New research: Calculating the carbon emissions of vacations

Our ground breaking study highlights the pressing need for the tourism industry to carbon label vacations and design trips with lower carbon footprints. Although transport is the number one concern when we’re considering the carbon impact of our vacations, findings show that carbon emissions from the food eaten on vacation - the foo(d)print - can also be a very significant part of the overall emissions from a vacation. In fact, emissions associated with food can potentially exceed a trip’s transport emissions, and that of accommodation. To become more carbon efficient in the future, it is vital that the tourism industry makes important emissions reductions across food, accommodation and transportation and presents CO2 information to travelers as transparently as possible – opening up a debate around the need for carbon labelling. As well as flying less and staying longer, travelers need to change the way we eat on vacation.

At Responsible Travel, the activist travel company offering authentic and sustainable vacations, we want to help travelers reduce the carbon footprint of their vacations (and benefit local communities and biodiversity) as much as possible.

We’ve commissioned a study with Professor Stefan Gössling of Lund University, and Dr Ya-Yen Sun of the University of Queensland to examine the carbon footprint of four of Responsible Travel’s specialist vacation companies.

The first of its kind, the pilot study looks at the carbon emission data for the accommodation, the food (where available), and the transportation (a return, lower carbon and a higher carbon option* from London) for each of the four leading sustainable vacation companies. Detailed annual data was gathered by the companies, including – where available – individual menu choices which vary considerably between accommodations.

Since 2009 Responsible Travel has advised customers to fly less and stay longer. This study supports this theory. While transport will usually be the most impactful aspect of the vacation, the gap between that and other emissions sources such as food and accommodation, begins to close when a traveler increases their length of stay.

Transport remains the number one issue to tackle in tourism. However, the research shows that we must give greater consideration to the carbon impact of food and accommodation:

  • The foo(d)print per person can be considerable, compared to the hotel or transportation involved in a vacation. In some cases the carbon emissions of the food we eat whilst on vacation can be greater than transport (in some cases even flying) and where we stay. We must eat differently and as an industry, help facilitate that by offering greater plant-based choice and minimise food waste, as well as focussing on local, seasonal produce.

  • The smaller, more sustainable accommodations surveyed can emit four times less carbon than many 4 star hotel chains.

  • Where more climate-friendly choices are made (food, transport and accommodation)- emissions for a vacation 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).

  • Tourism is less carbon efficient than other industries at generating economic value per Kg of carbon required. According to a study in Nature Climate Change (Lenzen et al 2018): “at around 1 kgCO2e per dollar… the carbon multiplier of global tourism is higher than those of global manufacturing (0.8 kgCO2e per US$) and construction (0.7 kgCO2e per US$), and higher than the global average (0.75 kgCO2e per US$). Growth in tourism-related expenditure is therefore a stronger accelerator of emissions than growth in manufacturing, construction or services provision.” To have the potential of achieving sustainable growth, tourism needs to become much more carbon efficient. This study highlights areas where significant reductions can be made: food and accommodation as well as transport.

Stefan Gössling, co-author of the study, said:
“I am extremely happy that Responsible Travel is taking the lead on climate change and looking into the carbon footprints of their vacations. We have learned a lot already: top-notch vacation experiences can be very low carbon. This is an exciting way of moving forward on decarbonisation: It helps travelers finding the most sustainable and exciting trips, and encourages system change. I hope that other tour operators will follow suit in developing similar tools”

Justin Francis, CEO Responsible Travel, said:
“Thankfully there has been a great deal of attention given to the carbon emissions resulting from flying. We’ve argued that we need to fly less since 2009. For the first time here we reveal and quantify how much the food you eat and the energy use of your accommodation contribute to the total carbon emissions of your vacation. It came as a surprise to find that in some cases food emissions might be greater than those of your flight. Eating more plant based and locally grown food; reducing your food waste, and staying in renewably powered accommodation become an important part of reducing the carbon emissions of your vacation. The industry must design lower carbon vacations that tackle these issues and provide clear, transparent information and choice to travelers.”

*The significant non-CO2 warming effect caused by air travel at flight altitude is not considered in these calculations.

Further Reading

Advice for travelers on how to reduce the carbon impact of your vacation
Responsible Travel’s aviation tax campaign
Our views on carbon offsetting