Vacations and the Carbon Footprint

Updated on November 18, 2019
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.


A family of four flying from London, England, to Lisbon, Portugal, generates two tonnes of CO2. Houston to London is a seven-tonne trip. Climate Care says, “According to our calculations, a cruise liner such as Queen Mary 2 emits 0.43 kg of CO2 per passenger mile, compared with 0.257 kg for a long-haul flight.” But there are ways of cutting your environmental impact while on vacation.

Travel and Carbon Emissions

Around 1.4 billion international vacation trips are made each year, and the number is rising. The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) says that “Tourism is responsible of about five percent of global CO2 emissions.”

The European Environment Agency lists the CO2 emissions per passenger, per kilometre:

  • Plane: 285 grams
  • Bus: 68 grams
  • Small car: 42 grams
  • Average car: 55 grams
  • Train: 14 grams

The UNWTO adds that “The accommodation sector accounts for approximately 20 percent of emissions from tourism. This involves heating, air-conditioning, and the maintenance of bars, restaurants, pools, and so on.”

Dirty Air

FlightAware says there is an average of 9,728 airplanes aloft worldwide at any given time. There are 1,270,406 passengers aboard those planes. The International Air Transport Association adds that 4.1 billion people travelled on scheduled airline services in 2017. And, an Ipsos Public Affairs study says 48 percent of the flights taken in the United States are for personal leisure.


The Guardian tells us what that means: “Worldwide CO2 emissions from commercial flights are rising up to 70 percent faster than predicted by the UN, according to an analysis.” That added up to 918 million tonnes of CO2 in 2018, and it’s going to get worse. The UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization predicts emissions will triple by 2050 unless action is taken. This amounts to an unsustainable burden on the environment.


Cruise Ships

It’s unlikely that passengers aboard a cruise liner ever give a second thought to the environmental impact of their vacation, but it’s huge. Most people fly to their port of embarkation and that causes an impact, as we’ve seen. However, once aboard and the cocktails start to flow, it’s party time and nobody wants a pooper raising uncomfortable environmental issues.

Transport & Environment advocates for green travel. According to an analysis released in 2019 it says that “Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest luxury cruise operator, emitted nearly 10 times more sulphur oxide (SOX) around European coasts than did all 260 million European cars in 2017.”


Dietmar Oeliger is with Nabu, a German environmental association. In 2017, the group studied cruise ships in Europe and said it could not recommend a single one as environmentally friendly. He told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that “All of them run on the dirtiest fuel you can imagine. It’s heavy fuel oil, it’s quite toxic. It’s a residual of the petrol industry, and it contains a lot of dirty stuff.” A mid-sized vessel will burn 150 tonnes of fuel a day and cause emissions equivalent to those of a million cars. And then there’s the sewage issue.

In June 2019, Carnival Cruises agreed to pay a $20 million fine for dumping trash in the ocean. This comes after a $40 million fine in 2016 that seems to have had little deterrent effect on the company. The Los Angeles Times reports that “Crews of Carnival’s ships continued to deliberately release sewage into the ocean, which is gross but not as damaging as the used oil, disposable plastic items, and food waste that the ships also expelled into the sea.”

Carbon Offsets

For people feeling a little guilty about taking a high-polluting vacation, handing over some cash may ease the shame. There are various carbon footprint calculators available on the internet that tell travellers the size of their insult to the environment.

Suppose I plan to travel from Toronto (my closest airport) to Vancouver and back. Seated in the cattle class section, my carbon footprint would be 0.93 tonnes of CO2. By going first class, I would be up to 3.71 tonnes. To ease my conscience I can buy a carbon offset from a registered environmental group that applies the money to projects that meet the Verified Carbon Standard. Here are a few options from Carbon Footprint:

  • $37 to the Global Portfolio that works on solar and wind power projects in the developing world;
  • $86 to the self-explanatory United Kingdom Tree Planting scheme;
  • $63 to Reforestation in Kenya; or,
  • $46 to Certified Emission Reduction that supports sustainable development.

What about driving? It’s 4,300 km and takes 39 hours without stopping, and carbon emissions are going to be about three-quarters of a tonne.

The train is far and away the winner, generating 122 kg of carbon per seat for the trip from Toronto to Vancouver on VIA's Canadian. But there’s a downside—several in fact.

If time is an issue, the train takes four days and four nights if it’s on time, and it often isn’t. Here’s a 2018 report from the CBC, “As of Thursday (May 24) afternoon, the westbound Canadian was some 45 hours behind schedule, after leaving Toronto 26 hours late. While VIA has apologized to the passengers, it also said it will not be offering any compensation for those whose plans are disrupted by the schedule.”

For the budget-conscious, the trip is $444 one way for just a seat; a roomette is $1,785 per person, one way, meals included.

An average tree absorbs about 22 kg of carbon dioxide a year, so 909 newly planted trees would be needed to offset the average American’s annual carbon footprint.
An average tree absorbs about 22 kg of carbon dioxide a year, so 909 newly planted trees would be needed to offset the average American’s annual carbon footprint. | Source

Alternative Holidays

The least carbon-costly holiday is the staycation, in which you don’t leave your local area. Howstuffworks puts a bright, shiny face on the concept: “What comes to mind when you think ‘vacation?’ A lake and a picnic, holding a glass of wine or an iced tea while you lie on a blanket with a book? Breakfast in bed? An amusement park and happy, squealing kids? Wandering a museum followed by a fine dinner out?”

For most people, those activities are available within a short drive of where they live—by electric car for the really green traveller.

Okay, so you absolutely, positively have to see the Mona Lisa (huge crowds and it’s a bit disappointing), or take a gondola through Venice (it’s costly and smelly). Travel within Europe by train is exceptional in comparison to North America. So, there are 8 trains a day between Paris and Venice, taking 10.5 hours. The same ease of travel is true of all major destinations in Europe.

There are plenty of companies that specialize in green vacations and resorts that practice sustainable operating methods. There’s no shortage of options that are friendly to our fragile ecosystems.


Bonus Factoids

  • Globally, tourism is worth about $7 trillion a year and is growing at the rate of around four percent annually; it employs about 10 percent of the world’s workforce.
  • Tourism accounts for eight percent of global CO2 emissions.
  • In one sense, tourism is killing itself with its high carbon footprint. Global heating will destroy the prospects of many ski resorts and rising ocean levels will swamp thousands of seaside vacation spots.
  • Small island states such as the Seychelles and Maldives generate as much as 80 percent of their income from tourism but they are being destroyed as sea levels rise.
  • Quoting from a 2018 University of Sydney study, the BBC notes that “when people earn more than $40,000 per annum, their carbon footprint from tourism increases 13 percent for every 10 percent rise in income.”


  • “FAQ - Climate Change and Tourism.” United Nations World Tourism Organization.
  • “Can You Satiate Your Travel Bug While Minimizing Your Impact on the Environment?” David Moscrop, Globe and Mail, November 7, 2019.
  • “Luxury Cruise Giant Emits 10 Times More Air Pollution (SOX) Than All of Europe’s Cars – Study.” Transport & Environment, June 4, 2019.
  • “A Cruise Ship’s Emissions Are the Same as 1 Million Cars: Report.” As it Happens, CBC, September 8, 2017.
  • “Carnival Cruises Get a Wrist Slap for Dumping Raw Sewage and Plastic Waste into the Sea.” Mariel Garza, Los Angeles Times, June 4, 2019.
  • “Is Cruising any Greener than Flying?” The Guardian, December 20, 2006.
  • “Carbon Offset Options.”, undated.
  • “What Is a Staycation?” Julia Clayton,, February 10, 2009.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor


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    • Rupert Taylor profile imageAUTHOR

      Rupert Taylor 

      7 months ago from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

      Hi Kari. We've been staycationers for years. My wife and I have a passion for theatre and we've got a surfeit within 100 km of where we live in Southern Ontario. No desire to broil on a beach in Asia or get jostled by crowds at the Parthenon. A good book, comfortable chair beside Lake Huron, and thoughts of crab cakes and salad with a nice glass of wine for lunch. Then perhaps a nap, before a Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller play. Our idea of perfect.

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 

      7 months ago from Ohio

      This article is an eye-opener for me. I never thought about how much vacations increase our carbon footprint. Luckily, I enjoy staycations. However, this article will make me think before flying. Here is a fact I learned about flying previously. Flying cross country in the USA will give you more radiation than a cat scan. The physicist in charge of our radiation department told me this.


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