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Adopting the sustainable traveller mindset

How can you cut your carbon footprint and holiday more sustainably, asks Danielle Barron

So, you’ve spent three summers on Inishbofin and are ready to hit Ibiza. What’s stopping you? Well, your environmental conscience for one. Although there is little in the way of tangible evidence that so-called flight shaming is having a discernible impact on air traffic – levels continue to approach the pre-pandemic peak – anecdotally, it is increasingly a factor for people choosing where and how they holiday. We can always holiday at home, and many of us do, but for those who can’t ignore their wanderlust, there are greener choices they can make.

Cara Augustenborg is a well-known Irish-American environmental scientist, policy lecturer and advocate for climate action. She freely admits that she “struggles” with the notion of never travelling by air again. With family and friends in the US, this isn’t necessarily a palatable option.

Calculating your carbon footprint

When Augustenborg first calculated her own annual carbon footprint a few years ago, she quickly saw that the highest proportion was as a result of flying – accounting for about half of her total emissions over the course of the year.

As a result, Augustenborg seriously curtailed her travelling. “I did that in a number of ways – I gave up jobs that involved a lot of travel; I now only travel for work if absolutely necessary and I decided I would take my holidays in Ireland.” But Augustenborg does try to “occasionally” get back to the US. “Every couple of years when I do fly there, I try to offset those flights. I also try to go for a really long time so that I am making best use of those carbon emissions.”


Augustenborg suggests using one of the free online carbon calculators to determine the impact your journey will have according to your mode of travel. For those who are travelling abroad in place of or in addition to a “staycation”, travelling by land and sea is invariably the most environmentally friendly option. Yet this is invariably predicated on travelling as a foot passenger and taking public transport – if you bring your car on a ferry, then the carbon footprint of your trip could potentially be equivalent to hopping on a plane.

Carbon offsetting

But “slow” travel, as it is often called, is not always the most practical – or accessible. “If you are going somewhere where you have to fly because going by land and sea isn’t practical, then the smaller the aeroplane, the less the emissions,” Augustenborg says. Similarly, flying economy class is more environmentally friendly, given that the relative carbon emissions are divided between a much greater number of people.

Failing that, those who choose to fly but want to mitigate the damage can look into carbon offsetting. At the moment in Ireland, the price of carbon is roughly €30 per tonne, says Augustenborg. “By calculating the emissions of your particular trip, you could make a charitable donation to carbon offsetting or tree-planting programmes,” she explains. “Personally, I choose to give to an Irish environmental charity because I know that they are actively working to reduce emissions in Ireland.”

Yet the reality is that €30 per tonne is not the “true” price of the pollution – Augustenborg says the real cost is somewhere closer to €200 per tonne. This makes carbon offsetting a less viable option. “A transatlantic flight would be at least two to three tonnes of carbon dioxide, so you are looking at a donation of €400-600 each way, which isn’t going to be realistic for everyone.”

And while some airlines offer the option of offsetting your carbon emissions as you are booking your flights, Augustenborg warns that this option is somewhat disingenuous. “It usually only adds an extra €5 or €10 onto the cost of the ticket, so it’s nowhere near representative of the true cost of the pollution.”

And while a noble – and potentially expensive – effort, carbon offsetting is “just trying to make up for your sins”, Augustenborg says. “It’s only the next best thing after trying to eliminate the carbon impact completely by not travelling.”

Sustainable Spain

It’s not just about how you get to your destination; you can also make efforts to lower your environmental impact on the country you visit, by opting for eco-responsible tour providers and low-emission transport options, eating locally sourced food and recycling bottles and plastics. As the most popular holiday destination from Ireland, many booking their annual trip to Spain may be considering how they can make it more environmentally friendly.

With the country’s tourism industry recovering robustly from the body blow of the pandemic, Spain is focused on sustainability as part of this recovery, says Rubén López-Pulido, managing director of the Spanish Tourism Office in Dublin.

Across Spain, he says, the most popular destinations inundated with huge numbers of tourists are busy creating new routes and tourist experiences to ensure that visits are spread out over a wider area of the city and are not concentrated exclusively in a few busy spots. “Multimillion investments from the EU Sustainability Plans and Next Gen funds are being made towards this objective, which are restoring trails, paths and other pedestrian and cycling routes.”

Spain’s focus has returned to its pre-pandemic objectives to achieve a swift transition to environmentally, socially and economically sustainable tourism. “The world is under pressure and tourism has made tremendous advances on emissions and single-use plastics. But we need to keep pushing, we need to go further, faster. Environmentally friendly tourism is everyone’s responsibility and is a commitment for more and more destinations in Spain.”

Danielle Barron

Danielle Barron is a contributor to The Irish Times