How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

If you’ve been following this series about ecotourism, you probably already know that our working definition for the act of ecotourism is travelling while making a conscious effort to enjoy nature and engage in conservatory acts. Clearly, that’s a rather vague definition, which is a decision we made on purpose. Because ecotourism is more adopting a specific state of mind while travelling, rather than engaging in any one particular act, it’s difficult to put a precise definition of what ecotourism really is.

Wouldn’t it be nice to quantify ecotourism, however? A number of conservationists, travellers and scientists certainly think so, which is why a few different scales have been created to measure your impact on the earth, both during your travels and at home. The most popular of these is probably the carbon footprint. The idea behind the carbon footprint is to track the number of greenhouse gases produced by the activities you engage in each and every day. Greenhouses gases are thought to be responsible for trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere, which is a major contributor to the global climate change phenomenon. The most common greenhouse gasses humans emit are carbon dioxide, ozone, and methane.

Numerous carbon footprint calculators exist to quantify exactly how much of an impact your day-to-day travel activities have on the earth. One of the most popular calculators can be found here, but most will do the job well enough. Just make sure to answer the questions honestly and find a calculator that accounts for all three major types of greenhouse gas emissions.

Though you might be doing a great job of minimizing your carbon footprint while at home, it can be shocking how large your footprint gets while travelling. A single plane trip can grow your footprint into a dauntingly large size. As eco-tourists, however, it’s our duty to minimize the size of our carbon footprint as much as we’re able while travelling. The following guide answers the question of how to reduce your carbon footprint while travelling, illustrated with examples and stories from my current journey through Southeast Asia.

Sun rise tea Plantation in Malaysia
Sunrise tea Plantation in Malaysia | 500px: Stuart Garland CCBY

Utilizing Public Transportation

This is a big one since transportation typically accounts for a huge portion of your carbon footprint. These days, nearly all cities have well developed public transportation that is easy enough to navigate, even if you don’t speak the language. Although it may be tempting to take a private taxi to all of your destinations, doing so is not favourable for decreasing your carbon footprint. Plus, taking public transportation can be an adventure in and of itself. It’s how the locals travel, and you’ll get a chance to talk one on one with people who have lived their whole lives in your area. If you look foreign and speak English, many locals in non-English speaking countries may wish to try their English skills out on you. We’ve found this to particularly be the case in Southeast Asia. No matter where we go, schoolchildren, teenagers and even adults wish to speak with us to practice their English and welcome us to their country. Many of these charming encounters would not have been possible if we had not taken the bus or train. On top of it, we felt good about doing something to begin reducing our carbon footprint. On a related note…

On the Bus in Bangkok
On the Bus in Bangkok | Flickr: Trevor Soh

Walking Places

Do some research before you arrive in a city and find where the main attractions you wish to visit are. Many times, they’ll be clustered around the city’s historical interior, or in a relatively small area. Then try to pick a hotel that’s within walking distance of these locales. If riding public transportation is a good way of cutting your transportation-related carbon footprint, walking is the ultimate method. Better yet, walking has a few added benefits. It’s good exercise, and of course, it’s free. It also allows you to experience a place in a more intimate manner than simply being ferried between all of the tourist landmarks. A destination is just as defined by the places between landmarks as it is the landmarks itself.

During my trip through Southeast Asia, we’ve walked several miles almost every day. This has yielded countless adventures we otherwise never would have encountered, as well as reduced our carbon footprint. A recent example of an adventure we had by walking happened in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. We were walking to a bridge to get a good view of the city, and happened upon a man with a cage full of birds. He looked wistfully at the horizon, then out his hand in the cage, grabbed a bird, and threw it off the bridge. As it flew away, we noticed a little message attached to its back. One by one, the man released over a dozen carrier pigeons, then quietly walked away, mission complete. It was very odd and yet a strikingly poignant moment.

Wondering How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint - Walk!
Couple walking beneath trees in Banyoles, Span | 500px: Passeig Darder CC BY

Decline Plastic Bags and Other Superfluous Waste

Though superfluous waste is a problem all over the world, nowhere has it been so striking to me as in Southeast Asia. It’s impossible to order a drink here without getting a straw, and no purchase at any retail outlet is complete without bagging your goods in a plastic sack. Obviously, refusing these items makes a relatively small impact on your carbon footprint, but it’s still a good thing to do. Moreover, it helps decrease the demand for these harmful products. You can think of your refusal of wasteful plastic products like voting. When compared to the mass of votes from across a nation, your individual vote probably has next to no impact on the outcome of the election, but at the same time, that mass of votes is nothing more than thousands of individual voters with no more impact than you. By refusing plastic products, you make a smart, eco-minded decision that contributes to the overall cause of lowering our dependence on wasteful products, as well as making a small reduction to your carbon footprint.

Plastic Bag in Beautiful Bush in Israel
Plastic Bag in Beautiful Bush in Israel | Flickr: Chany Crystal

Watch Your Diet

Everyone knows one of the joys of travelling is getting to try new and exciting dishes. In fact, sampling the wide array of tropical fruits was one of the main reasons I wished to travel to Southeast Asia. However, in terms of carbon footprints, not every food is created equal. In general, meat products tend to have much higher carbon footprints than vegetable or fruits, especially beef. I’m not going to argue that you should practice a vegetarian lifestyle while travelling, though that would undoubtedly do a lot of good towards reducing your carbon footprint. It’s simply not practical in some parts of the world, and many people aren’t willing to make that commitment. However, you should still be mindful of what you eat and what its impact on the earth is. Consider practising “Meatless Mondays” (or any other, non-alliterative day of the week), where you go an entire day without eating meat. It’ll help your carbon footprint, and may even introduce you to a new, meatless dish you wouldn’t have tried otherwise.

Melograno in Thailand
Melograno in Thailand | Flickr: Lucadea