Sustainability as a concept is about being able to meet your needs in a way that does not use more than your fair share of resources, and does not affect the ability of future generations to meet their needs. It is quite a challenging concept in some ways, especially the part about not using more than your fair share (and our page on Ethical Consumption discusses this in more detail).
One area where sustainability may be particularly challenging is personal or business travel. This includes one-off trips such as holidays, more regular business travel, and also the everyday travel of commuting, school runs, shopping and other errands. This page discusses the environmental impact of various forms of travel, both local and international, and how you can reduce it.
A Recap on Sustainability
Our page on Understanding Sustainability explains that there are three pillars to sustainability: environmental, economic and social.
Environmental is all about the impact of your actions and activities on the planet.
Economic is about the financial impact of your actions, for example, whether you can afford to act in particular ways.
Social is about the impact of your actions on other people.
At first glance, you can see that travel mainly has an impact on the environment, and particularly on your carbon footprint and the emissions generated by your activities (see box). However, various studies have shown the impact of emissions from vehicles on health. Children growing up alongside busy roads—who tend to be poorer—tend to have more respiratory problems. There is therefore clearly also a social impact of travel choices.
Travel and Carbon Footprint
Our page on Reducing Your Carbon Footprint discusses four areas that have a particular impact on your carbon footprint: home, food, travel and ‘stuff’.
This page covers the travel aspects.
In considering the sustainability of travel, it may be helpful to consider different types of travel in different ways. We can identify:
Regular work-based travel, also known as commuting;
One-off work-based travel, for example to meetings or events, or to see clients;
Regular personal travel, such as school runs, errands and shopping; and
One-off personal travel such as holidays.
Each of these, of course, can be achieved in various ways, and each method has a different environmental impact. Some may also be easier to reduce than others. For example, it is far easier to choose to avoid going on long-haul holidays by plane than to decide not to commute to work. However, it is worth considering all options for all four types of travel, because every little helps.
Reducing the Impact of Travel
Our page on Reducing your Carbon Footprint suggests four broad approaches to reducing the impact of your actions: use less, use differently, reuse and recycle and offset.
All these are applicable to travel, even reusing and recycling.
1. Use Less
The first option is to travel less. For example:
Reduce your commuting by asking to work from home one or two days a week, if that is possible. If you really have to go into work every day, reduce the impact of your commuting by travelling by public transport instead of car, or by bike instead of public transport.
Reduce travel to meetings or client premises by using technology to connect remotely, perhaps every other time you would previously have travelled. You could also consider combining visits to several clients, and staying over instead of going home in between.
Reduce your holiday travel by either choosing a ‘staycation’, or travelling less often. If you are someone who regularly takes two or more holidays a year abroad, or by plane, consider limiting yourself to one trip per year to reduce your impact.
2. Use Differently
Assuming that you still feel that you have to travel (you cannot work from home, you really need to go on holiday), then try doing something different to reduce the impact of your travel. For example:
Reduce your personal travel impact by using public transport, bike or walking whenever possible on short journeys, instead of using the car. Alternatively, share transport with a friend, neighbour or colleague to reduce your joint impact.
If you must travel longer distances, reduce the impact by using trains instead of flying or driving. The Eurostar produces around 6g of CO2 equivalent per kilometre travelled, compared to over 100g for a domestic flight, and the time required is similar when waiting at the airport is taken into account.
If you really have to fly, reduce the impact of your flights by always travelling directly where possible, because it keeps the distance lower.
Combine purposes. If you have to travel for work, see if you can combine it with another trip to visit friends, or see family.
Reduce your holiday travel by choosing a nearer destination (short-haul instead of long-haul, for example).
Reduce the impact of your grocery shopping by having your shopping delivered by a van that is already in your area. Many supermarkets will tell you whether a van is already going to be nearby, so that you can save resources. It isn’t always convenient—but it’s always worth considering whether it is possible.
If you are ordering goods online, try to combine purchases to reduce delivery costs—and not just the cost to you, but the environmental cost of having a van come to you several times. Consider using ‘click and collect’ services within a walkable distance, because that is more economical and environmentally friendly.
3. Reuse and Recycle
You may be wondering how reusing and recycling can contribute to reducing the impact of your travel.
The impact is somewhat indirect—but indirect emissions count. Travel includes regular personal travel, such as shopping. If you reuse more, for example by repairing broken items, or upcycling old clothes to create something new, you can reduce the number of times that you need to travel to the shops (or the number of times that you buy things online, requiring delivery). This, in turn, will reduce your carbon footprint.
The final option is offsetting.
This is the practice of making payments towards a scheme that aims to make a more positive impact on the environment, to counteract the effects of your other activities. These are often projects based in developing countries. For example, you might invest in a project to provide clean energy to a community, or to plant trees to replace those removed by logging.
Offsetting has been criticised for allowing individuals and companies to continue to use fossil fuels without feeling guilty. It should certainly not be used as a way to avoid reducing your carbon emissions. However, sometimes travel is unavoidable—and then offsetting can be a way to reduce its impact.
Travel seems like a luxury that it would be relatively easy to cut out—and in some ways, it is. However, some travel is unavoidable, and the importance of connecting with people face-to-face, whether that is clients, family or friends, cannot be overestimated. Probably the best option is for all of us to be more aware of the impact of our travelling, and reduce that impact where possible.