by Oliver Smith, The Telegraph, June 5, 2018
To mark World Environment Day, we’re taking a tour of the world’s most eco-friendly destinations.
Environmentally-friendly travel is something on an oxymoron, of course - just staying put is one sure-fire way to reduce your carbon footprint. But travel is one of the life’s great pleasures. It broadens the mind and - done right - can be hugely beneficial to the local population. A far better idea is to adapt how we travel to lessen our impact.
Consider train travel over flights. Amsterdam, Bruges, Bordeaux, Lyon, Strasbourg and Cologne are just a few of the gems that can be reached by rail in under six hours from London. Cut back on frequent short breaks - and all those flights - in favour of longer jaunts. Hire a bike, don’t hail a taxi, and look for eco-friendly accommodation.
Or choose one of the following destinations. Some are recommended by the non-profit organisation, Ethical Traveler, which produces an annual list of the 10 best countries to visit, based on human rights records, social welfare provisions and environmental protection. Others appear at the upper end of the 2018 Environmental Performance Index, which ranks 180 countries according to “environmental health and ecosystem vitality”.
Switzerland topped the 2018 Environmental Performance Index (EPI), produced by the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy, ahead of France and Denmark. According to the report: “Switzerland’s top ranking reflects strong performance across most issues, especially Climate & Energy and Air Pollution. Within Environmental Health, Switzerland also stands out in Water & Sanitation.”
With a backdrop of tranquil lakes, quaint mountain villages and the majestic Alps, along with a host of medieval towns and ski resorts, Switzerland remains a favourite for both summer and winter holidaymakers. It has also previously been named the “world’s happiest country”.
There are eco-lodges galore in Belize - Leonardo DiCaprio is building one right now, on Blackadore Caye - while 36.6 per cent of the country is protected by law. “In June, the Belize government made major voluntary commitments at the UN Oceans Conference to secure Belize’s fisheries as an engine for sustainable development, while in October, the government established the first-ever nationwide ray sanctuary and introduced legislation for a moratorium on offshore drilling,” the Ethical Traveler explains in its 2018 report.
The big draw here is diving - the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System is a World Heritage Site and the Blue Hole one of the world’s great dive sites - but there’s also the Maya ruins of Caracol to explore. And, as a former British colony, it is the only English-speaking country in Central America.
“One joy of travelling here is how empty Belize seems,” Nigel Tisdall wrote after a recent visit for Telegraph Travel. “While neighbouring Mexico and Guatemala are famously populous and exuberant, here the roads are quiet, the beaches relaxed, the archaeological sites often blissfully free of crowds.”
No country on Earth belches out less CO2 per capita – 0.06 tonnes, compared with 6.31 in the UK and 35.73 in Qatar, the worst country on the International Energy Agency (IEA) emissions list.
It comes in at number three on the EPI. The report explains: “Within Environmental Health, Denmark, Malta, and Sweden stand out for high scores in Air Quality. On Ecosystem Vitality, France, Denmark, and Malta earn top scores in the issue category of Biodiversity & Habitat. France and Denmark rank first in marine protected areas.”
“Beyond its capital, Denmark’s charms are primarily maritime, historic and bucolic. You’re seldom far from the coast and some surprisingly lovely beaches. The timber-framed houses of harbour towns such as Faaborg and Svenborg on sleepy Odense give way to gently rolling farmland and woods,” he adds.
No country on Earth - bar Venezuela, which is currently off-limits due to economic woes and civil unrest - safeguards more of its land than Slovenia. Almost 54 per cent of it is protected, according to data compiled by the World Bank. It also ranks a respectable 28th on the EPI.
“Tiny Slovenia has a store of attractions and activities – from Venetian coastal towns to white-water rafting – to rival a country many times its size,” says Telegraph Travel’s Slovenia expert Steve Fallon. “Though Slavic to the core, it has a cuisine, a culture and even architecture that has been greatly influenced by its neighbours, Italy, Austria and Hungary. The incredible mixture of climates here brings warm Mediterranean breezes up to the foothills of the Alps, where it can nonetheless snow even in summer. And with more than half of its total area covered in forest, Slovenia really is one of the greenest countries in the world.”
The Ethical Traveler includes Chile in its 10 best. “Chile is actively increasing its solar power capacity and also relies on geothermal power,” it says. “Additionally, the Chilean government rejected plans for a billion-dollar mining project because of its potential environmental impact.” Earlier this year, meanwhile, the Chilean government unveiled five new national parks in Patagonia and the expansion of three others, creating a 17-park route stretching down the southern half of the country to Cape Horn.
“Long, skinny Chile is an amazing self-drive destination,” says our expert, Chris Moss. “The Pan-American Highway (Route 5) runs from the Peruvian border to Puerto Montt in the south, linking up wonderful offbeat cities such as Iquique, La Serena and Valdivia with the capital, Santiago, and its more arty, attractive sister city, Valparaíso. Choose your section – say, Atacama for the desert and stargazing, or the Lake District for great walking – or drive the whole thing in a couple of weeks. Side roads lead to the volcanoes and high plains along the Bolivian border or deep into the Elqui valley, where the national liquor pisco is distilled and where it never seems to rain.”
It was number one on the EPI back in 2016 (it now sits 10th) and is the second least polluting country in terms of CO2 per capita. “Finland’s goal of consuming 38 per cent of their final energy from renewable sources by 2020 is legally binding, and they already produce nearly two-thirds of their electricity from renewable or nuclear power sources,” said the 2016 EPI report.
Furthermore, Finland has more forest per square mile than any country in Europe, and its capital, Helsinki, has embarked on an ambitious project to make motor vehicle ownership obsolete by 2025.
“Finland is elemental, otherworldy, empty. In a good way,” says Andrew Stone. “North of its buzzing capital Helsinki, great tracts of wilderness stretch seemingly uninhabited and unexplored. It is the ideal place to lose yourself in the expanses of forest and lake, go on bear watching tours, spot golden eagles. In the far north you can explore the Arctic Circle’s ecosystems or enjoy winter sports from ice fishing to skidoo racing and bathe in the eerie glow of the Northern Lights.”
“Costa Rica has set a goal of carbon neutrality by 2021, and for the first half of 2017, nearly 100 per cent of its electricity came from renewable sources such as hydropower, wind, solar, and geothermal,” the Ethical Traveler says. “Plans for a new El Diquís dam, which, even though it would increase the country’s renewable energy capacity, would have a devastating impact on the lands of indigenous communities, were blocked in court.”
Because it is one of the greatest destinations for wildlife in the world, with turtles, sloths, monkeys and resplendent quetzals to spot, and has sandy beaches and spectacular volcanoes.
“Green, serene, wild and wondrous, Costa Rica is many people’s first choice for an initial foray into Central America,” adds Chris Moss, our Latin America expert. “Adored by intrepid travellers and those who like to combine some comfort with their hikes and horseback rides, it’s a safe and relatively small country that packs in a lot of experiences.”
Vanuatu and Palau
These two South Pacific nations - the former to the north east of Australia, the latter to the west of the Philippines - are both difficult to reach (a couple of flights is a must) but appear on the Ethical Traveler list. Of Vanuatu, it said: “The government recently adopted a comprehensive policy to ensure conservation and sustainable management of its ecosystems, address risks posed by natural and man-made disasters, and foster and maintain their diverse human cultures. Additionally, the prime minister has called for a ban on the use and import of single-use plastic bags and bottles; if implemented, Vanuatu would become the first country in the Pacific region to impose such a ban.”
It adds: “To protect marine life, the Palau government has set aside about 80 per cent of its maritime territory as a sanctuary and has encouraged locals to turn to aquaculture, such as crab and milkfish farming. Over-tourism and its resulting environmental damage is a growing problem worldwide, and Palau is tackling it with some far-reaching changes. The government aims to promote high-value growth instead of high-volume growth, curbing the number of tourists visiting but increasing the amount they spend during their stay. In addition, visitors must sign the Palau Pledge to act responsibly to protect the island’s natural and cultural heritage.”
For Robinson Crusoe-style escapism. Palau is pure Bounty advert territory, with pristine beaches, world-class scuba diving, and forest-covered volcanic islands. Vanuatu is a country that worships Prince Philip and invented bungee jumping.