Is there such a thing as environmentally-friendly travel?

It’s time to reset – not offset – our holidaying habits

Environmentally-friendly travel alternatives: rail travel in the Swiss Alps. Photograph: Piotr Guzik

Environmentally-friendly travel alternatives: rail travel in the Swiss Alps. Photograph: Piotr Guzik

 

Let’s get straight to the point and talk dirty. Aviation fuel stinks. Its exemption from taxation is foul and the idea of enforced use of e-fuels has been dragged through the mud so many times by international authorities, it’s now pungent. Governments have stuck their heads in this same mud for so long they are finally realising that, in order to hit targets, they need to come up for air. Clean air ideally but let’s face it, pigs might fly before that happens.

This year the EU’s European Climate Law, aimed at achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, made it mandatory for EU airports to use a blend of sustainable fuel with the nasty one. Blend, you say? You know when you buy what you think is a winter woolie and it arrives with that disappointing label “wool blend”? It feels a bit like that to me. This mandatory e-fuel blend starts at 2 per cent in 2025, goes up to 5 per cent in 2030, with further increases in 2035 and beyond. Meanwhile, the climate clock is ticking.

So, as the powers that be slowly and reluctantly clean up their act, here are my top ways in which you can choose to do things the clean way.

Travel by train

The Swedish movement of flygskam, well publicised by Greta Thunberg, translates as “flight shame”. Cutting back on flying is a must for all of us, but I don’t want to shame anyone who needs to take a well-earned annual holiday. Or a once-in-a-lifetime safari trip. These flyers are not the worst carbon criminals and there are many other advantages to such travel. However, if you’re planning a shopping weekend in New York, a conference in the Caribbean or a golfing trip to the Gulf – I’m with Greta.

Taking the train between European cities costs the planet, on average, six times less than flying. For travelling to England or Wales, book a Sail Rail package from any train station in Ireland direct to many of the main stations in the UK. Tickets are from €47 each way, prices are fixed with no school holiday surges, there are 50 per cent discounts for children and take all the luggage you want. You can book through Irish Rail on their website irishrail.ie but the best, tried and tested way to book is by phone (01) 836 6222.

For tailormade train travel packages within the UK, France and Italy, book with Byway (byway.travel), a new train and slow travel company. From the Scilly Isles to Sicily, Scotland to Snowdonia, they create packages with rail tickets, accommodation and other trip treats. You could also book an Interrail Pass from €185. They used to be a young person’s thing, but they now also offer discounted passes for over 60s. If you want a one-off UK and European train travel ticket, head to Rail Europe (raileurope.com) a one-stop shop that means you don’t have to get your head around all of Europe’s rail network.

Regenerate and rewild

There has been a lot of work around rewilding in tourism, whereby we return nature to a wilder state, with little or no influence from humans. Restoration of biodiversity is not only crucial for flora and fauna but also for protecting carbon sinks. Check out the rewilding holidays at Much Better Adventures to the wilderness areas of Romania’s Tatras Mountains, Italy’s Abruzzo National Park and the boreal forests of Sweden.

Leading sustainable tourism operator Exodus Travels (exodustravels.eu) has just launched Nature First, an initiative to become nature net positive by 2024. Part of this entails rewilding 100sq m of land for every client, while also encouraging them to contribute towards biodiversity research on their travels. One such trip is a walking holiday in Italy’s Apennines, a region being returned to its natural state to increase its ability to absorb carbon.

Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency (Tourism Declares, for short), is a network of more than 300 travel organisations. They came together during the pandemic to declare a climate emergency and plan a better future for tourism. These are not token gestures but serious commitments to adjust tourism strategies to cut global emissions by 50 per cent over the next decade. Check out the companies that have “declared”, their reasons for doing so and their plans for creating change. One of its founding members, Intrepid Travel, has been leaders in creating awareness around and raising money for vaccine equity.

Walk the talk

There is no doubt that the best way to reduce your carbon footprint is to simply walk. The world is one big walking path, if you just know where to look. One favourite that doesn’t require long-haul flights is the Wales Coast Path, which joins with inland Offa’s Dyke Path, creating a waymarked route that goes the whole way around Wales. Take the ferry to any Welsh port and just start walking. You won’t get lost along its 1,400km – just keep the sea in sight and follow the signs. For a sustainable Welsh accommodation provider check out Under the Thatch (underthethatch.co.uk/). There are also a variety of independent hostels along the path.

Think sustainable shopping

Fashion is fat on carbon calories, responsible for 10 per cent of annual global carbon emissions, and yet we’re all tempted to go on a retail rampage before our holliers. Again, it’s time to flick the switch and cut back. Forgo piles of T-shirts from cheap chains and choose a quality one from a sustainable Irish fashion company such as Grown instead. Or just travel light and treat yourself to something sustainable locally. Same thing goes for splurging on the unsustainable smellies before you go. Go to the local market when you get there and seek out a local soap maker. And I’m not even going to go there on single-use plastics. You know the drill.

Foodprints

It is believed that food production is responsible for a quarter of carbon emissions and so eating locally sourced ingredients and cutting down on meat consumption is a holiday habit we must all adopt. Luckily, promoting locally sourced food is widely understood now by destinations around the world, compared with even a decade ago.

A few foodie favourites from my travels include The Real Food Market in Granary Square at London’s Kings Cross station, Restaurant De Kas located in its own allotment in Amsterdam, just about everywhere we stayed on a family trekking holiday, with a donkey, through the Alps, the fish feasts while cycling along the coast from Porto, the eco chic Pueblo Astur in Asturias, and too many to mention in Ireland. Wild Atlantic Way: Where To Eat & Stay by Sally and John McKenna is my go-to for all things coastal.

Visit Scotland has signed up to the Toursim Declares organisation, outlining more sustainable plans for the industry.
Visit Scotland has signed up to the Toursim Declares organisation, outlining more sustainable plans for the industry.

Snow joke

The international conservation group Mountain Wilderness called skiing “the cancer of the Alps” in 2004. Since then, and pre-Covid, the skiing industry kept growing, as snow levels fall and, as a result water levels are too. Heli-skiing, downhill trampling and energy-guzzling cannons pumping out fake snow are top sore points. Consider cross-country skiing or snowshoeing in wild places instead. Tour operator Responsible Travel has an array of sustainable skiing and snowshoeing options. Combine wilderness snowshoeing and seeing the Northern Lights with Magnetic North Travel or, a newbie to the sustainable skiing scene is in Montenegro, with eco adventure experts Undiscovered Montenegro offering a seven-day winter adventure holiday.

Don’t offset, reset

The best way to reduce your holiday carbon emissions is to fly and drive less. Don’t offset, reset. According to recently published Sustainable Travel by Holly Tuppen, “offsetting allows Heathrow to say that it plans to become ‘carbon neutral’ by 2030, even though it also plans to build a third runway”. If you do choose to offset, use a scheme that has a Gold Standard but I would follow, donate to or volunteer for an organisation where urgently combating climate change is in their DNA. My recommendations include: Friends of the Earth Ireland, the Irish Environmental Network, the Irish Peatland Conservation Council and An Taisce for its work in advocacy and education.

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