Have you thought about de-carbonizing your vacation this year? There are lots of reasons for doing so. Between the fires, the floods, the droughts and the heat waves that we read about daily, evidence abounds that global warming is happening. Unless and until we eliminate our carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, these problems will only continue to worsen. So, it seems appropriate to start minimizing the greenhouse emissions that we generate and vacations are a good target.
According to Sustainable Travel International, tourism amounts to 8% of total global emissions. This accounting includes all the travel, lodging, meals and even the embedded carbon in purchased items, such as the souvenirs, that make up our vacation experience. About half of that 8% comes from travel, with jet travel being the most intensive in terms of carbon dioxide per passenger mile. At least jet travel was the most intensive, until this summer when the vertical vacation was invented — that is, the space vacation.
Earlier this month, two billionaires flew independently into space on inaugural trips of their specially-designed space vehicles. Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson both got high enough to get their own personal view of planet Earth and experience the weightlessness of space. They used different equipment, different fuels and had different landings, but they also shared some similarities between their two trips. Both used these maiden voyages to showcase their image of the new age of commercial space travel. For now, however, the commercial aspect to it remains simply another way to sightsee, a new way to vacation.
They also both downplayed the carbon footprint of their journeys, each proclaiming that their technology was easy on the environment. Jeff Bezos even called his rocket fuel “the most environmentally benign propellant you can choose.” Suffice it to say there is a wide gap between what the billionaires claim as environmentally friendly and how more terrestrial-centric climate watchers see it.
Treehugger, a sustainability organization at treehugger.com, pointed out that the “environmentally benign propellant” used by Bezos is liquid hydrogen and oxygen and that the procedures used to produce those fuels required a great deal of electrical energy. Producing that electricity emits quite a bit of carbon dioxide. So much so that just producing and preparing the fuel needed for the Bezos trip meant that nearly 100 tons of carbon dioxide were expelled into the atmosphere — just for the fuel used in his 10-minute trip.
One hundred tons of carbon dioxide is not an easy concept to grapple with, so putting it into local perspective may help. Here in Columbia, we average 20 tons of carbon dioxide per person per year. So 100 tons would be equivalent to a family of five living over the course of a year. All their driving, working, cooking, heating, cooling and playing for an entire year would equal the amount of carbon dioxide generated by Bezos in his 10-minute vacation.
As he stated in the follow-up news conference, “Thanks to all the Amazon employees and customers, because after all, you paid for all this.” Not exactly true, because we are all paying for it, even if we aren’t Amazon customers or employees. We all pay for the greenhouse gases that remain long after these “vacationauts” are back home. He should have thanked all the other eight billion people on the planet too.
Nevertheless we, that is us, the U.S. government, have approved these flights. Branson is talking about 400 such flights next year alone. However, no comprehensive independent studies have been done to identify how much of a problem these flights might actually cause, especially at anything close to that many per year. Bezos and Branson certainly can’t be counted on to study the effect of their combustion products being left in the stratosphere. The approvals were given in 2018, so it is important now, with hundreds of these flights potentially ahead of us, to complete a review of the potential environmental impact that these flights pose.
Assuming you are more inclined to vacation horizontally, and sustainably, what are your options? You might consider choosing a destination closer to home; and drive there instead of fly. You could also inquire ahead with potential lodging hosts and compare their carbon minimizing practices before selecting where you stay. Also, choosing restaurants that feature local foods is always a good practice, whether you are vacationing or not. Finally, try to purchase carbon offsets that cover your travel, your stay and your vacation activities. Treehugger.com has a recent review of top carbon offset programs.
Following all that, when you are back home, be sure to hold your own news conference, extolling your zero carbon vacation. You can thank your employees, or your employer, along with all your customers for paying for all of it. And you won’t even have to worry about thanking the rest of us for coping with the carbon that your vacation left behind, because there won’t be any. For that we’d be happy to thank you.