Climate Action Collaborative: Can travel be sustainable? |

Climate Action Collaborative: Can travel be sustainable?

Kim Langmaid
Valley Voices
Do your part
  • You can learn more about sustainable travel and earn a certificate in sustainable tourism. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council and Walking Mountains Science Center are partnering to offer the two-day Sustainable Tourism Training Program in Vail on October 28-29. To learn more, go to

Recently a friend asked for advice about carbon offsets to reduce the environmental impacts of her flight from Colorado to the East Coast. I gave her a few suggestions of well-known offset programs such as Terra Pass and Cool Effect and started to delve deeper into the question: Can travel and tourism truly contribute to climate action and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Here in the Eagle Valley, we live in a tourism-driven economy and we rely on guests traveling here to sustain our local economy. These guests support our economic sustainability, but how can they also support our environmental sustainability including our community’s Climate Action Plan goals to reduce greenhouse gases 25% by 2025 and 80% by 2050?

Flights come in out of the Eagle County airport on a regular basis, both commercial and private. And once guests arrive they are most likely to drive cars and SUVs as their main source of ground transportation.

Airplane flights are one of the most potent sources of greenhouse gas emissions related to the travel and tourism industry. Increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere creates climate instability and impacts the places we like to travel; creating more frequent and intense hurricanes, floods, erosion, droughts, forest fires, and heatwaves.

Based on a carbon footprint calculator used by United Airlines and their partner Conservation International, one person’s roundtrip flight from Denver to Boston will produce one metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalents. The total annual average carbon emissions for a U.S. citizen is 17 metric tons. This means each time you travel you are exponentially boosting up your personal contribution to climate change and your total annual emissions.

Some experts say the best thing to do is not travel by plane at all and choose buses, trains, and electric vehicles. Estimates suggest that an airplane flight could be 50 times worse for the climate than a car driven the same distance. In addition to carbon dioxide emissions, planes also spew more nitrogen oxides, water vapor and particulates into the atmosphere. But for many people and places around the world, especially in more remote locations, these ground transportation options may not be viable.   

An increasing number of travelers are looking for climate-friendly solutions, and humans are not likely to stop traveling anytime soon, so what can we do to turn travel and tourism into a force that will help combat the climate catastrophe? In addition to using carbon offsets, one option is to choose a sustainable destination for your next travel experience.

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) oversees the global baseline standards for the travel and tourism sector and acts as the international accreditation body for sustainable tourism certification. The GSTC standard for travel destinations includes several criteria that support climate action, in addition to other criteria that support local culture, natural heritage, and economic development.

Certified sustainable travel destinations must have a climate adaptation plan that identifies the local risks of climate change and includes strategies for development, siting, design and management of facilities. In addition to climate education for both residents and visitors, certified sustainable destinations must implement a program that encourages businesses to minimize and report their greenhouse gas emissions, reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, improve energy efficiency, and adopt renewable energy technologies.

In 2018, Vail became the first certified sustainable destination in the U.S. under the Mountain IDEAL standard recognized by the GSTC. The GSTC accredited certifying body Green Destinations performed a third-party audit to verify Vail’s compliance with each of the 44 criteria and 72 monitoring indicators.

The Actively Green sustainable business program includes over 60 certified businesses in Vail and the Eagle Valley. Supporting these businesses and their initiatives is one way that guests in Vail can create a positive impact. Each of these certified businesses are actively monitoring their energy use and greenhouse gas emissions and taking measures to reduce their impacts. They are leaders in environmental stewardship and sustainability.

Thank you for considering how your travels can be sustainable and how you can help us reach our community-wide Climate Action Collaborative greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Kim Langmaid is the founder and vice president of sustainability of the Walking Mountains Science Center and a member of the Vail Town Council. The Climate Action Collaborative is working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Eagle County 25 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050.

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