Not always the most comfortable, but certainly the cheapest option: Online networks have made it possible to find hosts willing to accommodate travelers for free or low cost. The emergence of such platforms has strongly facilitated traveling, triggering a rise in overall air travels and resulting in higher greenhouse gas emissions.
Couchsurfing and Airbnb are homestay networks through which holidaymakers can book short-term accommodation in residential properties, staying together with owners. The platforms offer reasonably priced or free accommodation and have reached out to millions of customers globally.
While Airbnb has released numerous studies analysing their economic and social impact on communities, it has also published a study on the company’s environmental effect and promotes its business philosophy as a more environmentally friendly way to travel. The study compares stays at Airbnb properties to ordinary hotel stays with regard to energy consumption, greenhouse gas emission, water use, waste production, sustainability awareness, and chemical use. Findings show that staying at Airbnb properties reduces all of the mentioned consumption aspects significantly. As an example, it is stated that North American Airbnb properties consume 63% less energy per night and guest than average hotels. Stays reduce waste compared to hotels by 32%. Furthermore, the accommodation results in greenhouse gas emissions reductions by 61% per guest per night (Airbnb, 2014). These are impressive figures.
However, the study does not capture that homestay networks have a strong potential to incentivise traveling in general due to low costs; by offering much cheaper accommodation than average-priced hotel rooms, consumers have a stronger purchasing power in terms of holidays and are likely to travel much more than prior to the launch of such networks. More travellers obviously engender more greenhouse gas emissions, which are caused by air travel to a large extent. While the study shows that the per capita greenhouse gas emissions are lower when staying in Airbnb homes, it does not give information about the total figures including people who were only able to travel due to the cheap homestay option. In fact, the surge in travellers might potentially outweigh the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions achieved by staying in Air BnB properties and lead to an overall higher total of greenhouse gas emissions than prior to the launch of these accommodation platforms. This argument becomes clear when recalling today’s travel costs: due to retail discounters like Aldi and low-cost airlines such as Ryanair, it is not any more food or the airfare, but mostly accommodation that makes holidays expensive. Just as the emergence of low-cost airlines has led to a surge in traveling and greenhouse gas emissions, homestay networks drive this trend further. They, therefore, contribute to a greater mobility across the globe with all its negative aspects.
According to McKinsey, the total spending of the global middle class of $6.9 trillion in 2010 will have tripled in a single decade – to roughly $20 trillion by 2020 (2010). If we imagine this rise of the global consumer class’s spending to continue for the years to come and combine this with ever cheaper travel expenses, this is likely to threaten the Paris Agreement’s 2-degree trajectory.
Couchsurfing and Airbnb have made traveling on a shoestring possible. This opportunity provides anybody with holiday destinations regardless of one’s financial means. Personally, I think that these are great companies which have revolutionised traveling from a social, economic and environmental perspective, as shown by the previously presented figures. However, from my own experience and the experience of many friends, networks such as Couchsurfing and Air BnB strongly facilitate holidaymaking to an extent that many people actually travel more than prior to the emergence of these platforms. While this is highly appreciated from a subjective point of view, there are negative externalities for society and the environment due to increased air travel. I would not have traveled to as many countries as I have, had there not been the cheap option to stay in private properties found on Couchsurfing or Airbnb.
Just as the emergence of low-cost airlines has led to a surge in traveling and greenhouse gas emissions, homestay networks drive this trend further. However, although these platforms have triggered a rise in overall travels, they are not to blame for its consequences. Ultimately, it is the consumer who decides how frequently to go on holidays. Unfortunately, our growing opportunities come along with increased responsibilities.
By Julius Kup
Air BnB (2014) Environmental Impacts of Home Sharing [Online] Air BnB. Available from: http://blog.airbnb.com/environmental-impacts-of-home-sharing/ [Accessed 16/10/2016].
David, C. and Laxman, N. (2010) Capturing the World’s Emerging Middle Class. McKinsey Quarterly, July 2010. Available from: http://www.mckinsey.com [Accessed 16/10/2016]