In the past year and a half I’ve been exploring the world without any limitations. I went where I wanted, when I wanted and how I wanted. What this means is that I’ve transported myself by foot, car, van, bus, train and plane; I’ve eaten in restaurants almost every day; I’ve consumed drinking water from plastic bottles in most destinations; I haven’t recycled (or had the opportunity to do it) for ages…

This got me thinking. How big is the impact of me traveling around the world? A precise answer is virtually impossible to calculate, but the estimates are already shocking. Mainly because of mobility, my traveler’s footprint is 12 times bigger than our planet can take. This means that by January 30th, if everyone lived like me this past year, our planet would be consumed to its core. This is just an estimation, and I figure it could be even worse.

One of my flight's around the world, here I was traveling from Bangkok to Denpasar. Photography by Guille Álvarez

I’m not the only traveler around here, so you could multiply this impact by the thousands. Let’s put an example with my first flight out of Barcelona. I was so happy because I found an offer to fly for 250€ to Singapore, a good start of my Asian part of the project. Only now I realise that flight meant 52% of the annual amount of CO2 I should consume in order to help limit the Global Warming impact to only 2ºC. It’s crazy, and it seems impossible for a backpacker or any other tourist to just project several months of travel without severely impacting our climate.

There is a final paradox to the mobility issue. The least problematic method for traveling is the least used: rail and boat transportation, both at the bottom of the CO2 impact stats, represent less than 20% of all global traveling.

Note: these guys probably did a better job than me in this sense by biking from Spain to China… and they’re still going! Walking or cycling, of course, reduces a 100% your transportation carbon footprint.

The CO2 emissions and its toll on the planet from my flight Barcelona - Singapore.

Exploring the world is great, but the environmental costs are greater

The statistics by scientists and scholars confirm my individual suspicions on the destructive relationship between travel and climate. Tourism’s global carbon footprint accounts for about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, this study published in Nature affirms. That’s four times the impact previously consensuated by scientists a few years back. If tourism was a country today, it would be the fourth most impactful towards global warming just under the United States, China and the European Union.

There are other indicators, apart from the carbon footprint, that should change our behaviour. “One tourist consumes 3 or 4 times more water per day than a permanent resident”, confirms another study. I can think on the many many bottles of water I’ve bought all around the globe, not only consuming all this extra water in showers, pools, sinks, etc. but also impacting the amount of plastic residues that are consumed on a daily basis.

Plastic products are an epidemic threat for nature, with giant garbage floating islands reported in several parts of our oceans. They also undermine the climate overland. Most countries I’ve visited in Southeast Asia and South America have little care for recycling and littering. It’s been a rare discovery to find natural attractions without plastic bottles, food envelopes or papers appearing in the floor, messing with the landscape and nature. Are we careless and idiotic? YES.

Hundreds of tourist gather for sunrise in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. How couldn't this affect the environment and the heritage site? Photography by Guille Álvarez

The problem with traveling is that, in general, it’s impossible to avoid these irresponsible attitudes. At least it’s not easy and straightforward. Wherever tourism reaches, trash surplus and misuse takes place. It’s there in plain sight, it’s a logical consequence. How can a tiny tropical island cope with the luxurious tourist standards? The only way is through the exploitation of land, which affects the climate, the nature, the fauna and also, let’s not forget, the local inhabitants.

I’m standing at the edge of a cliff in Copacabana, a little town on the edge of lake Titicaca in Bolivia. I savour the amazing sunset, focus on the horizon of this immense lake standing still at 4.000 metres between the Altiplano and the Andes. The breeze chills my bones, the sun burns my skin, but these are the sights you can’t pay for during your trip. I take it all in.

But I inevitably look down the cliff, and the magic is broken. The garbage covers all the cliff’s edge, bottom to top and around me. It’s just the last example of destruction of our environment and climate that I’ve experienced as a world traveler. Without proper education and resources, we’ll never fix this.

I certainly don’t have an answer to the bigger picture, but I know it starts with the actions of every individual.

Lake Titicaca views are ruined by the constant presence of trash in the surroundings. Copacabana, Bolivia. Photography by Guille Álvarez