Travel and carbon emissions make for a "hot topic" these days, so to speak, thanks to concerns about global climate change. So these days I'm thinking a lot about what it means to travel responsibly, and whether that means traveling less, or just traveling smarter.
I know this is not a question you would expect to be raised by a travel writer who earns her keep touting glamorous destinations and talking up travel. The truth is that each one of us has a responsibility to help preserve the environment. So figuring out what that means is my number one goal in my 2008 new year's resolutions.
Now at first glance, it would seem that air travel in particular is an odd target for concerns. According to the World Resources Institute , aviation only contributes 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 3% in the US. But some are saying that these figures underestimate the real impact, because carbon dioxide released at a high altitude can have a higher warming impact (known as the "Radiative Forcing Index"), perhaps double or more, according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which just won the Nobel Prize in conjunction with Al Gore. Plus, emissions from flights are growing rapidly, both in the US and Europe, and as citizens of developing countries start to fly more often like Americans and Europeans do.
So what does all this mean for your new year's resolutions? If you are like most Americans, your annual vacations are part of your quality of life. And traveling for business is still an essential part of many jobs. So how can you travel smarter in practice? Here are a few tips to start:
(1) For when you can't find ways to reduce your impact, you can neutralize your travel impact by buying carbon offsets, which do things like plant trees or fund renewable energy or energy efficiency projects. For a fun introduction to offsets, check out some good friends of mine, the Eco-bunnies. Then teach your kids about carbon footprints. The eco-bunnies website even has lesson plans you can suggest to your kids' teachers, or offer to teach a session yourself. Many airlines as well as leading online travel agencies like Travelocity or Expedia offer the option to purchase offsets when you make reservations. A typical flight costs $10 or less to offset.
(2) Select hotels and resorts who have made investments in green practices and efficiency: If you you're not sure where to begin, use the web to start. Check out what major suppliers are doing at sites like Fairmont Hotels, Vail Resorts, or Terra Resorts,
(3) Need to maintain a budget while you're away? Look for farmers' markets rather than eating every meal at a restaurant. You'll save money, eat healthier, and support local businesses. Want to bring home a fantastic souvenir? Visit a local crafts market or support local arts cooperative. If you don't know where to start ask the concierge at your hotel to find out for you.
(4) If business takes you near a vacation spot, save a flight by adding a vacation on to your trip. Or combine several short business trips into one longer one, with longer stays or short hops, to gain efficiencies. Business is all about relationships, so you have to get to know your distant colleagues or partners in person, but after that, a period of video conferences or phone calls can keep relationships intact.
(5) Once you've arrived at your destination, consider using mass transit, riding a bike or walking as a way of getting around. Especially at rush hour in cities like New York or Chicago, trains from the airport can save time as well as money in getting to the business district.
(6) If you're renting a car, consider selecting a hybrid or high-mileage car. Hertz for instance lets you reserve a specific hybrid model with their Green collection, although they unfortunately charge a little more for it. You'll save on the gas bill if you're driving far. Check out Hertz rental cars.
So you can see lots of mainstream travel companies are making some effort to give options to eco-conscious travelers. Does that mean they're doing all they can? No. But it's a start. Reward these companies for the little (and big) steps they are taking. Three quarters of travel consumers in a recent survey say they are willing to spend more for an eco or green experience. If consumers actually do what they say, then business will have to respond accordingly, and we'll all get more good choices in the future.
Everything in my list above is a small step, but we can collectively make a big difference. In fact I'd argue that the little things we do in life, like smiling at a stranger or sending a note to someone having a rough time, are what truly make up who we are.
So that's my new year's resolution: One day at a time, one trip at a time, one carbon footprint erased at a time. Join in and before you know it you'll be saving up, traveling smarter, and leaving a whole lot less behind.