As much as 8% of the world’s carbon emissions are a result of travel by just 6% of people around the world. So while it’s an enriching experience for us, it isn’t for the planet. But sustainable travel writer Nina Karnikowski proves it doesn’t have to be that way, and shares her tips on how we can return to travel in a slow and earth-friendly way.
If a long haul flight generates more CO2 than the average person produces in an entire year, can there be such a thing as travelling sustainably? Travel writer Nina Karnikowski believes there is and has been putting sustainable travel into practice since 2019.
Releasing her timely second book Go Lightly: How to Travel without Hurting the Planet earlier this year, the comprehensive guide includes hundreds of green travel tools as well as important mindset shifts that can facilitate the change towards sustainable travel. We chat with Nina about why and how she transitioned towards travelling more consciously and how the rest of the world can too.
Flying overseas up to a dozen times per year for work, an eye-opening trip to the Arctic was the catalyst for Nina’s decision to pair back flying to once every two years. Her last overseas assignment in 2019 was in a town called Churchill with a population of 900 polar bears to 800 human inhabitants.
“I was really faced with the impact of our very consumptive human behaviours, which of course includes things like flying on planes and I saw the impact travel was having on polar bears directly,” shares Nina. “I was hearing about how the melting of the arctic ice due to global warming meant that the bears’ seal hunting season is shorter, which ultimately leads to a decline in their population. I realised the bears have no way of protecting themselves and it’s really only my actions and our actions that’ll have an effect.”
“I saw the impact travel was having on polar bears directly.”
Returning home from that trip, Nina calculated her carbon footprint which was “out of control” compared to the average person, and realised she couldn’t continue travelling at the same pace and frequency. Asking her editors for some time off, Nina began searching for ways she could continue travelling with less impact. Not long after, the idea for Go Lightly was born. “I wrote that [book] over the course of a few months while I was discovering those things and really deeply diving into all those issues. Of course a few months after that, the pandemic hit and really all the things I’d learned and already decided on were brought into sharp relief.” During the pandemic, global emissions had decreased by 17 percent, which is the lowest it had been in 14 years as a result of less flying, driving and consumption.
Although we don’t know exactly when, travel will inevitably return. So does journeying sustainably mean we must deprive ourselves of it? Not necessarily. Nina says it’s more about reducing the amount of travel, going for longer and taking trips at home in between. She shared her tips with us below, including how to plan for a low footprint voyage and finding the romance and inspiration travel gives us at home:
1. Spend your travel dollars wisely
Wherever we journey to, our travel dollars contribute to supporting the local economy. Many countries with natural beauty as its most valuable asset rely predominantly on the tourism industry for their livelihood. Worldwide, 44 countries rely on the tourism industry for 15% of their total share of employment. One of the many fascinating takeaways in Go Lightly was the fact that our travel dollars fall most often into the hands of multinational corporations rather than locals’ pockets. It’s for this reason Nina stresses the importance of making sure we spend our travel dollars with local grocers, artisans and ecotourism companies wherever we go.
2. Avoid geo-tagging
Social media has led to over-tourism in many parts of the world. Nina advises avoiding geo-tagging a location to avoid it. “Social media is amazing in so many ways for connection and spreading ideas, but it has a lot to answer for in that realm of over tourism,” says Nina. “There was that swing in Iceland that everyone was going to. It leads to horrible over-tourism in a lot of places around the world that are not equipped to deal with that number of people,” she says. “It really impacts local communities and forces people out of their homes and makes cities more expensive and unliveable.”
“Social media is amazing in so many ways… but it has a lot to answer for in the realm of over-tourism.”
3. Travel for yourself, not your photos
In Go Lightly, journalist Elizabeth Becker shares how back in the 70s, she and her friends weren’t travelling to be the stars of their own videos. It turns out that centring an itinerary based on our unique hobbies and interests not only leads to a more enriching experience, but one that’s less likely to lead to over-tourism. “I think that’d be a lot healthier for ourselves and the planet. It also means we’re catering to our own desires, not just the desires of the populace and thinking ‘because everyone else loves to do that thing, I should do it too.’ ” Nina suggests actioning this by “getting really clear on your desires for each trip and thinking ‘what do I want to get out of this trip? What am I actually interested in? And following your own quirky desires.’ ”
4. Take micro journeys in between
“I’ve been discovering my backyard a lot more which has been such a delight,” Nina shares. “I recently organised a trip going from our home in Byron Bay all the way to Cape Tribulation in the Daintree Rainforest in our hybrid electric car. I did as many low impact adventures on that one month trip as possible. Some of the time I was sleeping in the back of the car and some of the time I was staying in little eco-stays, like an amazing mud brick BnB in the outskirts of Noosa, which was on a regenerative farm. They had some really interesting energy saving technology there like solar and thermal heating,” she says. Learning about the devastation of the Great Barrier Reef or the Daintree along the way, she says her trips these days are more about seeking out natural places and connecting to nature.
“Rather than going overseas a dozen times a year, Nina says she’ll endeavour to fly every couple of years but for a longer period of time.”
5. Finding romance and inspiration at home
Travel inspires like nothing else. It gives an exciting sense of anonymity, a feeling of being hyper present for every new, undiscovered cobblestone pathway, or uplifting interaction. But can we find these elusive qualities at home? While Nina admits it’s more challenging, it can be done with a bit of practice . “Familiarity can dull our sense of curiosity,” she says. “So I think it’s a real mindset. You can stoke that curiosity simply by trying to let go of what we think we know and assume about places. I’ve been trying to get curious even about the Shire [Byron Bay] that we live in and I was thinking I actually don’t know much about the traditional custodians of the land.”
Questions she suggests we can ask while seeking adventures at home include: “are there workshops I can attend to learn more about traditional ways of foraging food here? Are there festivals I can go to to learn more about regenerative ways of living here? Are there areas people are not going to all the time that I can hike in and get curious about the plant life there? Are there places in the state next to ours I haven’t seen yet?”
6. Savour the long haul flights
True to her word, Nina hasn’t stepped on a plane since her trip, “besides one time when the bushfires were raging and I’d booked a train trip to Sydney and one of the legs on the way there I had to get a plane because of the bushfires, which was devastatingly ironic.” Even after Covid, she plans to keep plane travel to a minimum where possible. “I’ll definitely, moving forward, be minimising air travel as much as possible because of its huge impact and really thinking about each journey that I take. Is it worth me getting on that plane to do that story?” Rather than going overseas a dozen times a year, Nina says she’ll endeavour to fly every couple of years but “for a longer period of time and making sure my travel dollars go further, and learning more about the culture and local communities that way.”
“It’s been the greatest adventure of my life so far, figuring out how to do all of this in a much cleaner and greener way.”
7. Think like an ancestor
For the passionate voyager, the idea of reducing travel to once every couple of years can be daunting, but perhaps travelling more consciously can be equally as satisfying as travel itself. “I think the most rewarding thing is just changing my mindset completely around the kind of human that I am on this earth.”
“We really all need to start thinking about the kind of ancestors that we’re being for future generations.” Illustrating her point with a story of an Amazonian chief who points to a tree saying it’ll make a really good canoe one day. Not for his child, his grandchildren or even their grandchildren, but possibly the generation after that. “That’s the mindset we all used to have, we used to think generations or centuries ahead,” says Nina. “I think if we all returned to that mindset we’d be making very different choices about everything from the way we travel, consume, dress ourselves, tend to the earth and tend to each other… thinking as an ancestor is the greatest shift that any of us can make.”
Speaking on her experience of making conscious travel choices she says, “it’s been the greatest adventure of my life so far, figuring out how to do all of this in a much cleaner and greener way.”