The Essential Guide to Eco-Friendly Travel
By Meredith Rosenberg
Between gas-guzzling flights, high-pollution cruise ships and energy-consuming hotels, travel takes a huge toll on the environment. Whether for business or vacation, for many people it's not realistic to simply stop traveling. So what's the solution? There are actually numerous ways to become more eco-conscious while traveling, which can be implemented with these expert tips.
Buy Carbon Credits
We Are Neutral is a Florida-based non-profit that works with organizations to reduce their carbon footprint. Geared toward businesses, the site offers a helpful carbon footprint calculator for flights, cars and even hotels. Just enter a few basic details, and the handy tool estimates the amount of carbon your trip produces. It even suggests how much you should donate to offset that amount, and allows you to donate directly to We Are Neutral, which uses the funds to plant trees.
Fly Environmentally Friendly Airlines
Kelley Louise, the executive director of Impact Travel Alliance, says that JetBlue has started using a sustainable jet fuel blend, while the International Council on Clean Transportation has named Norwegian Air the most fuel-efficient transatlantic airline. Meanwhile, the Atmosfair Airline Index 2017 is a helpful tool for discovering the most fuel-efficient airlines, plus it offers a carbon footprint calculator and the ability to donate through its site. Also useful, the International Air Transport Association counts more than 30 airlines with carbon offset programs, like Delta, United and Emirates.
Book Non-Stop Flights
Bret Love and Mary Gabbett of Green Global Travel recommend flying non-stop: "It's the takeoffs and landings that create most of an airplane's carbon emissions."
Consider Trains Over Planes
Steve Long, co-founder of The Travel Brief, advises using trains whenever possible. "From London to Paris, trains emit almost 90 percent less carbon than a flight," he says, based on using a carbon calculator from EcoPassenger. Long adds, "Excellent railway infrastructure makes trains a viable alternative to flights, including most of Europe and East Asia, and some countries in Southeast Asia." And rail lines like Eurostar have a dedicated eco-friendly program to reduce carbon emissions, plastic and more.
Use Public Transportation
Long says that many major cities around the world offer easy downtown train access. "The historic city centers in Europe and Asia tend to be compact and pedestrian friendly (unlike North American cities), and their metro systems are extremely developed, making it very easy to get to anywhere in the cities quickly."
Stay in Eco-Friendly Hotels
Green Global Travel suggests checking if U.S. hotels hold a LEED Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. "The program judges hotels on sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, material selection, indoor environmental quality and innovation in design." For international hotels, Green Global Travel adds, "Look for seals of approval from other certification programs, such as EarthCheck (Australia), Green Globe, Rainforest Alliance (Latin America, Caribbean) and Green Tourism (UK). Some countries, including Costa Rica, have their own certification programs to rate sustainability initiatives."
If your heart is set on a hotel that doesn't hold one of those designations, consider booking it through B'n'Tree. The site will plant a tree whenever you book a stay via one of their partners, including popular hotel booking sites like TripAdvisor, Booking.com and Hotels.com.
Opt Out of Housekeeping
Steve Long of The Travel Brief notes that many Marriott brands (Westin, Sheraton) are among the hotels offering incentives to guests who decline housekeeping services. For example, Marriott will credit accounts up to 500 bonus points a day. "Skipping housekeeping services means less energy used, less water used, and less waste generated," says Long. "Even if a hotel doesn't offer incentives, you can always request to skip housekeeping."
Margot Peppers, editor of LazyTrips, cautions against dining at familiar restaurants while abroad. "Often these global chains import food from far away, which translates to more carbon emissions," she says. "Instead, seek out local businesses that use native ingredients. Even better, choose places that grow their own produce or head to a local farmers market."
Try Going Vegan
Menghan Wang, co-founder of TheTravelBrief.com, notes that a recent study found that the meat and dairy industry is predicted to contribute more greenhouse gas than the fossil fuel industry unless changes are made. Reducing meat consumption helps. Wang acknowledges that going vegan isn't an easy change, but traveling is a great time to experiment. And, she believes, "It gives you less risk of getting sick." (Food poisoning from improperly stored or prepared meat, fish and dairy is a risk you don't really need to take while traveling.)
Join an Environmentally Responsible Tour Group
Not all organized tour groups identify themselves as eco-friendly, so Green Global Travel says to consider the following when choosing: "Find out how the tour operator gives back to the local community. Do they lease the land from locals? Do they hire local guides? Do they take a leading role in preserving the area's natural resources? Community-based tourism is the most sustainable." They add, "And don't take any tour that promises hands-on encounters with wild animals, such as riding elephants or walking with lions. If you do, you're supporting an industry that illegally captures, transports and abuses millions of animals each year."
That said, small tour groups tend to be more eco-conscious than large ones, and those affiliated with an environmental group like the Rainforest Alliance are good places to start.
Reconsider Taking a Cruise
In 2017, German environmental group NABU released a study determining that the average cruise ship released the fuel emission equivalent to a million cars—a day. But lines like Hurtigruten have taken steps to reduce emissions with hybrid ships. Hurtigruten has also eliminated single-use plastic, recycles its waste and uses local food suppliers, detailed here.
Support Local Businesses
Like food, imported souvenirs geared toward tourists carry a higher carbon footprint than locally made items. Plus, says Green Global Travel, "When you buy directly from an artist, you're not only helping them feed their family, but in many cases you're helping to preserve their culture."
Seek Practical Gifts
Especially when buying souvenirs for others, it makes more sense to return home with items that can be consumed, worn or otherwise used in daily life, as opposed to items that are likely to wind up in the back of someone's closet or in the trash.
Of course, don't feel bad if you return home empty-handed. Simply sharing your vacation photos and stories can prove more meaningful than a quick gift grabbed at the airport. Plus, putting the planet first is a valid reason.
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly attributed a quote to Kelley Louise instead of Margot Peppers. The post has been updated.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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