The outback, Queensland, Australia © Travel Unpacked
Written by Christopher Jubb, Founder of Travel Unpacked
How To Travel Sustainably in Australia
Travelling is a difficult topic to tackle from a sustainability point of view because the best way to reduce your impact in this regard is to not travel at all.
We must acknowledge though that life can be stressful and a break away to another ‘world’ is something that can improve our mental health and be an experience that enhances us as human beings (such as being able to see another way of living).
Australia is however a difficult place to live for travelling sustainably due to the distances involved. With this in mind, perhaps consider limiting the type of traveling you do (i.e. Less long haul flights) and, additionally, look to limit the impact of your traveling as much as feasibly possible.
Let's have a look at the impact of travel and how you can travel sustainably in Australia.
The Impact Of Travel
What is the biggest way travelling impacts the environment?
Looking at the big picture, the carbon emissions of the “travelling” component of taking a trip, principally flying and driving, have very large greenhouse gas emissions - so big that it could double your yearly footprint with just one flight.
What are the main actions I can take to reduce my impact?
Fly as little as possible
Drive in petrol cars as little as possible and use the train or electric car instead
Try and find a sustainable hotel to stay in
Be mindful of sensitive natural areas you visit and leave only footprints
A single return long haul flight can produce more carbon emissions than a person emits in an entire year, so it’s important that we be mindful when choosing to take a flight.
In comparison, if you have a renewable energy supply at home, do not drive a petrol car and eat a low meat diet, it’s likely that your carbon footprint is below 3 tonnes per year (well below the Australian average of 15 tonnes). A return flight to Europe or North America can be over 3 tonnes by itself, so you can see how just one return flight could double your footprint. This highlights the extreme impact that flying can have.
Sydney airport © Troy Mortier
How does flying produce such a big carbon footprint?
Simply put, it’s because planes need a lot of carbon rich jet fuel to get the plane off the ground. Even when the emissions are divided between a full plane load of people, the emissions are much higher than a ground based alternative like a train or coach.
Are there eco-friendly planes?
No. Newer craft are much more efficient though, so it’s good to look out for those (the 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350) to reduce your impact. Check the route options with the airlines directly - it will tell you what type of aircraft the flight is scheduled to use.
Many alternatives, or more efficient designs, are being developed, but there is nothing in the immediate future that will change the impact of flying in the next decade or two.
How can I reduce the amount of flying I do for travel?
You can try traveling closer to home.
If you don’t have a particular preference of where you go, consider staying in Australia, or go somewhere that’s relatively short haul, like New Zealand. If you just want a relaxing beach holiday, there’s no need to fly to Mexico. Australia, or even nearby islands like Fiji, offer closer options.
If you are travelling to another continent, when you get there, avoid flying the shorter distances. You can easily land in a popular hub and use the train to get around Europe, China, South East Asia, and even in North America so that you can cut out the short haul flights.
Train travel © JK
How can I reduce the impact of my flight?
As the larger proportion of a flight's emissions occur during taxiing and take off, try to fly direct (no stop off).
Look for the most efficient aircraft that flies to your destination of choice.
What about carbon offsets?
You should always offset your flights.
The benefit of offsetting can often be mixed. For example, if the offsetting project would have gone ahead anyway, your contribution is nothing but a financial subsidy. Or, if trees are planted to offset your carbon, how do you know the tree will survive the 20 years for it to grow?
Having said that, there are many examples of good offsetting programmes. One such programme offers kerosene lamps to people who would otherwise cut down nearby forests. The lamps are much more efficient and the forest is protected, giving a double win.
Whilst it’s best if you have the time to do research into what the offset programme offers, if you don’t, it’s still good to make the gesture. Most airlines offer the option of adding on a carbon offset. You can also find an independent offsetter and use their services. Or, to make sure you are well covered, maybe do both and double your offset.
Getting to and from the airport
Don’t discount the impact of your emissions in getting to and from the airport. Opt for public transport whenever you can - a good rule of thumb for ground transport is that, the more people sharing the load, the better. So go for the train, tram or a bus/coach first, then take a car share option as second.
If you’re going on a road trip or just exploring a region, driving a petrol car can quickly add up the emissions.
How does driving a petrol car compare to other options?
On a per kilometre basis, driving a car on your own is actually roughly the same as flying. Whilst it’s hard to match the huge emissions of flying due to the quick build up of distance aircraft achieve, a big road trip can end up being just as impactful.
If you are sharing the car with another however, your per person impact is halved, or if there are four people in the vehicle, it will only be a quarter of the emissions of flying on a per km basis.
Driving a petrol car is still much higher in emissions though when compared to the alternatives - an electric car, the train or a coach works much better for the environment.
Driving in the outback, Queensland © Travel Unpacked
How can I reduce the amount of petrol powered driving I do?
Look for alternatives first, even if it’s just for a small part of the trip. Trains are fantastic ways to travel. Coaches have a low footprint too because the emissions are shared between so many people. Cycling and walking are other great options for a more unique way of travelling.
If you cannot avoid the need to use a car, consider hiring an electric car. Most developed countries have a network of charging stations. Australia, even though it lags behind, has enough to provide you with plenty of road trip options - at least one person has already driven an electric car all the way around the country, proving that it's unlikely that you will have range issues (but plan your charging locations ahead of time).
If you are in a city, most will have an adequate public transportation system to avoid the need to use a taxi. Hiring a bike is a fun option too.
Trains are increasingly becoming a preferred way to travel, especially after the Sweden led ‘flygskam’, or “flight shame” movement. France has even banned short haul flights where good train links provide a reasonable option.
The options for traveling by train, particularly long trips, are increasing all the time. Overnight ‘sleeper’ trains can be very helpful - providing a fun experience that gets you to your destination perfectly in the morning and saves you on the cost of a hotel for the night. Europe and Asia are especially good areas to find these trains. Visit The Man In Seat 61 website to explore all the great journeys you can take.
Train travel, NSW © Laura Cros
In Australia, the railways are a little lacking and fairly slow, but there are convenient overnight trains running between all the major mainland cities.
You could also try the famous luxury trains, The Ghan from Adelaide to Darwin or the Indian-Pacific that travels from Sydney to Perth.
Cruises and Ferries
Cruise ships are surprisingly heavy polluters. By some estimates, the carbon emissions of taking a cruise actually exceeds that of flying, on a per km basis. The heavy fuel oil used by most ships and the amount of power needed to move such a huge vehicle is to blame and this comes with a lot of air pollution at the ports that the ships dock in.
Cruise ships © Fernando Jorge
They are also potentially polluting the waters that they sail through by releasing grey water, sewage or leaking fuel.
Over-tourism of sensitive natural areas is also a big concern.
The Spirit of Tasmania ferry is likely to have a similarly high emissions level to cruises too. The emissions details of their service is not available online so I contacted them to ask about the emissions on a per passenger basis but they wouldn't tell me. After many e-mails back and forth, I can only assume their evasiveness is because the emissions are not so great.
Finding a sustainable hotel can be difficult. A lot of hotels are mindful when it comes to cleaning - there is often a sign saying that they won’t clean towels left on the rack and they are increasingly avoiding the small wasteful shampoo and conditioner bottles. Apart from that, despite many hotels claiming they are ‘green’, it can be difficult to find them doing much more, so it's a case of them 'greenwashing' their marketing.
Hotel room © Boxed Water Is Better
It’s always worth trying to find a responsible hotel though, wherever you are going.
In addition to towel cleaning and removing mini bottles, a sustainable hotel would ideally: -
Be carbon neutral
Have a renewable energy supply
Be free of single use plastics
Offer good vegetarian and vegan food options
Limit wasteful electricity use (such as lights on in your room when you get there)
Have sensors in hallways so lighting only turns on when people are present
Utilise natural ventilation, to limit the need for air conditioning
Be located near good public transport links
Occupy an energy efficient designed building
Be respectful of any natural area it may be located in
Use grey water or rainwater for toilet flushing and watering any gardens
Use all LED lighting
Have a comprehensive recycling program, with careful selection of products used
Have recycling bins with clear signage to help guests use them properly
Use environmentally friendly cleaning products
You can limit your environmental footprint whilst traveling by not wasting any food that you order and by picking vegetarian and vegan food options often.
Meat products carry a large footprint in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and they have a huge environmental impact. This is due to the inefficient amount of space they need compared to growing crops and the deforestation that comes with that, the pollution that runs off into rivers and the water use. Fish stocks are also largely depleted or suffering from plastic pollution from fishing gear. Find out more here.
If you are lucky enough to travel to a natural area, take care to leave only footprints and take only photographs. Be mindful of, and do research on, any particularly popular places you may consider visiting and the issues they are facing locally. Some wonderful places are so overrun with tourists that the pollution from the tour operators going there is at an unsustainable level.
Cradle Mountain, Tasmania © Travel Unpacked
To travel sustainably, you should also look to follow the same actions you are hopefully already taking at home: -
Recycle whenever you can
Use public transport
Don’t waste water
Avoid single use plastics
Support sustainable businesses and avoid polluting ones
Ask for more sustainability - from your hotel, tour providers, etc
Learn about the natural world and the local issues
Shop sustainably and don’t buy souvenirs you or your friends don’t need
Support a local charity
Good luck on your sustainable journey!