Are sailing trips really eco-responsible?

October 25, 2021

Europe’s #1 platform for sailboat travel – Sailsquare – conducted a comparative carbon emissions survey of the main means of travel in order to demonstrate the relevance of Greta Thunberg’s approach but also to highlight the degree of eco-responsibility of sailboat travel as a tourism and transportation alternative.

The results of the survey show that the carbon footprint of the 7,000 km traveled by the 16-year-old activist across the Atlantic Ocean is close to zero, similar to a Paris-New York bike ride. More generally, sailing boats appear to be the most environmentally friendly solution for traveling. In addition to being 15x less polluting than flying, sailboat cruises are part of the Slow Travel trend: a new way of traveling that is more sustainable, more local, more responsible and more authentic.

The carbon impact of Greta Thunberg’s transatlantic journey is close to that of a Paris to New York bike ride!

Greta Thunberg recently disembarked in New York after a 15-day Atlantic crossing aboard skipper Boris Herrmann’s zero-emission racing yacht. Often criticized for her carbon impact during her air travel, the 16-year-old activist has decided to strike hard by embarking on this adventure to join the UN climate summit that will begin on September 23. According to our estimates, the carbon footprint of his trip is really close to zero with less than 1g of CO2 emitted per passenger per km.

This environmental performance was achieved through the use of sail as the sole means of propulsion throughout the journey (7,000km) and through the innovative electrical technology available on the Malizia boat on which she boarded. The solar panels and the hydroelectric generator made it possible to produce enough energy for the crossing (autopilot, on-board computers, hydraulic jacks) without having to use a generator. Minimal CO2 emissions therefore emanate from the use of the engine for departure and arrival at the ports.This voyage is a real sporting and technological challenge that Greta Thunberg, Boris Herrmann and his Malizia team took up. It is an exemplary project that amplifies the message embodied by Greta of a global awareness of issues related to climate and environmental protection” comments Maxime Courtaigne, international manager of Sailsquare.

Sailboats are 15x more environmentally friendly than air travel

Not all boats are equipped with the latest solutions in electrical generation, which is why a trip on a classic sailboat shows a slightly higher carbon impact than Greta. The comfort on board modern sailing boats requires more energy to operate (refrigerator, audio system, kitchen) and therefore significantly more emissions. According to our estimates, the carbon footprint of a sailboat trip, however, remains far more environmentally friendly than all other modes of transportation in terms of CO2. This low environmental impact is reinforced by the fact that “on a sailboat, a micro-society is set up, codified by saving water reserves, using energy sparingly and consuming fresh and local produce. Resources are to be used sparingly and so it is not possible to take long showers, leave the lights on or stay for hours in front of a screen” adds Marine Guillot, head of Sailsquare France. 

The carbon footprint of a trip does not capture all of the environmental impacts of a mode of transportation. It is important to include in the equation the infrastructure required for their use (airports, stations, roads, ports, etc.), maintenance operations (oil changes, protective paint, replacement of parts, etc.) and the negative externalities generated by use (noise pollution from a road, displacement of people during the construction of a railroad, damage to the seabed by an anchor, etc.). Although there are still many improvements to be made, sailing trips show very low levels of pollution, much lower than other tourism and transportation alternatives. 

The Slow travel: a new way of traveling that is more sustainable, local and responsible.

This initiative by Greta Thunberg raises many thoughts about our travel habits and their impacts on the environment. Air travel, distant destinations, mass tourism, cruise ships: more and more voices are being raised for the emergence of new ways of traveling that are more sustainable, more local, more responsible and more authentic. The slow travel is a notion that emerged in the 2000s. In the same way that slow food is opposed to fast food, slow travel is a way of traveling at a slower pace, off the beaten path, on the bangs of most of the offerings offered by the tourism industry in recent years.

Living a slow vacation is first and foremost about adopting a new state of mind by listening to our deepest aspirations, designing a trip that truly resembles us and respects our values. This new trend also invites to become aware of its impact on the environment when traveling. It is therefore about thinking about a respectful mobility. “At a time when everything is going very fast, when we need to do as much as possible, we sometimes need to slow down and take it easy. This state of mind relies on a new luxury, that of taking one’s time. For those who have never experienced it, it must be difficult to imagine a moment of total disconnection. We often say to ourselves during the vacations that we are going to rest, to disconnect… in reality, it is often the opposite that happens. On a boat, in the middle of the ocean, we find this luxury. That’s the magic of sailing vacations” concludes Marine Guillot, Sailsquare’s French manager. 

Survey: detailed results and calculations

The primary sources of information used for this report are:

  • BEIS UK: for all information related to CO2 emissions by transport mode
  • Vestforsk: for information related to CO2 emissions for ocean liners
  • Boris Herrmann: for all information related to the sailing ship Malizia and Greta Thunberg’s adventure

The data related to emissions from a sailing trip and Greta Thunberg’s transatlantic voyage were calculated under these assumptions: