Sustainable travel – consumer attitudes, roadblocks, and opportunities
"Take only memories, leave only footprints," Chief Seattle said in a mid-19th century speech advocating for ecological responsibility in traveling. His words have become a powerful motto for conscious travelers. Unfortunately, we leave more than just footprints – mainly, the invisible trace of emissions: the climate footprint.
Our planet is paying a high price for our travel choices: flying long distances for a short vacation, staying in chain hotels right on the beach, choosing planes over trains. Fortunately, we are slowly becoming aware of the environmental costs of travel and we want to travel more sustainably – as this report makes clear.
I am pleased to present the results of Oncarbon's first survey of travelers' attitudes towards sustainable travel, its opportunities, and barriers. In this paper, we present the behaviors, needs, and expectations of European travelers. We believe these results will be useful to all stakeholders in the global travel ecosystem: airlines, travel agents, tour operators, and intermediaries.
I hope these findings will help the travel and airline industries answer questions such as "Should we communicate the emissions associated with our travel products?" or "How can we better address the needs of our conscious customers?".
I am open to your feedback and thoughts so we can shape a better future of travel together.
Jussi Ahola, CEO and Co-founder at Oncarbon
This report includes the findings of an online survey conducted in May 2022 in the United Kingdom, Sweden, and the Netherlands on a representative sample of respondents.
The survey’s goal was also to investigate whether the consumers would welcome information about emissions caused by travel products, such as flights. The report outlines consumers’ attitudes towards sustainable travel, what factors are important for consumers when booking travel, and what kind of sustainable travel decisions consumers have made or are willing to make.
The report has been divided into four sections:
- 1.Consumers' attitudes towards more sustainable travel – Addresses how important sustainable travel is for the consumers, how likely the consumers are to buy more environmentally friendly travel products, and what sustainable decisions travelers would be willing to make when deciding on their travel plans.
- 2.Blockers and obstacles for more sustainable tourism – Details the main barriers that stop consumers from making more sustainable travel decisions and the main factors that they take into consideration while booking travel.
- 3.Push for transparency and information – Explores consumers’ need for information about sustainable travel options.
- 4.Belief in change – Examines consumers’ belief in their power to influence the travel industry.
Key findings and conclusions:
- The vast majority of travelers find it important to travel in a sustainable way.
- Most travelers would be willing to make more environmentally friendly choices, if they had the option, despite the inconvenience it can cause.
- Cost is the key factor travelers take into consideration while choosing a travel product.
- Environmental footprint is important to over 40% of travelers.
- Travelers often lack the information about “green” travel options.
- Travelers find sustainable travel options too expensive.
- The majority of respondents would like to receive environmental information about their travel choices, and the majority of respondents think it should be mandatory.
- The majority of consumers believe their travel choices can impact climate change and travel industry policies.
The survey uses data collected in May 2022 as part of Oncarbon Travel Choices Consumer Survey. The fieldwork was conducted by CINT™ using an online survey developed by Oncarbon. It took place from May 16-26 in three countries: the United Kingdom, Sweden and the Netherlands. It was prepared in three languages (English, Swedish, Dutch) and distributed in the official language of each country. CINT™ disseminated the online survey to a panel of registered users using a stratified sample methodology, which imposed quotas on age, gender, and region. After data collection, two quality checks were applied. The survey was conducted on a representative sample of respondents (N=641).
We love to travel. More than 1.46 billion people – one fifth of the world’s population – took at least one tourist trip in 20191. But while travel brings numerous benefits to us and to local economies, it also comes at a cost – especially to the environment.
Tourism accounts for about 8% of global carbon emissions: 49% of that comes from transportation, with air travel having the largest carbon footprint2. The number of people who can afford to travel is growing, and it is estimated that the demand for air travel could exceed 10 billion passenger trips in 20503. Against the backdrop of climate change, traveling for pleasure may seem like an unnecessary luxury: weekend city breaks abroad are not a basic human need and we can definitely survive without exotic vacations in faraway resorts.
How, then, can we still enjoy the benefits of travel without harming the environment? The latest IPCC report shows that we can mitigate climate change if we act now by promoting practices like car-free mobility and limiting air travel. But if we continue to emit current levels of greenhouse gasses, we will exceed the global warming limit of 1.5 °C. The consequences will be catastrophic for the planet and for the travel and tourism industries. .
The good news is that the number of conscious consumers who want to travel more responsibly is increasing. And the future of travel lies in responsible tourism – tourism that respects the environment, community, and local cultures, and seeks to correct the adverse effects of irresponsible mass tourism.
The results of the survey in this report clearly show that as travelers, we want to travel more sustainably: stay in greener places, book more sustainable flight options, travel by train instead of plane, and travel with the smallest possible climate footprint. But to do this, we need two things: transparent information about emissions and reasonable costs of more sustainable travel and accommodation options.
Sustainable travel options could soon be required by legislation. In the EU, there is a discussion about the minimum amount of sustainable aviation fuel airlines must use and the carbon labeling of flights. On the other hand, sustainable tourism is a bottom-up trend that starts from the real needs of travelers. We are seeing movements and trends that promote flight-free travel and local tourism (reinforced by the pandemic), as well as growing awareness of the climate footprint of travel. As consumers, we believe that we can influence the travel industry with our choices and push for more transparency. We believe that these changes can ultimately lead to a reduction in emissions and mitigation of climate change.
Giving consumers the ability to vote with their wallets for the lowest-emission options on the market is a powerful tool to increase demand and supply for even better options in the future. Providing them with information and giving them a choice can – and will – promote responsible tourism, which we believe is the future of travel.
Oncarbon is a startup founded in 2021 in Tampere, Finland. We help airlines and forward-thinking travel companies calculate and communicate the carbon footprint of their travel products.
The Oncarbon model for calculating flight emissions analyzes a wide variety of aspects of a flight: plane models, engine models, the number of seats in the aircraft, an estimation of the amount of cargo on the flight, airport busyness factors, and the great-circle distances between the origin, destination, and any stops on the way.
It assigns numbers aligned to the warming effect attributable to each seat of a flight. The warming effect is presented as kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). Travel companies can receive the emissions data through Oncarbon’s APIs and display it to consumers at the point of purchase.
We believe that we need – and we can – travel more consciously. We educate our audience about carbon footprint, sustainable travel and aviation, and transparency in emissions reporting.
Consumer attitudes towards sustainable travel
We want to travel better
It’s good news: most of us are already aware of environmental costs of travel and want to travel more responsibly, even if it means the journey would be less convenient. Over ⅔ of respondents are at least “to some extent” familiar with the idea of carbon footprint, and only 6% of us view climate issues in travel as “not important at all.”
Consumers listed several responses to the open question about ways to travel more sustainably, including:
- traveling by public transport
- reducing air travel
- traveling by train
- traveling by means of transport fueled by renewable energy
The growing awareness of emissions resulting from flying has contributed to the emergence of the flight-free travel trend. The “no fly challenge” has been recently popularized by a Swedish activist Greta Thunberg but some politicians, scientists, and activists gave up flying over a decade ago. In the UK, the Flight Free UK community has witnessed over 10,000 pledges to limit flying. At the same time, train travel has experienced a revival, with the demand for rail travel steadily increasing.
“I always encourage people to not fly for a year and see what it does for them. The most important thing is not to see it as a ‘sacrifice’ but as a benefit – for the environment and for the traveler – because flight-free travel is enriching and a more enjoyable travel experience.” Anna Hughes, the founder of Flight-Free UK
What travelers say they would do to help the Earth…
… and what they actually did!
Taking a train or a bus instead of a flight is among the most popular decisions travelers would make or have actually made to lower their carbon footprint. Other ideas include paying more for a lower emissions flight option or choosing public transportation instead of a private car.
Is offsetting a greenwashing practice?
It’s great to observe that travelers not only intend to help the environment, but they actually make an effort, such as picking up trash or taking a reusable water bottle with them. However, we would like to point out that carbon offsetting is increasingly regarded as a greenwashing practice, as it doesn’t actually lead to reducing emissions. Although the idea is noble at its roots, airlines or tour operators should never imply that paying an extra $5 would make a flight “carbon neutral.”
We cannot just keep releasing greenhouse gasses from fossil fuels into the atmosphere and fool ourselves that it’s all “carbon neutral” just because we have (hopefully) sequestered some carbon back into solid matter. I believe that no product should be called “carbon neutral,” if that “neutrality” has been achieved through offsets. Jussi Ahola, CEO & Co-founder at Oncarbon
Blockers and obstacles for more sustainable tourism
The travel industry does not address travelers’ needs
While sustainable travel is important to most of us, it is not always readily available, largely because of the high cost of greener travel solutions. More than half of travelers say sustainable travel options are too expensive, and ¾ of travelers consider cost to be the deciding factor when booking their trip. At the same time, over 40% say that environmental footprint plays an important role in their decision-making and 66% would be willing to pay extra to lower their travel carbon footprint.
Cost is not the only barrier to more sustainable travel. Our research shows that over ⅓ of travelers do not know which travel options are greener, which means tour operators and travel agents are not communicating these options clearly enough.
The survey shows that our awareness of sustainability is high and is not limited to environmental issues, but also the positive impact of tourism on local communities. Only 8% of travelers say they are not interested in sustainable travel – and most of us would be willing to choose a greener flight or accommodation option if they were available. Interestingly, despite the cost barrier, ⅔ of respondents would be willing to pay 5-50% more to reduce their travel-related carbon footprint.
Push for transparency and information
The travel industry does not address travelers’ needs
Lack of information about sustainable travel options remains one of the biggest roadblocks for travelers. Over ⅔ of respondents would like to receive environmental information about their holiday, and over 60% believe that it should be mandatory for travel agencies and tour operators to release data about the carbon footprint of flights and travel products they sell.
Carbon labeling of travel product
In 2019, tourism contributed to about 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions4 and passenger air travel accounted for up to 3% of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion5. Governments worldwide are already introducing preventive measures. For example, the European Union presented plans last July that foresee stricter rules on CO2 emissions and the use of synthetic fuel blends, as well as the implementation of a kerosene tax. The possible next step is also carbon labeling of travel products.
While not yet legally obliged to do so, forward-thinking airlines and travel companies are already rethinking their communication strategies and choose to share sustainability efforts because of the benefits it brings. Equipping customers with knowledge about the carbon footprint of travel makes them feel more confident about their travel decisions. It also opens up a new level of trust between the consumer and the service provider, giving businesses a competitive advantage and positioning them as climate action leaders.
“Today, conscious travelers want to choose more environmentally friendly travel products and are aware of the CO2 emissions generated by flying. The fact is that travel often comes with high CO2 emissions. This fact cannot be underestimated, but what we can do about it is to calculate that carbon footprint, communicate it, and strive to offer lower carbon travel options in the future”. Esa Talonen, CEO at Ikaalisten Travel Agency (IMT).
Belief in change
We want to – and we can – have more impact
The pressure for greater transparency from climate conscious consumers is growing and communicating emissions is becoming a standard in some industries. According to our survey, 67% of travelers would like to receive environmental information about the travel products they buy and 66% are at least to some extent familiar with the idea of carbon footprint. Over ¾ of respondents believe that their choices can increase transparency in the travel industry, and, consequently, impact the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted into the atmosphere.
- 78% of respondents believe their travel choices can have an impact on the amount of emissions released into the atmosphere.
- 76% of respondents think their travel choices can have an impact on the travel industry to become more transparent.
Conscious travel choices
We believe that pressure makes progress. We want people to continue enjoying the benefits of travel while being aware of the environmental footprint of travel so that we can lower emissions in the future. Our conscious choices can push the travel industry towards greater transparency about emissions. And we need this change because if we continue to emit the current levels of greenhouse gasses, we will create catastrophically destructive consequences.
“Giving consumers the opportunity to vote with their wallets for the lowest emission options on the market today is a powerful tool to increase the demand and supply for even better options in the future.” Jussi Ahola, CEO & Co-founder at Oncarbon
Conclusion: Towards the more responsible travel
In this report, we sought to provide airline and travel industry executives with insights that will help them create a better offering for environmentally conscious customers. One of the key findings from this report, as well as from other data sources and surveys, is the growing demand for sustainable travel options and environmental information about flights and travel products.
Consumers want to choose more sustainable travel options and are already making efforts to reduce their impact on the environment by vacationing locally, limiting air travel, or using public transportation. What they need, however, is transparent information about the carbon footprint of the travel products they choose.
Is your company interested in learning how you can empower customers with this knowledge? As Oncarbon, we encourage you to become a leader in climate action and showcase your sustainability efforts by communicating the carbon footprint of your travel products. Oncarbon ensures that the calculations are validated by a third party, which helps you avoid accusations of greenwashing.
We believe that open communication about emissions is the future of travel and a step towards a better future for generations to come.
Copyright by Oncarbon
Author: Joanna Kocik
Editor: Alexandra GIbson
Designer: Małgorzata Grzesiak
Special thanks to Esa Talonen, Anna Hughes.