How to Get Started With Sustainable Travel

February 9, 2022

As human beings, we generate carbon emissions every day, whether we realize it or not. The choices we make by simply selecting items at the grocery store — was this produce grown locally, or imported from hundreds of miles away? — can affect our carbon footprint, and how we contribute to the environmental health of our planet. 

But travel is a particularly notable part of our footprint, because it can generate a huge portion of our emissions for the year in a very short period of time. In fact, a 2018 study published in the journal Nature Climate Change found that tourism’s global carbon footprint accounts for roughly 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions. 

And, according to Sustainable Travel International, a whopping 49% of those emissions are directly linked to transportation, with travel by air, SUV, and car taking the top three spots.  

Those are some daunting numbers, but don’t let them discourage you. The truth is there is a lot you can do to reduce your environmental impact, even while boarding your next flight.

Using carbon offsets for air travel 

First, what are carbon offsets? In a nutshell: They’re a way for you to balance out the emissions you contribute to the planet by investing in special projects like wind farms, agricultural efforts to reduce methane, the planting of trees, and more. All of these projects work to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, therefore “offsetting” your impact.

And it’s a lot cheaper than you may think. For example, a one-way direct flight from New York City to Los Angeles in a premium cabin results in a carbon footprint of about 2,402 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2). The cost to offset? Approximately $13.77. And if you’re flying in an economy cabin, that footprint drops to about 1,201 pounds of CO2, which is approximately $7.04 to offset.

As an added bonus, if you purchase your carbon offsets from a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, your spend may be tax deductible.

To get started with carbon offsets, use a free online calculator. Like this one from Conservation International, which can easily estimate the carbon footprint of your upcoming trip. Some calculators also allow you to factor in your ground transportation and hotel stays in addition to air travel, to give you a fuller picture.

Then find an organization offering carbon offset projects that you can invest in. Many organizations who offer carbon footprint calculators also offer carbon offset options, but you’ll want to do some research to make sure the organization is on the up-and-up, and that their carbon offsets truly go towards funding new projects for sustainability.

According to The Washington Post, that means a project should be transparent about how its emission reductions work and how they’re accounted for. Websites like Green-e also offer lists of certified projects to explore, and if you’re seeking a tax deduction you’ll want to verify the organization you’re purchasing through has 501(c)(3) status.

Rethinking local travel

Once you’re on the ground at your destination, it’s time to consider the second biggest transportation-related culprit of greenhouse gas emissions: traveling by car. It’s tempting to hail a cab or even rent a car, but consider the positive effects of sharing the commute.

According to the Department of Transportation, “switching to riding public transportation is one of the most effective actions individuals can take to reduce their carbon footprint.” On average, travel by bus produces 33% fewer emissions when compared to a single-occupancy vehicle. And if your destination has a light rail system, that’s even better: they produce 62% fewer emissions.

Plus, taking public transit will give you a local’s perspective of your destination and offer you more options to explore the city (even if it’s just sight-seeing as you walk to stops between meetings.)

If your on-the-ground needs require traveling by car, consider whether you can rent an electric vehicle or share a ride with fellow travelers.

Thinking beyond transit

While transportation makes up the largest slice of the pie when it comes to travel emissions, you can strengthen your sustainability efforts by researching sustainable and eco-friendly hotels in your destination, or by simply limiting your water consumption by declining new sheets and towels during your stay.

You can limit single-use plastics by packing a reusable water bottle, and skipping travel-sized toiletries in favor of reusable containers you refill yourself. Or, consider solid shampoo bars and toothpaste bits that don’t require disposable plastic containers.

Getting takeout or delivery after a long day? You might not be able to choose what containers restaurants use to pack up your food, but you can make a dent by declining the plastic utensils and supplying your own, either through a packable cutlery set or by asking your hotel restaurant for silverware to use during your stay. 

The options for incremental change are endless, so don’t forget: Every choice you make with sustainability in mind, no matter how small, makes a difference.

Find out more about corporate travel sustainability, mobility, accessibility and more at the Miles Ahead virtual event on March 2, 2022.


Deem Editorial

The Deem editorial team brings important, informative commentary and data to travel managers and everyone interested in technology and the corporate travel industry.

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