My carbon footprint is terrible. What about yours? I might live in a tent several months a year. I don’t have a home. I mostly eat a vegetarian diet. But like the majority of modern nomads, I move regularly. My passion for exploring the world also contributes to its destruction. But between smarter itinerary planning, overland alternatives and carbon offsets we can do better, now.

Calculating Your Traveler's Carbon Footprint

So how bad exactly is it? I find it very sobering to crunch the numbers. Scientists estimate that we should limit ourselves to 0.6 tons of CO2 per person per year to mitigate climate change. A single long haul flight produces more than a ton of CO2 per passenger. But how can you figure out more precisely your carbon footprint?

Fortunately, there are several handy CO2 emission calculators on the internet. They can estimate your footprint for flying and driving among other things. However you will quickly notice that actual numbers vary a lot.

CO2 calculators are based on many assumptions. Especially for flying, you get a very rough approximation. In reality it depends on many factors, such as airplane model, prevailing winds, occupancy rates, etc. And more importantly, the so-called radiative forcing. The effect of other pollutants released at high altitude approximately doubles the emission figures.

Swiss NGO myclimate has an excellent CO2 emissions calculator. For air travel it takes into account nitrogen compounds and aerosols. You will find that their estimates can be higher than others. But also closer to reality.

Reducing Your Carbon Footprint:
Better Itinerary planning

Once you start playing with the emissions calculator you will rapidly notice the major culprit for long term travelers and nomads. Yep, surprise surprise. It’s transport.

There are obviously cleaner ways than others to travel. Kudos to the cyclo-tourers and long distance hikers out there. But for the majority of us we still mainly rely on fossil fuels to get around. Our biggest opportunity to cut our footprint is fortunately also the easiest to apply.

You might find it obvious, yet we rarely put enough effort into smarter itineraries. Far too often, we are exceedingly ambitious in our travel plans. We collect passport stamps. We backtrack regularly, hop from one destination to the other. Or we are magically attracted to the most exotic and remote locations. It might be fun, but it comes at a price.

Make your trip as linear as possible. Slow down. Spend more time in the places you enjoy. Have the courage to skip some of the famous sights. Go for quality over quantity. A lifetime is not enough to see and do it all anyway. It’s a win-win situation too. Having more time is the real luxury. And as a pleasant side effect you’ll save a lot of money too.

Overland Public Transportation:

Soviet nostalgia at its best in Uzbekistan

For most nomads air travel is our biggest climate sin. Globally it might not play such a big role yet. But the industry is growing fast, and high altitude emissions are particularly harmful. One long haul flight is equivalent to the annual carbon footprint of two to three Bangladeshi farmers. And we rarely stop at one flight a year.

Going overland is usually the best alternative. As a bonus, no need to book a long time in advance. That extra flexibility is precious.

The train remains my favorite overland alternative across much of Asia and Europe. It’s comfortable, affordable, and a chance to see the country from a different angle. And for overnight journeys sleeper trains save you on accommodation too. Without compromising on sleep. Check out seat 61 for a good summary of all the passenger trains in the world. You might be surprised what’s possible.

On the CO2 front, electric trains are the clear winners, with averages around 50g per km and less per passenger. But even trains pulled by older diesel engines are still better than flying once you account for secondary high altitude emissions. Basically, we’re talking 2 to 40 times better than flying.

Overland Public Transportation:
Buses, minibuses and shared taxi

Lebanese madness

Yes, every seasoned traveler will have tales of excruciatingly long bus journeys. But it can also be the best way to meet locals. If you hate bus journeys, have a look at more comfortable vehicles. Some buses are almost like flying business class in South America. Or take a shared taxi instead of a crowded minibus.

Buses are still the default choice in many places, along with minibuses and shared taxis. Good news, it’s also one of the cleaner ways to travel, as long as it’s relatively full. Again it’s difficult to give hard numbers, with average emissions around 25 to 100g per km per passenger. The overcrowded Nepalese buses do even better. That translates to 2 to 8 times lower emissions than flying.

Traveling By Sea

The era of ocean liners might be long gone. But there are still many ferries operational across the world. From the Persian Gulf to the Pacific. It’s a wonderful opportunity to experience the vastness of the blue planet. Their CO2 emissions per passenger are often comparable to flying. If you take radiative forcing into consideration then it’s roughly half the equivalent emissions of an airplane. Nevertheless ferries are also generally carrying cargo or vehicles. Which means that on a weight basis you don’t necessarily account for much. Basically it depends on your perspective, but overall it’s still helping.

Another possibility are so-called cruise ship relocation trips. Cruise ships are notoriously bad for the climate. But the ships need to relocate regularly, following the seasons. Since the ships have to move anyway you might technically consider them as otherwise unused capacity. If you find a quick and direct crossing then it could be better than flying from that perspective.

Cargo ships also sometimes take passenger. Again, the ship will sail anyway, so this is not a bad choice. Unfortunately, cabins for individuals are very expensive. For a budget traveler, it’s rarely an option.

Last but not least, if you have the time and motivation, there are regularly places available on smaller private vessels for big crossings. Crewing and sailing experience is a big plus. It’s certainly not a solution for the masses, but it could be an unforgettable adventure. And sailing is as carbon neutral as it gets!

Reducing Your Carbon Footprint:

car camping patagonia argentina
At the end of a 20000km journey, but always with extra passengers

Developed countries regularly lack good public transportation. And, like Oman, the real treasures often lie scattered around the countryside. A car or a van remains the best and most economic option in that case. But what about your carbon footprint?

Model, fuel type and driving habits have a significant impact. As much as possible, favor smaller sedans. Drive slower, accelerate less. But I would argue again that your itinerary is the real key. A friend of mine drove his van from Canada to Patagonia. Most overlanders clock more than 40000 km / 25000 miles in a few months. He did it in 20000 km / 12500 miles. In two years. He simply took his time, never backtracked and made few detours. That’s still around 7 tons of CO2 a year, but he systematically took friends and hitchhikers along the way.

Indeed, another crucial way to lessen your impact is car sharing. Find some friends for your trip. Offer a ride. Or look for car sharing opportunities. Chances are it will be more fun too. And you’ll save a lot. Again, it can (and should) be a win-win.

Numbers? Alone in an average car you are roughly on par with flying if you include high altitude chemical interactions. So get at least some company for your big road trip!

Reducing Your Carbon Footprint:

Quick and dirty

There are times when flying is inevitable. Lebanon is a good example. Or if you want that visa on arrival in Iran. And I’ll be the first to admit it, sometimes it’s just too damn convenient. But there are still many ways to reduce your impact.

First, always fly economy. Those business class deals can be quite tempting, but truly appalling in terms of emissions. First class is even worst. Resist!

Next, remember to consider the individual legs of split journeys. I once found a 100$ flight from Bishkek to Tehran, via Kiev! Even worse, the Ukrainian company had to fly around the Krim peninsula because of Russian airspace regulations. That’s a 4000 km / 2500 miles detour to save 50 bucks. Ridiculous!

Finally, try and favor companies with modern fleets. The technology has improved a lot in recent years. Also, some airlines use shorter routes than others. The differences are significant.

Carbon Offsets:
The Last recourse

So you’ve optimized your travel plans and habits. But a few flights and thousands of miles traveled add up. Your footprint is still several tons too high. This is where carbon offsets come to the rescue.

Offsets direct money towards projects that will remove CO2 from the atmosphere. This is can be done by planting trees, but this is by far not the only way. By buying a predetermined amount of these offsets you can compensate for your emissions. There is a huge market revolving around this.

Having said that, I consider offsets a bit like the modern equivalent of medieval indulgences. It’s certainly somewhat akin to green washing a guilty traveler’s mind. Best not to sin too much in the first place. Carbon offsets come with their fair share of issues. Like recycling in the 3 R’s, they will never be as efficient as reducing your emissions by changing your habits.

Many companies have already pledged to be carbon neutral, or at least reduce their emissions. Airlines from countries who signed the ICAO CORSIA treaty are planning to offset all supplementary emissions from 2020 onwards. Sadly, this is not enough. It’s ultimately up to us, the clients, to act.

Carbon Offsets:
The quality issue

All carbon offsets are not equals. This is already reflected by the price. You can offset a transatlantic flight on the KLM website for a fiver. With other NGOs that could be 30 to 100 dollars.

The cheapest carbon credits are often based on planting trees. On paper, it’s a great idea. But in reality, it takes years for the saplings to grow and fix the CO2. During that time they will have to survive the vagaries of the weather, illegal logging and fires. On the bright side, this small optional “tax” represents rarely more than 5-10% of your ticket price.

Other more expensive projects rely on a large arrays of strategies to reduce CO2 emissions. That can be as simple as providing more efficient cooking stoves in developing countries, thus reducing deforestation. Or at the other end of the spectrum the funds can flow towards renewable energy projects in developed countries. Obviously at a higher cost.

Again, it’s not all black and white. Some projects have mitigated results over the long run. But higher quality projects have much more of a positive impact, and not just on the climate. Swiss NGO myclimate has an excellent portfolio of such projects.

Carbon Offsets:
Finding Value

This is a budget travel website after all! Finding the highest impact for your offset purchase first requires to understand the pricing mechanism. The so-called project owner implement the actual project. The real price per ton of CO2 will depend on the nature and quality of the project. Furthermore, if big non-profit partners are involved costs can be lower.

The carbon credits are then sold on an open market. Thus, prices will also fluctuate based on offer and demand. Resellers usually purchase the credits from the project owners, repackage them and sell them to corporate or private clients.

This added value chain obviously also impacts the final price. If you can cut out the middle man, 80+% of the funds will go towards the project itself, with the rest towards the certification and quality control. In other words, buy from the project owners when possible. Check out Dutch NGO Hivos for a good example.

Hat tip Maria Claudelin for explaining the industry basics!

Reducing Your Carbon Footprint:
The Bottomline

There is sadly no silver bullet. We travelers have to take a long sobering look at our habits, and see where we can directly reduce our footprint. For the vast majority of us, it’s by selecting more humble travel plans that we can make the biggest impact. And by changing our air travel habits.

Carbon offsets received a lot of bad press recently. It’s certainly an imperfect solution. It’s also the only one we currently have when faced with larger CO2 emissions that cannot easily be avoided. If you can afford it, aim for higher quality projects. And for the best value try to support project owners such as Hivos directly.

Am I forgetting something? Do you have good suggestions? Get in touch and I’ll add them to the article!