The Cost of Traveling by Air

Travelers have a lot to consider when planning a trip home for the holidays — Will the flight have Wi-Fi? Who will feed the cat while I’m gone? — but one thing they might not think about is the impact their traveling has on the environment.

Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur award-winning author and writer Jack Miles wants to change that.

In 2015, Miles contributed to “Bending the Curve,” a report on climate stability compiled by the University of California (UC). The focus of his contribution was the importance of communicating climate issues in a way that will motivate people to change their behavior.

In an article published by The Washington Post in November, Miles outlines one such behavioral change, laying it out right in the article’s title: “For the Love of Earth, Stop Traveling.”

Global Warming Scenarios
Click to View Full Infographic

In the article, Miles notes how he used an online calculator provided by MyClimate, a Swiss non-profit focused on effective climate protection, to determine the carbon footprint of traveling to speak at an event in Morocco.

Based on his calculations, round-trip flights for he and his wife would pump 7.6 tonnes (16,800 pounds) of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. For comparison, he notes that the two generate an annual carbon footprint of about 14.9 tonnes (33,000 pounds) through their normal yearly activities, such as electricity usage, ground transportation, and waste disposal.

In other words, a single trip via airplane would increase the Miles’ carbon footprint for the year by more than 50 percent.

As Miles writes, “The harm we did with one international trip surely neutralized any good that we did all year as recyclers, eco-consumers, and financial contributors to environmental organizations.”

Staying Grounded

Kai Landwehr, MyClimate’s Head of Marketing, told Futurism that air travel, including air freight, accounts for 2 to 3 percent of global CO2 emissions, and within the next decade, that figure is expected to double.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that greenhouse gas emissions are driving climate change more significantly than anything else. Reducing the amount of CO2 we each pump into the atmosphere could go a long way toward stopping or even reversing the damage we’re doing to the planet.

Landwehr said we’ll need to become a “low carbon emissions society” to reach global emission goals and stop global warming. Members of this society would need to limit their yearly CO2 emissions to 2 tonnes (4,409 pounds).

A single economy-class round-trip flight from New York to Paris would exceed that by about .2 tonnes (440 pounds), so this could prove difficult, if not impossible, for anyone whose livelihood depends on travel. However, staying grounded isn’t the only way to help the environment.

Those who must fly can help reduce their emissions by flying coach, booking through airlines that use biofuels, or only taking non-stop flights. They can also purchase carbon offsets for their flights, essentially donating a set amount of money corresponding to the damage caused by their specific travel plans to a non-profit or company focused on environmental initiatives.

Some airlines, such as Delta, United, and JetBlue, allow fliers to purchase these offsets directly on their sites. However, Landwehr said airlines need to do a better job of providing this service.

“The most crucial aspect is an easy, smooth, and customer-friendly integration in the booking process,” he told Futurism. “Today, even with our partners, it is not that comfortable for clients to offset their emissions. The offsetting platforms are hidden or appear when the booking process is already finished.”

For airlines that don’t offer carbon offsetting, travelers can use a calculator like the MyClimate one Miles referenced in his article.

The flyer inputs the details of their travel, such as their destination and flight class. The calculator then automatically translates that environmental cost into a financial one. The CO2 emissions from that New York to Paris trip, for example, translate to $67. The traveler can then donate that amount of money to one of the initiatives suggested by the website.

“It’s a ‘polluters pay’ principle,” said Landwehr. “You are causing harm to the environment, so you pay to balance out this harm to the environment.”

Still, the best way to reduce emissions related to air travel is to not travel. As Miles noted in his article, technology can help in this goal. Instead of traveling to conferences, workers can participate via livestream. Training sessions and meeting can be conducted virtually, and shorter work trips can be completed via train or car instead of airplane.

As for personal travel, spending the holidays at home or taking vacations within driving distance is the best option. For some, wanting to help save the planet could prove to be a great excuse for avoiding the in-laws next December.