Do Good While You Roam: Travelling with an Environmental Conscience
As someone who cares deeply about the environment (and is extremely concerned about the future of our planet), there are days when it's feels strange to take regular overseas trips to explore faraway lands, knowing the impact that even the journey there can have.
But travelling doesn't have to damage the environment - and far from it! Here is a quick whistle-stop tour through some best practices for travelling with an environmental conscience like mine.
Where are we now?
We've known for decades that human activities are causing environmental degradation on a catastrophic level. The 'point of no return' threshold of 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was reached in 2016, and it is unlikely that atmospheric CO2 will dip below this mark, possibly ever again.
In short, the world is in serious trouble.
Mercifully, it's not all bad news. Thanks to incredible conservation and reforestation efforts, multilateral environmental agreements, individual green campaigns and a certain popular BBC television show, the tide is turning and more and more people, just like you and I, are becoming environmentally conscious and fighting back against the seemingly endless tide of bad climate news.
This is what it'll take to turn the tide on climate: a concerted effort by everyone everywhere to alter their behaviour to stop the degradation of the environment. And your travel plans can help. Let's take a look.
Accepting that your trip (like almost all things in today's world) has a carbon footprint - and a significant one, at that - you can choose to 'offset' the CO2 your trip produces, by investing in projects which actively sequester or remove carbon from the atmosphere elsewhere.
Using simple online calculators like this one, you can plug in the details of your trip (the easiest place to start is with your flights) to work out how much carbon dioxide your itinerary will produce. Once you've calculated your emissions, the website will offer you several options where you can donate the equivalent amount of cash required to reduce that amount of carbon from the atmosphere, to a cause or charity which will do exactly that!
I plugged in a very typical set of flights between London to Kilimanjaro, and the calculator linked above gave me six options to donate amounts varying between £20 - £40 to a project of my choice, which would offset the carbon produced by my journey. Easy!
Donate before you travel
When you leave home for an extended time, make sure you aren't leaving behind an entire fridge full of fresh food which will go to waste while you're away!
We've all been guilty of this, returning home after a week or more to find a loaf of mouldy bread or who-knows-what-vegetable-that-used-to-be stuffed down the back of a cupboard... but it doesn't have to be that way. In the days and weeks in the run up to your challenge, use up, or donate, food before you go.
Pre-order a food shop or a click-and-collect for after your return if you need to - but don't let all your food go to waste while you're on the other side of the world.
Here at Choose a Challenge, we go on and on about packing light - and for good reason. There are a vast number of trekking-related reasons you shouldn't overpack your main bag when travelling.
The environmental reasons are just as important: the heavier the cargo on your flight, the more drag, and the more drag, the more fuel is used to make the journey.
While we're all guilty of overpacking from time to time, pack light and leave any unnecessary items behind - I promise you will enjoy your trip more, and you'll help save the environment little by little along the way.
Say NO to single-use plastics
You've heard this before. Whether it's because of Blue Planet II, or the recent high-profile campaigns to ban plastic straws in popular restaurant and fast-food chains, you already know that single-use plastics are a scourge on our planet. But sometimes conceptualising the scale of this issue is really, really difficult.
Last Summer, I studied under the stewardship of leading climate writer, Professor Ken Worthy, who imparted on me the simplest and most profound way of conceptualising the single-use plastic problem, like this:
Plastics last a really, really long time. When you buy a bottled drink from a vending machine, you're not just buying the drink. You're buying (for damn cheap, I might add) the entire lifetime of that plastic bottle, from the industrial-scale resources required to manufacture it, to the minimum 450-500 years it will continue to exist, either in landfill or in the ocean. That plastic Coke bottle will outlive you, several times over.
Combatting this isn't easy: single-use plastics are everywhere. But you can say no in a few simple ways:
Travel with a water bottle. All major airports and most hotels have water fountains or bottle-filling stations.
Travel with a reusable shopping bag or tote bag and use it for any purchases both en-route and in-country.
Pick a green restaurant over one which makes unnecessary use of single-use plastics.
While some destinations will require you to drink bottled water, think before you drink bottled items!
If you really want that soda, try to choose cans or glass over plastic bottles.
At the hotel
Most hotels these days come with polite notices in each room, requesting that you reuse your towels instead of leaving them to be washed every day, and turn lights off when not in use, but there are more easy ways to help the planet whilst you're in-country.
For example, resist the temptation to leave the AC on all day when you're out exploring. Air-conditioning is a huge drain on power, and corrupted AC and fridge parts are one of the most significant sources of damaging CFCs and HFCs in the world today.
As a lager drinker, one of my favourite things about taking part in our challenges is trying out the local brews. As well as a fun cultural exercise and an easy route to a few cheap likes on Instagram, this is also the more environmentally-friendly way to drink in-country.
Ordering a local beer like a Kilimanjaro, Tuska or Safari (in East Africa), a Cusqueña (Peru) or a Sherpa or Gorkha beer (Nepal) is both cheaper and greener than the names you may be used to back home, because big-name European or American beers cost more in both carbon and cash to import.
Remember, however you drink, if you do, please do so responsibly and with regard for those around you.
Reduce your meat consumption
This is the controversial one, I'm really sorry.
Evidence from recent scientific studies suggests that cutting meat and dairy from your diet is one of the most effective ways to reduce your carbon footprint. Substituting meat dishes for non-meat or substitute meat dishes is an excellent way to reduce your carbon output in daily life, and that extends to travel as well.
The one sticking point with travel is that it's not advisable to eat certain things, including salads washed in local tap water, whilst exploring the majority* world. However, remember that some meats (lamb, beef, pork) have higher carbon outputs than others (turkey, chicken, other poultry). So if you can't face the vegetarian or vegan life, even substituting that steak for a chicken-based meal can make a difference. Be conscious of your choices, and consider the sources of your food before you buy.
*I really dislike using the weighted term "developing world".
Choose the right operator
At Choose a Challenge, it's really important to us that all of our operations are carried out ethically and responsibly.
We are one of a select group of operators accredited by Tourism Concern's Ethical Tour Operators scheme, and we take a great deal of pride in sourcing ethical, sustainable trips and working with responsible suppliers all over the world.
Whether you're travelling with us, or any other tour operator, do your research and satisfy yourself that your operator is responsible and meets your environmental needs. If they don't, think twice before booking!
Do good while you roam
If you're travelling with us, you're already contributing to something amazing. In travelling for a cause, by the time you reach your destination country, you've already helped to raise thousands of pounds for a charity which is helping to build a better world.
But don't get complacent, and don't stop there! There are thousands of locally-led initiatives and projects both in-country and more globally which you can contribute your time, effort and money to.
Whether it's buying local coffee in Cusco, or buying crafts and souvenirs to the benefit of local Tanzanian women, little by little, your choices change the world.
Hopefully you've found this guide useful to help make informed decisions about travelling with an environmental conscience like mine. Please feel free to get in touch with me if you have any questions or comments about the above, either in the comments below or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally, if you're an avid reader like myself, here are some of my recommended reads on climate:
This Changes Everything - Naomi Klein
Invisible Nature - Professor Kenneth Worthy
Take Back the Economy - Gibson-Graham, Cameron, Healy
Why Women will Save the Planet - Friends of the Earth