Home away from home: What is the carbon impact of staying at an Airbnb versus a hotel?

The Empress Hotel in Victoria, BC.

Traveling is one of life’s great pleasures. It allows us to explore different cultures, connect with people for work and lets us visit friends and family. The downside is that travel is also carbon intensive; from flights, to ground transportation and hotel stays, these activities have significant environmental impacts and carbon emissions associated with them. We’ll leave flights and transportation for another post, but how should you decide where to stay when you arrive at your destination? Can staying in an Airbnb or other vacation rental help reduce your impact relative to staying in a hotel?

At first, I thought this question would be pretty easy to answer, but as I did more reading and research, it became harder for me to be sure (side note: I think there’s all kinds of reasons to be worried about Airbnb from an economic and social perspective; I’m setting those concerns aside and mostly focusing on the environmental impact of Airbnb versus hotels). My initial research seemed clear. I tweeted at Airbnb (it worked! They replied!! I was very excited), and they pointed me to a report they commissioned from a consulting firm called CleanTech Group in 2014, and which they updated in 2017. The report suggests that Airbnb guests consume significantly fewer resources than traditional hotel guests; in Europe, the report indicates that Airbnb travelers diverted 1.6 million cars worth of emissions and reduced waste by 81,200 tons and that in the US, CO2 emissions were reduced by 228,000 cars and 41,300 tons (in Europe, emissions per car per year were estimated at 1.76 tons, and in the US, at 4.75 tons).

But, I read the whole 2017 report, and I have to say as a scientist, I was underwhelmed. The methodologies are not described in nearly enough detail to really assess if the results are meaningful or not. The report was generated using survey responses from hosts; beyond details about the numbers of hosts surveyed and some of their conversions, the report is very light on actual methodological details. For example, there were no real details given about how calculations were made about the energy consumed in a typical residential home versus a hotel. And given that the survey was paid for by Airbnb, I’m not sure how reliable its results are.

When thinking about hotel stays, I think the most important thing to consider is the additional environmental impact of staying somewhere that is not your home. Most of the time, I have one carbon footprint; I have my house that I live in, and I consume energy there. When I stay at a hotel or Airbnb elsewhere, I’m effectively consuming two footprints worth of carbon emissions. Then, the question becomes, what is the difference in carbon emissions and the environmental cost of staying at an Airbnb relative to a hotel (given that by staying outside of my house, I’m already adding to my carbon footprint for the day); this question is a lot harder to answer. It’s possible that Airbnb might be taking advantage of inefficiencies in the housing market, increasing supply for short-term places to stay and making it less attractive to use resources to build hotels.  Also, since my host (might) still live in the building with me, and would be heating their house even if I wasn’t staying there, then maybe Airbnb is helping the environment and reduce the environmental impact of tourism. If, however, Airbnb is simply brokering me booking a whole house that would sit unoccupied and unheated if I weren’t staying there, then that seems less beneficial. This article, published in the Small Business Institute Journal, outlines a helpful framework for studying the incentives that affect the environmental impact of the sharing economy, suggesting that the way incentives are structured in the sharing economy might help encourage conservation (ie. a homeowner pays their own water bill, and thus might rate guests who conserve water more highly than guests who are profligate water consumers).

There are others reasons that Airbnbs may help reduce waste and energy consumption; most hosts are not going to come wash your sheets and towels daily, which likely reduces water consumption at an Airbnb. Airbnb discourages the use of those little shampoo and lotion bottles you’ll find at hotels, which certainly helps reduce waste. Many hosts offer recycling to their guests. And this academic study, done for a course at UCLA, suggests that residential buildings that are rented on Airbnb are less environmentally impactful than hotel construction and operation. But one of the things that can make Airbnbs fun, that every listing is unique, also makes it hard to enforce or verify claims that the company makes about their listings.

In response to consumer preferences, many hotels are trying to become more environmentally friendly. A study in 2018 (subscription required) calculated that global tourism contributes to 8% of carbon emissions. Much of that is from flying, but hotels contribute as well. As consumer knowledge of climate change has increased, so has the demand for sustainable options, with a booking.com survey suggesting that 87% of respondents indicating an interest in sustainable travel. Most major hotel chains have implemented some kind of climate-conscious measures in their business practices. Hilton has announced plans to cut its environmental impact in half by 2030, the Marriott chain lists a number of sustainability efforts in their portfolio and Kimpton hotels offers a number of properties that are LEED certified, among other environmentally conscious actions. The benefit of large hotel chains is of course that they can implement changes at scale across many properties, and can be certified more easily by independent organizations.

So, what’s a traveler to do? As usual, there’s no magic bullet for eliminating your carbon emissions when traveling. But, here are some tips that I think are most practical:

My tent at a campsite near Aspen, CO- much more economical than a hotel for that trip!
  1. Reduce your “first footprint” emissions while you’re away. Turn down your thermostat and hot water heater before you leave if you’ll be gone for more than a couple of days, and unplug as many appliances as you can that will suck power while you’re not using them.
  2. If it makes sense for your trip, camp rather than staying at a hotel or Airbnb. This obviously isn’t feasible for every trip and situation, but staying at a campsite is definitely a low-impact option!
  3. Do some research to choose your hotel or Airbnb before you book. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) sets standards for environmental and social responsibility for the tourism industry. They have links for travelers to find destinations and accommodations that are more sustainable than other options. If you’re staying at an Airbnb, ask your host what environmentally friendly options they offer- do they have solar panels on their house? Can you borrow a bike from them to get around?  
  4. Keep doing the environmentally conscious things you’d do at home. Take public transportation! Walk or bike! Turn off the lights! Don’t crank the thermostat to wild temperatures. Think about whether you need a car rental, and if so, rent a car with good fuel economy. Bring your own toiletries so you aren’t creating extra waste using little single use bottles.
  5. Ask your host or hotel about what sustainable practices they do, and whether they can do more. The hotel industry is changing because of pressure from consumers; asking about environmental practices or tweeting at your hotel (maybe not as appropriate for an Airbnb host!) is a good reminder that consumers care about this topic!
  6. Keep in mind that your flights will be the most carbon-intensive part of your trip. Take non-stop flights if you can, and plan trips closer to home to reduce your emissions. I’m planning to purchase offsets for all my flights at the end of this year; when I do, I’ll follow up with a post about how I decided where to buy my offsets from.  

I think that I broadly agree that Airbnb is a modestly better option from an environmental impact perspective than staying in a hotel, so when it makes sense, I’ll favor an Airbnb over a hotel. But, I think that it’s a marginal difference in resource consumption, and I’m excited to have found the GSTC website, which I’ll definitely use as a resource next time I need to book a hotel for a trip.

A few other good resources:

10 Easy Ways to Travel Green

Eco-friendly Hotel ChainsThis article outlines the many ripple effects Airbnb has on communities (just one article out of a lot of reporting on this, but I think important points for any discussion about Airbnb)

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