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20 Oct 2021

Is carbon labelling the future of travel?

Why understanding your impact can help you choose a greener and more enjoyable holiday

Travellers could slash the environmental impact of their holidays if carbon labels were introduced, research by Which? Travelhas found.

The calculation would appear on holiday websites, showing the carbon dioxide emissions created by each trip - including the flight, accommodation and even the food. It would help consumers understand their impact when booking and make more sustainable choices.

We found that a spa break in the Maldives would produce a whopping 2,931kg of CO2 per person - equal to eight years of daily power showers for 15 minutes a day.

In contrast, a rail holiday in Switzerland of similar length has a tenth of the carbon footprint at 290kg of CO2 per person. That's the equivalent of leaving a 100-watt light bulb on for nearly a year.

And experts argue that a greener holiday is not only better for the planet, but cheaper and more rewarding too.

When we surveyed members, nearly 60% told us that they thought carbon labelling was a good idea. Around half said they would choose a greener trip if that option was available. Only 11% disagreed with the concept altogether.

Their main objections were a distrust of carbon offsetting schemes (33%) or the carbon calculations themselves (24%). One respondent told us that the labels would make them 'feel guilty about wanting to go away at all'.

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Which companies are carbon labelling their holidays

Only a handful of travel companies are currently carbon labelling, including activity operator Much Better Adventures, and Spain and Latin American specialist Pura Aventura. View any of their trips online and you'll find a calculation for the CO2 emissions per person.

Which? Recommended Provider Exodus Travels has also revealed the footprint of six trips and intends to 'carbon score' all of its itineraries by 2022.

Sam Bruce, co-founder of Much Better Adventures, believes not every travel brand will welcome this kind of transparency. He told us: 'I don't think luxury providers, particularly cruise lines, will be so keen to air their dirty laundry. But this is how change happens. You can't manage what you can't measure. And if you've measured it, why not share it.'

The operator promises to offset the impact of your trip - planting enough trees to suck twice as much CO2 back out of the atmosphere. But because Much Better Adventures doesn't sell flights, the journey to get there isn't included in its calculation. The operator acknowledges that its measurements are far from perfect, something it says it's working on.

Much Better Adventures, Exodus and Pura Aventura have also joined Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency; a coalition of travel providers that recognise they are part of the problem - and have pledged to be part of the solution.

Creating an industry standard

Currently there are technical obstacles when it comes to calculating accurate carbon measurements.

Holiday company Responsible Travel believes the solution is to create an industry standard: one methodology that is adopted by all travel firms. This would allow consumers to make comparative choices when they book.

Justin Francis, chief executive of Responsible Travel, believes that a low-carbon trip is not just greener but more authentic and more enjoyable too. Sustainable choices such as eating fresh, locally-sourced food and using local guides are likely to save you money too.

He told Which? Travel: 'A holiday that's created sensitively around the environment and local people gets you closer to both. It's a different style of travel that gets you under the skin of a place - and a growing number of tourists really value that connection.'

The carbon footprint of holidays compared

Maldives spa break: 2,931kg of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per person

  • Return economy flights Heathrow to Dubai to Male
  • Maldives Return 15-minute seaplane journey
  • Eight nights all-inclusive at a four-star Maldives resort. The beachfront resort has a restaurant with an international buffet, bar, swimming pool, gym and spa. All rooms are air-conditioned

Indirect flights aren't eco-friendly because planes burn more carbon during take-off and landing. Most of the remote islands require a seaplane or speedboat to get there. Hotels in the Maldives also tend to run off diesel generators, making them less energy efficient. You can expect more food waste with buffet dining compared with u00e0 la carte, and those ingredients are likely to have travelled miles to reach your plate.

Caribbean cruise: 3,116kg of CO2e per person

  • Return economy flights from Heathrow to Miami
  • Return car journey to Fort Lauderdale, Florida
  • Seven nights on a large cruise ship All-inclusive meals

Environmental groups have raised concerns in the past about the CO2 emissions of cruise ships, and the dumping of sewage and other wastes into the ocean. With passengers dining and spending their money on board, there's also very little economic benefit to the ports they visit. Passengers can limit their impact by choosing a smaller vessel or a river cruise instead.

Swiss rail holiday: 290kg of CO2e per person

  • Return economy flights Heathrow to Zurich
  • 900km on the Glacier and Bernina Express (first class) through Zermatt and St Moritz
  • Seven nights in three-star hotels
  • Eight meals (seven hotel breakfasts and one dinner on the train)
  • Activities include mountain hikes, a cable car and a boat trip on Lake St Moritz

Switzerland gets most of its energy from renewable sources such as nuclear and hydropower. Train travel is around 30 times more efficient than travelling by car - but first-class has less seats than economy, diluting some of those savings. Plus passengers will change accommodation every night, meaning more laundered towels and bedding.

How to reduce the carbon footprint of your holiday

Fly less

Take fewer trips but stay longer to truly experience a place. Avoid indirect and domestic flights, and take the train where possible. The Eurostar emits up to 90% less carbon than flying.

Travel economy

Business and first class are responsible for up to four times more CO2 per passenger. That's because economy seats are smaller and lighter, allowing more people to fit in the cabin.

Pack light

Every item on the plane adds to the weight, making it guzzle more fuel.

Choose transport wisely

Local buses, trains or renting a bike are great alternatives to driving.

Employ local guides

They won't have had to fly in and you'll be supporting the local economy.

Energy use

Be mindful of how much air con, heating and hot water you use. Opt out of getting your towels and sheets washed every day. The linen on one hotel bed is changed 200 times a year, on average, producing 90kg of carbon. You'd have to grow 1.5 tree seedlings for 10 years to remove the same amount from the atmosphere.

Avoid food waste

Give buffets a miss and, if you're self-catering, shop regularly at markets rather than overbuying at supermarkets.

Limit your meat and dairy intake

Livestock production is responsible for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, look for plant-based options and seasonal ingredients.

Speak up

By asking hotels to avoid plastic or use renewable energy, we can encourage a shift in behaviour.

Our research

Ecollective works with travel companies to calculate the carbon footprint of their holidays. We asked it to estimate the CO2 emissions per person of the above trips with popular tour operators (based on two people sharing). The average Brit currently has an overall annual carbon footprint of 13,000kg (13 tonnes). But environmentalists suggest we need to bring this closer to 5,000kg (five tonnes) if we're serious about addressing climate change. All carbon equivalents are taken from How Bad Are Bananas? By Mike Berners-Lee September 2020 edition.