transportation sector is one of the major contributors to man-made climate change.
Now that more people have become aware of the climate-damaging aspects of travel, has it led to a substantial increase in sustainable travel? Not really, says Bente Grimm, Head of Tourist Mobility Research at the Institute for Tourism Research in Northern Europe (NIT). The desire to see the world and an interest in behaving in a climate-friendly way often come into conflict, and the desire to travel often prevails, says Grimm.
According to 2022 Travel Analysis of the Forschungsgemeinschaft Urlaub und Reisen (Holiday and Travel Research Association), in 2021, 55.1 million trips lasting 5 or more days were taken in Germany, as well as 44.8 million short trips.
For longer trips, 34% of vacationers chose to travel by plane. In Germany many people are already aware that flying produces the highest amount of CO2 emissions, yet it doesn't always translate to a change in how they travel.
Has awareness changed travel?
Severine Lenglet from France admits she is not the most environmentally-conscious traveler, as she often travels between Berlin and Paris by plane. She says she's looking forward to 2023 when a new train linewill connect the capital cities and she can opt for that instead of flying.
Families with children also have extra considerations when choosing how to travel during vacation. "We usually go on vacation with a rental car," says Anne Kolerus from Berlin. One reason for choosing a car is the large amount of luggage they take with them, and another is the lack of infrastructure at the destination.
Likewise, going on a summer vacation by plane is not an option for Julian Schrögel, from Frankfurt, and his family. Schrögel says if they travel by plane it's only for long-distance trips of more than four weeks.
Swantje Lehners, chairwoman of the KlimaLink association, believes that the desire to act in a climate-friendly way does not actually materialize when traveling, primarily because it is not easy for travelers to identify the most environmentally-friendly way to travel and to avoid contributing to climate change . The association aims to change this and is developing a tool for calculating CO2 emissions for all aspects of a vacation — from bus trips to hotel stays. The tool should be available by early 2024.
CO2 calculation challenges
It's complicated to calculate emissions for different modes of transportation since there are a variety of factors involved. While the MyClimate carbon footprint flight calculator includes infrastructure and production for cars and flights, these are not included in another carbon footprint calculator, Quarks.de.
Yet all CO2 emissions calculators take into account the non-CO2 emissions of air travel, as CO2 isn't the only harmful thing emitted during a flight. Other pollutants are produced that negatively affect the environment, such as nitrogen oxides and soot. Soot particles promote the formation of contrails and can cause cirrus clouds to form at high altitudes. This too, leads to global warming.
For a train trip, on the other hand, one has to look at whether the train runs on diesel or is powered electrically.
Flying is inarguably the least sustainable travel mode and should be avoided by anyone who wants to reduce their carbon footprint, says Bente Grimm.
"When flying, long-distance trips are more harmful because more CO2 is emitted. However, short trips are often taken by people who have already made a long-distance trip. So it makes more sense to look at a person's total emissions per year," Grimm told DW.
The future of climate-friendly travel
Of course travel also generates income for people in a destination who live from the industry, which is valuable too. But in light of the fact that transportation is responsible for a significant part of global CO2 emissions, vacationers could rethink their mode of travel and stay longer in one place instead of going on several shorter trips. It is also important, says Bente Grimm, to see the journey as part of the experience, and appreciate that even nearby vacation destinations can be exotic — or offer something unique in any case.
However, making travel climate-friendly should not only be left to individuals. "It's important to talk about transportation infrastructure and not just hold individuals accountable. There must be climate-neutral, reliable offers for climate-friendly travel," said Felix Creutzig of Berlin's Technical University. He believes that governments and cities have a responsibility to take action too.
This article was originally written in German.