River and snow covered mountain

Some thoughts about travel for Earth Day 2012

Today is Earth Day.

My personal wish for Earth Day is for transparent, understandable sustainability metrics introduced for the travel industry. It would allow me, or any other like minded consumer to assess the full ecological, cultural and socio-economic impact of our travel plans before we commit to buying. I am glad there are companies out there selling responsible travel. However, when some of these companies are pushed to supply carbon and water footprints, or the percentage of the travel spend that stays in the local community the information supplied is often lacking.
River and snow covered mountain

Some commentators, including some working in the responsible travel sector say that travel is a diverse complicated product and imply that it would be nearly impossible to produce metrics.

It would be wrong to say that it that the metrics are impossible to produce. I quote Clarke’s First and Second Laws:

Clarke’s First Law: When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

Clarke’s Second Law: The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

Arthur C Clarke

Like any scientific challenge the it is possible to calculate the figures. True, carbon and ecological footprints have not been calculated for every service and product. However, homes now have energy ratings. The apartment I am living in while on vacation in Chamonix has energy ratings displayed in traffic light format from A – G. The offset companies seem to have no problems working out carbon footprints, when they feel they can benefit financially. If one travel company set the standard, others would follow.  Why not start with some of the easily measured metrics like energy, water consumption and then move on to food? Assessing the carbon footprint of a flight is not difficult, just look at any carbon offsetting company’s websites for information. Ferry and cruise companies don’t publish their figures.  If their carbon footprint figures were good, wouldn’t they be using them to promote sales in the same was as railways and buses?

The task will be most difficult when carried out for the first time, but afterwards producing the metrics will be no more onerous than producing the annual report and accounts.

A good example of a carbon footprint study is SNCF’s study for the construction and operation of the TGV Rhin-Rhône line. It is an excellent case study that  clearly demonstrates how the carbon footprint is calculated for an extremely complex operation.  IC Hotels publish the average carbon footprint of their rooms in their CSR report. I expect to see more reporting like this in the future. Not only will it help consumers decide which travel products they will spend their money on, but it will be a massive driver for improvement across the industry.

Beware of the supermarket plastic bag distraction ploy, they make a massive show of phasing out single use plastic carrier bags.  The ecological footprint of a single use plastic bag is one thousandth of that of the goods that they carry. So millions of consumers feel they are making a big impact by using reusable carrier bags. I’m in agreement that they should be phased out, as they cause a catalogue of misery in the environment, but if we forget the other nine hundred and ninety-nine thousandths, the impact is almost negligible. But the way we look at the “throwaway culture” may be changed far more significantly.  Phasing them out has benefited supermarkets financially, this was also a driver.

Likewise, some travel companies point to one aspect of their services giving it a huge significantce.  Of course it probably does make a difference, but is it just a thousandth of the total impact of that travel package?

Isn’t it about time we were all a bit more ambitious when setting our goals for the future, to make sure that we have one at least as good as the present? We need to look at the other nine hundred and ninety-nine thousandths.  But to do that we need more facts we can relate to, as opposed to publicity stunts.

Food for thought.

 

About John Williams

John Williams looks at travel from a responsible consumer's perspective. He is doesn't accept hosted trips, so don't expect gushing reports of experiences that neither he, you, nor our planet can afford. He, is the first to acknowledge that when it comes to sustainable travel, he has a lot to learn. TravelCrunch is a platform for sharing his learning, but if you have any tips or disagreements feel free to air them in the comments.

3 thoughts on “Some thoughts about travel for Earth Day 2012”

  1. Really a food for thought. I just hope the powerful people will celebrate Earth Day more productively though. There are many practices that can be done by people all over the world that could be very helpful to the environment. And it’s not just merely turning off the electricity for an hour.
    Kyla Miller recently posted..More Information website hereMy Profile

  2. Hi Kyla, I think you are confusing Earth Day with Earth Hour. Turning of the electricity for an hour is a ‘vote’ using the On/Off switch. Switching off then indicates that you want our leaders to take action for the benefit of future generations.
    John recently posted..EU Cookie LawMy Profile

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