Is Travelling by Campervan More Eco-Friendly Than Flying?

Learn the truth about the environmental side of travelling by campervan

Have you ever stopped and wondered about the environmental sustainability of campervan travel? Well, our curiosity led us to consult an academic researcher who specialises in sustainability, tourism, and transport at the Dutch Breda University of Applied Sciences. Their task was to assess the carbon footprint associated with different popular travel choices. Here's what we discovered.

The CO2 footprint of popular travel options

In the following comparison, we have compiled a range of popular travel options, taking into consideration both travel and accommodation, and calculated their corresponding CO2 emission rates. All scenarios assume a two-week trip for a family of four. Interested to know how your campervan journey stacks up against these alternatives?

About intercontinental flights

It's important to note that the following analysis focuses on European destinations. However, a simple Google search reveals that many of the popular destinations today require intercontinental flights, which significantly contribute to higher emissions. For instance, consider a round trip from London to New York, which results in a staggering emission of 3208 kilograms of CO2 for a family of four, and that's excluding accommodation expenses.

campervans versus flying

About hotel accommodation

It's worth noting that staying in hotels contributes significantly to the overall carbon footprint. This is especially relevant if you choose to fly as well. By contrast, selecting a private apartment through platforms like Airbnb can significantly reduce accommodation emissions to 280 kilograms of CO2, compared to the 899 kilograms associated with hotels.

It's important to recognize that greater comfort often correlates with higher emissions. Hotels offering amenities such as air conditioning, swimming pools, all-you-can-eat breakfasts, and dinner buffets tend to have a larger environmental impact. Additionally, hotels are specifically constructed and maintained for tourism purposes, meaning any associated carbon footprint is directly linked to the tourism industry. In contrast, private apartments available through platforms like Airbnb were not originally designed exclusively for tourism, providing a different ecological profile.

Connecting with Nature

An argument in favor of campervans is that they provide an opportunity for individuals to develop a deeper appreciation for natural landscapes. It is undeniable that the stronger our bond with the environment, the more inclined we become to preserve and safeguard it.

In light of climate change pressures, it is crucial for humanity to revive this bond and work together to protect Mother Nature.

When you embark on a campervan adventure and find yourself immersed in places that bring you a sense of restoration, joy, or tranquility, the desire to revisit and protects these locations significantly increases.

However, it is essential to adhere to the principle of "leave no trace" when camping and caravanning. Disregarding this rule by littering, releasing harsh chemicals into waterways or fields, or disrespecting local land regulations undermines the entire argument. When done responsibly, campervanning can offer a sustainable holiday option. With limited resources like water, gas, and electricity, individuals are compelled to use only what is truly necessary. Furthermore, if the electricity source is renewable, such as solar power, the sustainability aspect is even stronger. This lifestyle encourages conscious and frugal thinking, a positive practice that may not be as prevalent when staying in a hotel. Moreover, campervanners tend to opt for natural products instead of harsh chemicals that could harm the environment. Additionally, parking at campsites and using them as a base to explore nature on foot helps reduce road congestion while enjoying the benefits of travel.

Prioritise experiences over destinations

When making your travel arrangements, it's advisable to prioritise the type of experience you desire during your holiday, be it a tranquil beach retreat or an exhilarating adventure in a remote natural setting. Once you've identified your preferences, choosing a destination that meets your needs and is closer to home becomes easier.

It's worth noting that flying to Nice has a smaller carbon footprint compared to driving there in a diesel campervan. However, it's important to consider that the overall carbon emissions are influenced by both travel and accommodation choices, often making flying still the option with the largest carbon footprint.

campervan experiences

Additionally, it's crucial to acknowledge that driving and flying offer different ranges of travel due to varying travel speeds. From the perspective of a campervan trip, Nice is considered a distant destination requiring multiple days to reach. On the other hand, as a flying destination, Nice is perceived as being conveniently close to home.

The majority of campervan trips take place within the UK, resulting in inherently lower carbon footprints compared to air travel, regardless of the type of accommodation chosen.

Vans vs. Cars

While it's true that travelling in a campervan may consume fewer resources, it's undeniable that driving a diesel-guzzling van has its environmental drawbacks. Let's look at some real-life comparisons. On one hand, you have a huge VW campervan, which generates approximately 35 tons of carbon dioxide emissions during production, with an additional 9,000 miles of travel or 3.5 tons per year. On the other hand, a mid-sized family estate car produces an estimated 17 tons of CO2 emissions during production, followed by an average of 2.4 tons per year or 9,000 miles. At first glance, it seems like the car takes the lead in terms of environmental impact.

Not necessarily. Studies indicate that the average British individual replaces their car every three years, resulting in higher production costs compared to actual usage. Sustaining a vehicle for a longer duration increases the value derived from its production and decreases the embodied energy costs per year. Essentially, the longer a vehicle remains in use, the lower its overall impact on the environment due to its extended lifespan. Owning a campervan presents an ideal solution in this regard. The emotional connection we form with campervans makes us less inclined to trade them in frequently. In fact, campervans can remain operational for 15 to 20 years, providing extended utility.

Now, let's consider a scenario where you own a campervan for 15 years. The 35 tons of production emissions spread over this period amount to approximately 2.3 tons per year. Adding the 3.5 tons per year for mileage, the total comes to 5.7 tons annually. On the other hand, if you were to own five cars within the same 15-year timeframe, the production emissions would sum up to 17 tons for each car, resulting in a total of 85 tons or 5.6 tons per year. When accounting for the additional 2.4 tons per year for mileage, the final figure reaches 8 tons annually. Furthermore, campervan owners tend to opt for domestic holidays, reducing the need for flying abroad. Considering these factors, it becomes clear that owning a campervan presents several environmental benefits.

Renting a campervan vs. other holidays?

Indeed, when considering the environmental impact over a 15-year period, owning a campervan proves to be a better choice compared to owning five cars. However, if you're contemplating renting a campervan instead of owning one, it's still important to assess its impact in relation to other alternatives. Walking, bike touring, or adopting a sailing approach similar to Greta Thunberg's method are obviously eco-conscious options that should be seriously considered if feasible for you. Nevertheless, assuming that not everyone has access to a yacht and that bike touring may not be everyone's cup of tea, it's worth examining more mainstream options like planes and trains. For instance, an 8-hour round-trip train journey from London to Edinburgh results in approximately 45kg of CO2 emissions per person, while a 2000km flight from London to Marseille and back generates 300kg of CO2 emissions per passenger. On the other hand, a 1000km round trip in a campervan from London to Cornwall contributes 350kg of CO2 emissions per vehicle or 87.5kg per person. So, what’s the verdict? Trains come out on top. However, the situation isn't always straightforward. The pandemic has made public transport anxiety-inducing, limited in availability, and expensive. Each option has its downsides, especially in the current circumstances, but it is safe to say that many alternatives are still more environmentally friendly than flying.

What about electric?

The popularity of electric and hybrid cars is steadily rising, as they offer significant environmental advantages. When compared to conventional vehicles, a small electric car can reduce lifecycle emissions by up to 50%. However, the campervan industry is still in the process of catching up with this trend. The infrastructure for charging electric campervans is still being developed, with most charging points situated along motorways. Moreover, there is an ongoing debate regarding whether campsites should provide charging facilities at electric pitches. For instance, the Nissan NV200, which is a suitable size for a small camper, has an estimated range of approximately 120 miles. This range might prove challenging if you plan to travel in regions like Cornwall or Scotland, where there aren’t that many motorways.

See our tips to get the best out of your campervan with solar panels.

Flying vs. Driving: what’s the takeaway?

When it comes to environmental impact, a camping trip by car or campervan generally results in a smaller carbon footprint compared to air travel, especially if the alternative is flying to a hotel, resort, holiday home, or apartment.

campervans and flying

To further reduce your carbon footprint, you can consider using an electric vehicle (EV) for your travel or opting for a shared car or campervan. Using a privately owned vehicle for tourism purposes is more eco-friendly than renting a vehicle specifically manufactured for tourism. By sharing a privately owned vehicle, no additional environmental footprint is created.

Additionally, choosing a destination that is closer to your home is the easiest way to minimise your carbon footprint. However, this principle applies to any form of travel, not just camping trips.

Flying vs. Driving: what about the future?

When comparing driving and flying, it's worth noting the potential for both modes of travel to become more environmentally friendly in the future.

In terms of campervan travel, there is a promising possibility for it to become an even more sustainable choice. The emergence of electric vehicle (EV) campervans in the market is a positive development, albeit a gradual one. Considering the advancements in EV technology within the automotive industry, it is foreseeable that EV campervans will become more prevalent and technologically advanced in the coming decade.

Similarly, EV cars are likely to become more suitable for holiday trips across Europe, provided that the international charging infrastructure also improves over time.

When talking about air travel, there are two main approaches to reducing its environmental impact. The first involves the development of electric and hydrogen-powered airplanes. The second approach is the blending of regular kerosene with Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). 

In regards to electrification of flying, the goal is to have the first commercial flights using all-electric aircraft by 2030. However, even in the best-case scenario, these planes will have limited battery range and be capable of carrying a maximum of 70 passengers. Therefore, they will only be suitable for short-haul flights. Considering the current volume of air passengers, we cannot rely on fully electric aeroplanes in the near future. Additionally, the lack of clarity regarding who will take the initiative to provide charging infrastructure at airports and the requirements for widespread adoption pose additional challenges.

When it comes to Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), the availability of this fuel derived from reused materials is currently limited, and its contribution to reducing emissions is relatively small. In 2022, only 0.15% of the total fuel used by Air France KLM was sustainable aviation fuel. Furthermore, there is an argument that the raw materials used for producing SAF could potentially be utilised in more environmentally friendly ways.

In summary, the prospects for air travel to become significantly more environmentally friendly remain uncertain. On the other hand, there appears to be a more promising outlook for the wider adoption of electric-powered campervans in the near future.

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