Our Burning Planet

PRECARIOUS PLANET

Watch your steps – consider your carbon footprint and travel in eco-friendly style

Watch your steps – consider your carbon footprint and travel in eco-friendly style

South Africans are becoming more conscious of the environmental impacts of their holiday trips. Likewise, the tourism industry is looking at ways to cater for travellers who care about the planet.

As South Africans get ready to hit the road during the upcoming holidays, travel’s contribution to the climate crisis may put a damper on the excitement.

“There is still pent-up demand for travel, so we anticipate this being a very busy holiday season,” says Otto de Vries, CEO of the Association of South African Travel Agents.

But, adds De Vries, South Africans are becoming more conscious of the environmental impacts of their travel plans.

South Africa is 12th on the list of the biggest carbon emitters in the world. The average carbon footprint generated per capita in 2020 was about 7.62 tonnes despite lockdown measures, which lessened the impact of carbon emissions from travel.

However, it is not impossible to have a carbon-conscious holiday, experts say.

“Everything you do has an energy footprint. Every product that you consume has some sort of carbon energy embedded in it,” says James Reeler, a senior climate specialist at the South African chapter of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

“The energy that was used to create the product, the energy used for transport of the product and so on, is all energy that is provided through fossil fuels,” says Reeler.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Here are few changes you can make to help offset (even a little) the climate crisis

These fossil fuels emit carbon into the atmosphere and a carbon footprint is the amount of emissions that we are responsible for through our actions, explains Reeler.

“But generally, when we talk about our carbon footprint, we are talking about the emissions from travel. Carbon emissions are the biggest driver of climate change and therefore are a threat to society as a whole.”

Climate change has an impact on food and water security and threatens biodiversity on the planet.

Driving in cars and flying in aeroplanes generate carbon emissions that have an impact on the atmosphere, explains Reeler. But there are ways to reduce or offset your carbon footprint, he adds.

Calculating your carbon footprint

Using the WWF’s Footprint Calculator, individuals and households can work out the approximate amount of emissions for which they are responsible. When it comes to calculating the carbon cost of travel, it’s as simple as knowing from where to where you are travelling and how you are getting there and back.

The most popular cities in South Africa for travel are Johannesburg and Cape Town, says Sue Garrett, general manager of supply, pricing and marketing at Flight Centre Travel Group South Africa.

“Traditionally speaking, we would see a huge demand for airline bookings over the December period,” says Garrett. But the decreased availability and increased cost of air tickets may cause people to opt for driving instead this year, she says.


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According to statistics, of the total South African residents who travelled domestically in 2021, about 30% travelled by air and 69% by road. However, despite only 1% of people travelling by air worldwide, the aviation industry generates 3% of the world’s carbon emissions, says Reeler.

Read in Daily Maverick: “South Africa must move beyond ‘green transport’ and embrace ‘sustainable transport’

The Footprint Calculator shows that a return trip between Johannesburg and Cape Town would generate about 0.36 tonnes of carbon emissions.

But, cautions Reeler, “the environmental impacts from aviation extend beyond the carbon emitted from the flight. The best estimate is that the warming impact from a flight is twice that of the carbon emission.”

As a result, to get a realistic measure of the carbon emissions from a flight, the estimate would need to be doubled or even tripled, says Reeler. A more accurate figure for a return trip between Johannesburg and Cape Town would therefore be 1.07 tonnes of carbon emissions.

In contrast, the same round trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town travelled by road along the N1 in an average petrol car would generate about 0.48 tonnes of carbon emissions.

Offsetting your carbon emissions

It is possible to offset your carbon emissions to an extent, says Reeler. Offsetting means removing the same amount of carbon emissions that were released.

“A carbon offset must be additional – it must be something that would not have happened in any case,” he explains.  

In 2019, the Southern African Tourism Services Association recommended planting spekboom to offset the carbon footprint from your flights.

But Reeler holds a different view. “With spekboom, we would really advocate for it to only be planted in areas where spekboom is naturally occurring. It is not a wonder tree,” he says, adding that spekboom is not a “magic plant” that removes large amounts of carbon compared with other trees.

Having said that, Reeler believes the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by planting spekboom does reduce the carbon in the atmosphere and it is far better to try to offset carbon emissions than not to try at all.

“If you think about what is actually feasible, South Africa’s entire natural environment currently removes around 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere a year and we can’t double that to offset our carbon emissions, so essentially the only thing to do is to reduce our emissions.”

Ways to reduce your footprint

Drying clothes on a washing line, eating less meat, walking to work, and turning off lights when they are not being used are all ways of reducing your carbon footprint.

“But, ultimately, the first port of call when trying to offset carbon emissions from your flight would be to not fly at all,” says Reeler.

According to De Vries, there is always a spike in travel bookings over the December holiday period.

As Garrett points out, this is because many South Africans travel to be with friends and family during this time, and people cancelling their travel plans is therefore extremely unlikely.

Nevertheless, travellers are becoming more conscious of their carbon footprint, says De Vries. When it comes to confirming travel [bookings], regenerative tourism and sustainability efforts and initiatives are often a huge deciding factor for many travellers.” They often opt for vacations that have a positive impact, he adds.

And the industry is taking notice. “Whether by carbon offsetting, being conscious of the properties they select, voluntourism or supporting local communities, it is encouraging to see that many travel suppliers are taking steps to ensure their portfolios are inclusive of options that ensure a contribution to a more sustainable future.”

But we still have a way to go, says Garrett. “Sustainable travel has to be front of mind in everything we do.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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