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The Triple Bottom Line of Travel

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

Just how green was this trip and what is the bottom line of travel decision-making? Next time, I’ll arrange a shuttle from the airport rather than renting a car, but otherwise, I think I at least covered my carbon-emitting butt by offsetting the rest. For my future travel decisions, I am learning to look at 3 things:

1. Is this trip necessary/needed/reasonable? 2. What is the most sustainable way I can cover miles? 3. How can I further reduce my carbon footprint while traveling and still have fun?

While fun is subjective, I think we can all agree that the vacations where we lounge about poolside at the luxury hotel or resort is not necessarily what we’ll write home about. Adventure, thrills and new experiences are usually outside the boundaries of starched sheets and a suntan. While we all need a little R & R at times, life happens at the edge. What do you REALLY want to do/see/experience?

While a “necessary” trip could be about family, education or business, a “needed” trip could simply mean a way to balance your physical/mental/emotional health and well-being. A “reasonable” trip applies in both cases and could depend on where I want to go, for how long and what I do when I get there. Evaluate these things in your own way. I heard about one family who loved Hawaiian vacations, but found when they decreased the frequency to every other year, they were able to stay longer and appreciate it more. They also found they enjoyed the simplicity of vacationing at home during the off years.

Once you know where I need or want to go, explore your travel options. It’s tempting to hop on a plane that you’re convinced will be in the sky, with or without you – but remember, our consumer decisions absolutely drive market demand and airlines constantly re-evaluate flight loads and scheduling. Mile for mile, the effect of jet CO2 is over 2x that of autos. This is due to several factors, including heat trapping cloud formations (called radiative forcing).

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, trains are 18% more efficient per passenger mile than airplanes. In addition, it takes half the crude oil to generate a gallon of diesel fuel for trains than the same amount of jet fuel.

If traveling by car is possible, keep in mind that here is where size matters most. Although a car averaging 30mpg will always trump the flight (more so if carrying more people), personal SUVs and trucks can mess with that equation and make little environmental sense no matter how you look at it.

Once you’ve arrived, there are many ways you can balance your carbon output. Where you stay, what you eat/buy/consume, how you get around and what you do are variables you can work with consciously and creatively – you may be surprised at the enjoyable results.

For more on greening your getaway, go to Sierra Club Newsletter. Have an eco-travel experience? Let me know!

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