Two Simple First Steps to be an Effective Sustainable Traveller
It’s the beginning of the year and the beginning of this sustainable travel blog. I will get on with the travel content soon enough. Instead, let’s start with an article. Specifically, let’s try to grapple with the question of beginning to travel sustainably.
And not just as a passing fad, either. But in a way that you can effectively turn into a new normal – easily.
To keep it simple, I’m not talking from the more holistic perspective of what counts as sustainable travel in the first place. Nor is this for those already on the journey towards a more sustainable life.
This article series is for those currently already travelling, not yet on the sustainability journey, and looking for the easiest and most impactful long-term habits to start with.
Sustainable travel: Let’s start with the most urgent impact
I intend to share stories elsewhere on this blog, and on my Facebook, which are more informational as well as describing the lived experience of growing in sustainable travel.
I hope you would join me, and in time, develop your own general reflections on travelling and living sustainably, suitable for wherever you are.
But in terms of my top recommendation for the easiest, most impactful step to start with, let’s look at the most urgent environmental crisis of our times – climate change.
Global warming, and the consequent climate change, has never been a more important topic in modern culture. Most especially post-COP21 – which is a landmark global deal despite its lack of clear lines because as we all know, human beings don’t get around to achieving complete international consensus unless it is a matter of Ultimate Entire Species Doom. (And sometimes not even then.)
There are many credible sites that you can go to for you to learn more about the carbon implications of travel, like this one. By now, in spite of the assertions of climate change deniers, the science is so well advanced – in fact, the model predictions are playing out before our very eyes.
So much so, that many scientists have opted to divert themselves from their actual core work to help communicate the science and help ordinary folks understand. Trust me, we don’t actually like having to learn how! That’s how urgent it is!
Next, let’s go with the biggest travel impact – emissions from air travel
At the same time, travel’s popularity as an object of desire has never been higher – perhaps in the entire history of man.
Quite uniquely for the age, never before has it also been so feasible and safe (I’m comparing at the scale of centuries here) for so many. Here, I won’t go into the options of rail travel and world bike touring, since I know that this is the opposite of easy (and I promised you easy)! For the majority of travellers, we will invariably do it by air.
There can be no doubt that there are considerable costs to the climate system from air travel. As with virtually anything we buy in the economic system (for myriad reasons I’m not going to cover here), most of the cost to the environment is absorbed by the natural system rather than borne by the service provider. These are not factored into what you pay, and so in a way this makes air travel ‘artificially’ affordable.
1. Step one: Take responsibility for your carbon emissions
Every change starts from a decision, and that decision is to take responsibility for yourself. In the context of sustainable travel, it is about accepting responsibility for your own impacts.
You can begin to measure your impacts in any number of ways. At this stage of the journey it doesn’t really matter which – start with the one that is easiest for you.
For some, this could be to start segregating household waste, to see what actually is being consumed and thrown away. This can be powerful, because waste isn’t normally visible to us because it’s so easily taken away, and we don’t think about it at all. For others, it could be buying a power consumption meter, and understanding where in the house you’re wasting electricity.
For travellers, however, I recommend calculating your travel carbon emissions. It’s easy to do via an online carbon calculator, and simple to take action on afterwards through a carbon offset. Therefore, there’s just enough effort that it makes you think, but simple enough that it can easily be made into a habit.
Carbon footprint and travel carbon offset
When I decided to begin doing this some years back, it took me some searching to find some means to do it, that also gives good assurance that it would be a real offset. (In time, I plan to write a series of articles aided by colleagues actually in this field, to help you figure out which carbon offset scheme is reliable, and which are less so).
Back then some airlines began offering the option during ticket booking, but I find that gradually they all seem to have stopped. One of the options I found at that time, which is still standing today, is TerraPass. Its user-friendly carbon calculator gives you a quick idea for the carbon emissions of your flights. All you need is the outbound and inbound airport, and that’s it.
Some people like to offset after every trip, but I prefer doing it annually because I personally use the carbon calculator to measure everything – as you can see from the screenshot. But you will need more information (not difficult ones!) to complete the other sections.
And no, I am not sponsored by TerraPass in any way. This is genuinely how I carbon offset IRL, since before I began travel blogging.
My position is that there is no sustainable air travel without carbon offsetting.
Seasoned offsetter preview tip:
Just to give you an idea for how reasonable it is to be accountable for your own emissions: my entire 2016 total carbon offset cost me only about as much as two or three good restaurant meals in Asia.
Teja on the Horizon destination articles (outside of Malaysia) will include the corresponding air travel emissions estimate, along with a rough value of the offset – to show you that, relatively speaking, it is affordable.
If you can travel, you can carbon offset your travel!
Some airlines are reviving carbon offsetting options for customers
In the past year, airlines such as Qantas are beginning to revive the option for customers to purchase carbon offsets during booking. (Or at least, beginning to re-market the option). This is more convenient that calculating your emissions after the fact.
What I’ve observed is, such airlines tend to have some kind of carbon offset project themselves, within their own control. For example, in the past, airlines used to partner with offset providers, but problems of certification and longevity of the providers’ projects became doubtful.
The new trend seems to be for airlines to take matters into their own hands, and work directly with governments to secure forest land etc. to assure their own corporate offsets. Then it becomes easy and synergistic to extend the option to customers.
However, one major caveat with relying on airlines’ programs: you have read the marketing material carefully.
- ‘We offset airline emissions’ usually does not mean your flight emissions are offset. It means their corporate emissions are.
- If they offer an option to offset your emissions, double check how they achieve it. If it’s credible, it should be on their website.
2. Step two: Set your sustainable travel intention – and repeat
My second habit recommendation is psychological.
It is to set – and re-set – your intention. Whatever action that you resolve to do to travel more sustainably, take some time to actually make that intention to yourself.
What this does, is get you used to creating the mental space for you to recognise your habits, and create a different action to change it.
Now, as anyone who has ever made New Year’s resolutions would testify, sticking to the intention is a different kettle of fish! That’s why I ask you to re-set the intention, over and over again. Even if you failed miserably to keep it.
Reflect. Don’t give up.
Maybe it was too ambitious. Maybe you discovered an obstacle that you need to remove first. Whatever it is, learn from the attempt and do the intention again. And again, and again.
What this does is gets you to a place where you get to know yourself better, and used to not giving up. This is the most important thing for any long-term change – it can be slow and with small steps, but you cannot give up.
We live in an era where those who have hope and faith, and those who have knowledge, are mostly not the same people. So I urge you – if you have one, look to cultivate the other.
Travel with teja – travel with purpose
We are a collection of very different people, and each of us values different things in the way that we travel.
Here, I’m just going to let those many intentions stand with each other without judgment. I don’t need to know your reasons for travel.
But responsible travel begins with you knowing yours.
There is great gain in travel, and there is also cost. It is a thing still out of reach of so many, and so remains a privilege. So indulge in a little teja practice, and reflect on why you’re going.
Be honest, and even if reflection is all you can do for now without changing anything, do it anyway. Even if at this stage you suspect you might have to admit to yourself that your travel reason is actually not a great reason, but you still want to go.
Reflect anyway and leave it be.
Then tomorrow do it again, at breakfast perhaps, or before sleep. And again, all the days of your travel. Even if you don’t change anything. Just think about it, and know why you’re there.
Do this one small thing, if that’s all you can commit to doing. But do it every day.
Something happens when you honestly set an intention, over and over again. It changes what you notice, when you’re travelling. Then in time, it makes possible for travel itself to change you.
Then, you’ll be ready for the practical tips and ideas for more sustainable travel.
For the very beginning: take responsibility, and know yourself.
Then, come join us on the horizon.
For the next articles in the series, see:
Further reading on impacts of travel:
A good overview article on carbon offsetting for travellers: