Why we should add carbon footprint labels to holidays

We all know we have to fly less – and we’ve been campaigning for governments to tackle this globally.

But tourism has another carbon problem, hidden in plain sight. 

It’s a big one, too. One rarely mentioned (or even considered). 

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Our journeys bookmark our holidays. But what about the choices we make in destination: the food we eat, the places we stay? 

We at Responsible Travel wanted to understand more about the scale of those cumulative impacts. So we commissioned a report, which we’ve published today, authored by Professor Stefan Gössling, of Lund University and Dr Ya-Yen Sun of the University of Queensland.

It’s a small pilot study, but the first of its kind. It looks at a variety of breaks, from self catering to all-inclusive and uses raw data to measure our emissions across holiday transport, accommodation and food. 

Here are some of the key things we learnt. Transport will usually be the primary carbon contributor of any holiday. But what you eat (your holiday “foodprint”) can not only exceed your accommodation impacts, but also your transport emissions. Even your flights. 

Last week’s powerful Channel 4 documentary – Apocalypse Cow – provided an apt example, with the highly unsettling fact that a handful of beef roasting joints required the same CO2 to produce as a return flight from London to New York.  

Our study also found that the smaller, more sustainable accommodations surveyed could emit four times less carbon than many major four-star hotel chains.

And we also gleaned that, when we make climate-friendly choices across the board, our holiday emissions can be very close to the global sustainable average per day. That’s almost half our current average per day per person emissions in the UK.  

In a nutshell, we need to fly less and change what we eat. We can’t offset one with the other. Opting for the train doesn’t give us carte blanche to hit the all-you-can-eat meat buffet for two weeks. 

As consumers, we have to change our mindset on travel as a whole. And crucially, as an industry, we have to help facilitate that.

Our study highlights a pressing need for reduced emissions holidays: trips that offer greater plant-based choice, minimise food waste, focus on local, seasonal produce – and use renewably powered accommodation.

But we need to go further. Tourism is a carbon intensive industry – it’s also one of the most lightly regulated. We need transparency. As holidaymakers we deserve the data to make informed choices. And increasingly, we’ll expect it. 

Last week, Quorn announced its plans to add carbon footprint information to its products. 

There’s no equivalent tourism standard. But there should be. Tourism can be an immense force for good, and I believe it has an important role in our future. But not if it can’t adapt to the challenges faced by the planet. 

These are complex issues and we don’t have all the answers. But it’s time to open up the conversation.

Today, some of us in tourism declared a climate emergency. You can support us by sharing it, asking other travel and tourism companies to sign up and holding the industry to account: tourismdeclares.com.

How to have a climate-friendly holiday

Ask where it’s been

A lower carbon diet doesn’t just mean less meat. If what you’re consuming is out of season and from the other side of the world, it’ll have a large foodprint. It’s about more locally sourced, seasonable, low-carbon foods – and minimising food waste too.  

Extend your break

This feels somewhat counterintuitive. But we need to fly less and return to how we used to vacation: one longer break, punctuated perhaps by short local breaks by train. Embrace slow travel, switch off Instagram, and immerse yourself in a new place.

Don’t buy into offsets

They’re a comfortable delusion. They can take years – decades even – to make a difference. And 85 per cent will never work. They also discourage industry investment into cleaner technologies. Reduction is our only option: just fly less. 

Watch your language

I’ve read a lot about “eco trends” over New Year – I’ve contributed too. But sustainability isn’t a fad. We have to make significant, lasting changes. Our language, as much as our actions, should reflect that.

Have hope

The climate crisis we face demands we all be part of the solution. And the changes we need to make are uncomfortable and inconvenient. We’re beyond sugar-coating that. But our study tells us not only what’s harmful – but what’s possible. It’s a timely reminder that we have power over our choices. We can do something – as a consumer, as a company and an industry.  There are robust ways to consume significantly less carbon. And hope is a great motivator. 

Justin Francis is founder and CEO of activist travel company Responsible Travel

Read why The Independent’s Helen Coffey is going flight-free for 2020 here.

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