Travel & Sustainability: Are They Mutually Exclusive?

By Nina Botzen

The cheaper the flight, the better. That used to be my approach to travelling. I was always on the hunt for the cheapest escapes and squeezed in a trip abroad whenever I could, without a thought for the environmental cost. Because back then, I had no idea about what the impact of travelling was or, perhaps more accurately, I simply didn’t want to know it. I loved travelling and was afraid that delving deeper into the matter would result in a conscience so weighed upon by guilt that the only solution would be to stop entirely. And so, for many years, I operated under the mindset that sustainability and travelling were mutually exclusive. But are they?

All image credits: Nina Botzen,

As the years went by, I started to confront the reality of the environmental crisis, mainly through documentaries. From The True Cost to Cowspiracy, I’ve seen a fair few, and it was when I started to really reflect upon my role within these wider issues that I had my epiphany moment. My much-needed wake-up call. From that day forth, I boycotted fast fashion, went vegetarian (later to become vegan) and started incorporating more sustainable practices into my life. But the hardest internal conflict of all was travelling – would I have to give this up once and for all? One thing was for sure: I could no longer go about it in the way I previously had. Gone were the days of supporting cheap airlines that offered international plane tickets cheaper than a domestic train trip, and I began to hunt around for more eco-friendly alternatives. A base in Switzerland afforded me a serious geographical advantage with many other European countries more-or-less within reach, and so I began to make the annual trip to the Netherlands to visit family by train. Even though it was an arduous journey of 12 hours plus, I was determined not to board a plane if travelling within Europe. This lasted for a while (with a few impossible-to-avoid exceptions!), but when my yearning to explore new cultures finally saw me board a plane to Vietnam years later, I decided to take a look at the figures to assess exactly how bad flying really was. That’s not to say that I’m not still an advocate for greener alternatives where possible, but there’s a fair amount of conflicting information on the impact of flying vs. car travel, so the only solution was to do my own research.

Firstly, the facts. Globally, transportation accounts for 14% of greenhouse emissions. On average, flying emits 133g of CO2 per passenger per kilometre travelled for domestic flights and 102g for long haul flights (not to mention the tens of grams of non-CO2 emissions produced from high-altitude flying), while cars emit anywhere between 43-171g of CO2 depending on the occupancy. With train trips averaging only 14g per passenger per kilometre travelled, they’re the clear winner (source: BEIS/Defra Greenhouse Gas Conversion Factors 2019).

This is unlikely to come as news to you, that rails beat out wings and wheels any day, but it’s not always a viable option. Instead, a choice has to be made between the lesser of two ‘evils’: to drive or to fly. Whilst you might automatically assume this to be the former, an article I stumbled across in the Smithsonian Magazine made a pretty convincing case to the contrary, outlining the stats when comparing the number of gallons of fuel consumed per person based on flying in a Boeing 747 (50 gallons) versus that of an average car (in this case, a Honda Civic) based on two passengers (66 gallons) from Chicago to London. Many factors are at play here and there’s no shortage of articles offering opposing views, but it’s important to remember that road travel is not the better of the two. A carbon emissions calculator is great for assessing what’s what in terms of the greenest transport options available, but if flying is the only option then eco-conscious travellers can also consider the time of day they fly as well the airline they choose, with rankings available online. Several airlines also offer carbon offsetting initiatives, something I have taken part in for years, but unfortunately, this isn’t going to solve the problem of global warming, with some seeing it as a way to offset guilt more than carbon, and others as a way of taking the onus off the airlines themselves.

Travelling eco-consciously, however, isn’t just about the physical act of getting from point A to point B. There’s also a huge amount to consider when on the ground. A big one for me is food – where it comes from, how it’s produced and if it’s in season – since offsetting your flight to Thailand doesn’t mean much if you are regularly feasting on avocados flown in from Mexico while there. It’s no secret the environmental impact of the meat industry so it goes without saying that the same considerations should also apply when we’re at home. The destination itself should also play a role, with tourism in less-economically developed countries providing them with an excellent incentive for protecting landscapes instead of opting for heavily polluting yet lucrative alternatives such as logging. It is key that we see our travelling habits in a wider context to really be able to judge our environmental impact.

All image credits: Nina Botzen,

Ultimately, however, what connects travel and sustainability far more than any mode of transport or cuisine is the way it transforms our way of thinking. Seeing these destinations through my own eyes has expanded my horizons, teaching me to think holistically and view the world as an interlinked system in which I play my own important role. It opened my eyes to issues that I previously only saw on TV such as trash smothering beaches, waste burnt mindlessly on the street or dumped in the ocean, palm oil plantation projects decimating vast swathes of virgin forest, or wildfires, floods and landslides ripping through landscapes and communities as a consequence of the climate crisis. It is easy to detach oneself from an issue when you’re safe at home, but it’s much harder to do so when you find yourself confronted with it first-hand. Often, you have to see it to believe – that is simply human nature.

Travelling gives us a connection to the world, to nature and to other people. We are all one, even when borders might seem to separate us, and we are all in the same boat. We need to help each other out and be moved by what we see, banding together against a problem that involves us all. So, for this reason, travelling and sustainability are no longer mutually exclusive for me. In fact, whilst many may see travelling as part of the problem, what if we start seeing viewing it as part of the solution?

By Nina Botzen

Nina is a climate activist and blogger born in Switzerland. She is an advocate for slow travel, plant-based diets and secondhand & fair fashion with an aim to inspire others to adopt the same. She can be found on Instagram and on her blog,, alongside beautifully imagery taken on her Nikon Z50.