17.07.22 Now or never! Author: Jost Burger • Reading time: 7 min.

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Since the lifting of the COVID-19 restrictions, there has been huge demand for vacation trips. However, domestic and foreign travel causes large quantities of greenhouse gas emissions. For this reason, many people rely on offsetting their emissions, but some of the schemes are not realistic. 

A few weeks ago, the European parliament made some important decisions about the move toward a climate-neutral EU. Many people seem to believe that the climate crisis has been put on the back burner in the light of the impending gas shortage caused by the war in Ukraine. But Europe is still committed to its goal of climate neutrality by 2050. 

It may seem rather ironic to be holding these heated debates at the start of the summer vacation period. Every year in the run-up to the travel season, the discussions begin about whether it is responsible to travel at all, and particularly by air, against the background of the climate crisis. The same questions are asked every year: Is it possible to have a climate-friendly or even climate-neutral vacation? What role do the offers to offset CO2 emissions by buying climate certificates play? What other options are there? 

Vacations cause 111 million metric tons of greenhouse gases

Figures produced by the German Environment Agency (UBA) show that a domestic flight in Germany in 2019 generated 214 grams of greenhouse gas emissions per kilometer per person. For cars the equivalent was 154 grams and for long-distance rail travel 29 grams. According to the agency, the Germans’ love for travel, both at home and abroad, gave rise to a total of 111 million metric tons of greenhouse gases in 2017 (more up-to-date figures are not yet available). Air travel is not climate friendly, as the CO2 calculator of the UBA shows. Just 20 hours on intercontinental flights results in almost 3.2 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per head. To put this in perspective, according to UBA figures, in 2021 the consumption of the average German led to 11.7 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, with the emissions caused by the consumption of products manufactured abroad also being taken into consideration. 

One thing is obvious. Anyone who wants to help protect the climate should think carefully before they fly. But it is also clear that the Germans’ enjoyment of travel continues unabated and has not been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. When travel restrictions were relaxed in the spring of 2021, Germans flocked to their favorite destination: Mallorca. Although the travel industry has still by no means recovered from the setbacks of the last couple of years, the concept of revenge travel has been doing the rounds for some time. On the principle of “Now or never!”, people in Germany and in many other countries are making up for the vacations they missed because of the pandemic. 

Catching up on travel

This is confirmed by the figures that Norbert Fiebig, president of the German Travel Association (DRV), presented in advance of the international travel fair ITB Berlin, which took place online in early March 2022. Once a year, at around this time, the DRV gives its outlook for the travel season. According to Fiebig, the industry was seeing “a rapid increase in bookings, in particular for summer vacations.” While it is true that the figures for February 2020 were 48 percent lower than those in the pre-pandemic summer of 2019, “compared with the relatively poor season in 2021, there has been a very significant increase of 159 percent.” 

The DRV gives the top five destination countries as being, in this order: Spain (including the Balearic and Canary Islands), Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and Italy. With the exception of Italy, it is difficult to get to any of these places by train. Flying is unavoidable. But what has happened to the flight shame that was discussed so often in the years before the pandemic? The Institute for Social-Ecological Research (ISOE) investigated this phenomenon in a study in 2020 that is based on pre-pandemic figures. The authors refer to “a collapse in overall passenger numbers at German airports” in the second half of 2019, which could be due to the many strikes at the airports during that period. But it is the media analysis carried out for the study that is interesting. From May 2019 onward, the number of times the search term “CO2 offsetting” was entered into Google rose 40-fold and “flight shame” more than 20-fold. 

Growing pressure to justify travel

Overall the authors identified a move toward a broader discussion about the significance and the purpose of flying within society as a whole. They say: “The pressure to justify both private and business travel is growing, in particular with regard to the purpose of a trip.” It is also worth noting that Germans make an exception for vacation travel. In the case of vacation flights, even people with a high level of environmental awareness “give themselves a kind of special exemption from the sustainability standards that they otherwise feel they have to meet.” 

So what is the most climate-friendly form of travel? If we are talking just about the means of transport, it is obvious that the train is the best choice for long-distance travel, combined with cycling and walking. Deutsche Bahn, the German national rail company, says that 61 percent of the electricity it uses comes from renewable sources. It also advertises the fact that its long-distance trains run entirely on green electricity. In the case of flying, many people are hoping to see the emergence of environmentally friendly propulsion systems, such as electric motors or jet engines powered by hydrogen. According to a study carried out by the management consultancy Roland Berger in 2021, these things are still a long way off. Experts say that we are not likely to see aircraft powered by batteries, fuel cells or the direct combustion of hydrogen in our skies until the mid 2030s at the earliest. 

One popular option for climate-neutral travel is to offset the CO2 emissions by buying climate certificates. Many airlines offer the possibility of adding a small amount to the ticket price depending on the destination of the flight. This money is then invested in climate projects in the form of emission certificates. Long-distance bus operators also give their customers the option of offsetting. 

Emission estimates too low

Many airlines state in their advertising that CO2 offsetting is already included in the ticket price and therefore that their flights are automatically climate-neutral. Experts take a more critical view: “In the CO2 calculators used by the airlines, the emission figures are often too low,” says Dr. Michael Bilharz from the German Environment Agency (UBA). The UBA uses different figures in its own CO2 calculator because: “It is reasonable to assume that the climate impacts, in particular in the case of long-haul flights, are around three times as high as the CO emissions caused by the combustion of kerosene.” Nitrogen oxides, soot particles, and water vapor are also produced, all of which have an effect on the climate, and these are either not included at all in the airlines’ CO2 calculators or the estimates are too low. 

Anyone who really wants to offset their carbon footprint should therefore think of using other providers. Platforms such as atmosfair.de, climatefair.de, klima-kollekte.de, primaklima.org, and myclimate.org give travelers the opportunity to obtain a realistic figure for the carbon dioxide emissions of their vacation. Their CO2 calculators often take into account details such as the ticket class and the stopovers. Depending on the quantity of CO2 emitted, an amount is calculated that the provider can invest in climate projects in the form of CO2 certificates. The certificate that is purchased is deleted, which means that it can no longer be traded, and this offsets the personal CO2 emissions of the trip. 

This is one example, calculated using the Atmosfair platform. An economy class flight for four people from Berlin to Los Angeles with a stopover in New York emits around 25 metric tons of CO2, which can be offset by the provider in return for an investment of 585 euros. Sustainable travel portals such as Bookitgreen, BookDifferent, and Fairweg offer the opportunity to book a complete “green” vacation. 

Offsetting with the Gold Standard

It is important to evaluate the standards of the selected projects. For instance, the WWF recommends only investing in projects certified according to the Gold Standard, which take into account other sustainability factors including climate protection. One example is projects that enable people in developing countries to cook on more environmentally friendly stoves rather than open fires. This reduces CO2 emissions but also improves the health of the people because of the reduction in smoke and injuries from the fires. 

A more critical view should be taken of investments in reforestation projects: “The emissions remain in the atmosphere for 1000 years. Replanted woodland takes a long time to absorb large quantities of CO2 and the lifetime of the woodland can often only be guaranteed for a few decades,” explains climate expert Juliette de Grandpré from the WWF. 

Offsetting is not the only option for climate-friendly travel, according to sustainability consultant Herbert Haberl. “Sustainable travel goes along with soft tourism and involves behaving responsibly when you get to your destination,” says Haberl. This means avoiding waste, saving water, respecting the local culture and traditions, and not harming the flora and fauna. It is also important to think about environmentally friendly transport once you reach your destination. Smaller guest houses, apartments, and sustainably managed hotels have a much smaller CO2 footprint than large resort hotels. And finally: “Only pack as much as you actually need, because less weight means a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions when you’re on the move.” 


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