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How the Sharing Economy Helps in the Fight Against Climate Change

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The sharing economy is a favorite talking point in many travel circles, especially as sharing homes, cars, and meals through companies like HomeExchange.com, Uber, and EatWith grows in popularity and reach. The Climate Change Conference in Paris is a helpful reminder that the "collaborative consumption" movement, which helps find more productive uses for underutilized assets, is having a transformative effect on travelers' wallets and minds, as well as the environment.

Especially in light of growing concerns about the pace of human-driven changes to our planet, the sharing economy's positive environmental impact is not to be dismissed. There are many ways that it helps to limit climate change by encouraging sustainable travel.

First, it supports efforts to keep tourism's overall carbon output in check. According to a study conducted by the Cleantech Group, trips that rely on home sharing companies, including bed-and-breakfasts, emit 66 percent less CO2 than trips using hotels, including hotels that have earned five-star efficiency ratings. This is because fewer resources are used to care for travelers. For instance, most of the water used by hotels is for cleaning, laundry, cooking, and other related activities; however, in one year alone, American guests using Airbnb saved 270 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of water. European guests saved 1,100 pools worth of water.

The reduction of emissions is also correlated to a decrease in new hotel construction. With more travelers lodging in existing homes during their trips, hotel developers don't need to build new high-rises or add new wings. With fewer new constructions, historic areas receive less pressure and untouched natural resources are more likely to remain intact.

While the sharing economy helps reduce waste, it also inspires travelers to recycle more while vacationing. Eighty-nine percent of Europeans and 95 percent of Americans recycled at least one item during their trips in the last year. Of additional note is the growing number of shared homes with energy-efficient appliances. At least one energy-efficient appliance was installed in 83 percent of American home sharing homes and 79 percent of European homes.

Food preparation can weigh heavily on the environment too. With a full kitchen right at hand, individuals and families sharing a home are more likely to purchase fresh local produce and prepare their own meals, wasting very few ingredients. Eating at home is often more energy and resource efficient than eating out or ordering room service. And it can be just as fun, if not more so. Companies like EatWith facilitate arranging a dinner at the homes of local chefs, so travelers can have the best of all worlds. Many travelers have commented that there's no better way to discover a region than to shop and eat like locals, or even with locals.

Another way that the sharing economy promotes sustainability is by supporting local businesses. Travelers who choose home exchanges have funds to spare since they don't cough up $100 to $300 a night at hotels. These extra funds are not only spent at local businesses such as restaurants, entertainment venues, tour companies etc., they go toward the bottom line of a broader variety of businesses. An entire community can benefit from a single individual's vacation, not just one hotel.

Transportation is having an immense impact on local economies and environments around the world. However, the sharing economy is changing that as well. Researchers at UC Berkeley conducted a shared-use vehicle survey and found that for every one car made widely available for sharing, more than 10 are taken off of cities' congested freeways. Vehicle sharing is often part of home sharing. That can provide big savings for travelers. Keep in mind, though, that if a vehicle isn't available with a home share, numerous other options like Uber, Lyft, Sidecar, and Rideshare make it easier, less expensive and more ecological to get around than renting a car. And American and European travelers who share homes are 10 to 15 percent more likely to walk, bike, or take public transportation than to drive their own vehicles anyway.

The sharing economy is going to play an important role in the future of tourism. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, global tourism is predicted to increase 3.7 percent in 2015 versus 2014. New destinations are opening, accompanied by new investment opportunities, as tourism becomes more affordable in the developing world. In order for tourism growth to remain sustainable, however, the industry needs to implement environmental and economic safeguards that limit unnecessary consumption. As the sharing economy grows, so will evidence of its environmental and community benefits. And as more niche markets in the sharing economy form, more options will be available for travelers, potentially creating a rich, diverse, and more environmentally sound industry.

Many of the statistics mentioned in this article were sourced from Cleantech Group's recent study on the home sharing economy's impact on the environment. See full study results here.

Follow Jim Pickell on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jimpickell