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The tourism industry needs carbon footprint labels

Because not all vacations are created equal.

There's interesting new research from the sustainable tourism sector. A company in the UK called Responsible Travel (RT) commissioned a small study that looked into the carbon footprints of four different vacations – an all-inclusive guesthouse in France, a self-catering cottage in North Devon, a shared house on a Croatian island, and a sports hotel in Catalonia – and measured their emissions relating to transport, accommodation, and food.

What these numbers revealed is that choice of food and accommodation have a bigger impact than many people might realize on the overall carbon footprint of a vacation. RT's founder and CEO Justin Francis explained in the Independent,

“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.”

This may come as a surprise. Clearly we underestimate the impact our dietary choices have on the planet. It goes to show that we can adjust what we eat while travelling – minimizing or eliminating meat and sticking with local, seasonal produce – in order to have a significant reduction in a trip's carbon footprint. Similarly, opting for small, more sustainable accommodations can emit four times less carbon than the four-star hotels analyzed in the study. The good news continues:

“Where more climate-friendly choices are made (food, transport and accommodation), emissions for a holiday can be very close to the global sustainable average per day (10kg CO2-e), and almost half the current average per day, per person emissions in the UK (20kg CO2-e).”

In other words, if you make some wise and careful choices when planning a vacation, you could actually improve your carbon footprint compared to how you live at home. And maybe pick up a few habits (veganism? public transport?) that you could use at home, too.

Francis still insists that we need to fly less; this has been a key message from RT since its creation in 2009, and simply eating less meat while travelling won't fix the bigger problem. As he said, “Opting for the train doesn’t give us carte blanche to hit the all-you-can-eat meat buffet for two weeks.” But we can learn to travel better, and that starts with carbon labelling on vacations, which would help people to make smarter choices about where and how they go. Travellers, too, must take responsibility for their impact and strive to reduce it by doing the following (via Responsible Travel):

– Buy locally produced and in-season ingredients, and reduce/eliminate meat. This can also be wise from a public standpoint, if travelling in developing countries.
– Buy locally produced goods and souvenirs.
– Avoid domestic flights and choose overland travel instead.
– Choose hotels that use renewable energy and minimize A/C or heat.
– Do not use single-use plastics. Travel with reusables.
– Avoid all-you-can-eat buffets.
– Hire local guides.
– Choose low-carbon activities, such as biking, hiking, swimming, kayaking, etc.

Because not all vacations are created equal.