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Sustainable air travel: What you can do

Have you ever been offered to buy a carbon offset when you booked a flight? If so, did you buy it?

We all know that flying is bad for the environment. According to Our World in Data, aviation produces about 2.5% of all CO2 emissions, a greenhouse gas which contributes to global warming.

Making it more concrete, if you take a one-way flight in an economy seat from New York to Los Angeles, you are personally responsible for 0.66 tons of CO2 . A one-way flight to London from New York City emits 0.9 tons per passenger in economy. If you travel in business class, the amount nearly doubles to 1.7 tons.

Looking through a round airplane window, a blue and white KLM jet taxis by on a neighboring runway. Partly cloudy sky overhead.

According to Paloma Zapata, CEO of Sustainable Travel International, 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from tourism. This includes not only aviation but emissions from all of the other elements of the tourism industry. Think of, for example, your ground transportation and the air conditioning and water heating and laundry at your hotel and restaurants.

So either we have to quit traveling entirely – and I’m just not prepared to do that – or we need to reduce our emissions.

That’s not enough, though. The second thing we need to do is to offset whatever emissions we can’t reduce. In other words, we have to compensate for them in some way.

And thirdly, since not everyone will offset all of the emissions they produce, we need to go further: removing carbon.

Travel guilt

Travel guilt is a thing, particularly when it comes to our impact on the environment. I’ve heard of quite a few people who, even before the pandemic, gave up flying entirely, or who limit themselves to one round-trip a year. Greta Thunberg is the most well-known example: she refused to fly to speak at a climate conference and ended up traveling by sailboat instead.

I certainly feel that guilt. But I also fly a lot – or at least I did before the pandemic grounded me. Some of my flights were for work, and I would extend my stay for blogging purposes. But whether the flight is for work or leisure doesn’t matter; it still pollutes.

I deal with this guilt in a number of ways at home: we have solar panels that reduce our usage of fossil fuels in our home, and we’re planning to install a few more. We have given up beef, since cows produce a lot of methane which contributes to greenhouse gases, and we eat more vegetarian meals than we ever used to. I do my best to reduce our use of plastic packaging. We drive a hybrid car.

Against a dark blue sunset sky, a view down the wing of an aircraft. KLM logo visible on the wingtip. Below, clouds, looking dark blue because the sun is below the horizon.

Impact Travel Alliance

All of this helps in a small way, but still … I love to travel. I know it’s selfish, but I really don’t want to stop. So recently I joined the Impact Travel Alliance, a non-profit whose stated goal is “to mobilize all travelers to understand, choose and advocate for sustainable travel options.”

A request and a disclosure: In the few months I’ve been a member, I’ve learned a lot from the on-line events offered by Impact Travel Alliance, and I’d recommend joining. If you decide to join, be sure to write my name, Rachel Heller, in the blank where they ask how you heard of them. You will get three months free to try it out, and I’ll get a small commission.

Sustainable travel isn’t just about climate neutrality. It is a more holistic idea that includes supporting the people, the community and the economy of the places we visit at the same time as working toward net zero emissions.

In this article, I’d like to look just at flying: a) ways to reduce your carbon footprint while flying, b) carbon offsetting and c) carbon removal. Of course, we do a lot more things when we travel that contribute to carbon emissions. Later, in one or more separate articles, I’ll present more ways to reduce your carbon footprint when you travel, as well as to support local communities and economies.

Against a blue sky, flat land at the bottom of the picture, wooded. Center top: an EasyJet plane comes into land, its landing gear almost fully lowered.

Reducing your carbon footprint when you fly: some tips

While it’s not truly sustainable air travel, there are some small ways in which you can reduce your emissions even when you fly. Often, this has to do with which flight you book. Here are some tips:

  • Choose low-impact travel to the airport: take a train, for example, instead of driving. If you must drive, a shared taxi or shuttle bus is better than private.
  • Book a non-stop flight. Airplanes emit the most as they take off and land.
  • Book a flight that is likely to be full. A half-empty plane is less efficient and, calculated per person, you’re emitting more.
  • Fly economy. In business class or first class, you take more room and more resources so your per-person emissions are higher. (For real efficiency, airlines should eliminate business-class and first-class altogether. If no one ever bought those seats, they would stop offering them. And I admit that, given how uncomfortable economy class is, I probably wouldn’t turn down an upgrade to business if it was offered to me. If I could afford to fly business, I’d find it very hard to resist! This is why airlines won’t ever eliminate business and first class, unfortunately.)
  • Pack light. The less weight the plane is carrying, the less it emits.
  • Choose eco-friendly airlines that use the newest airplanes, which are generally better in terms of energy-efficiency and emissions. Some airlines are working to reduce their use of disposables in their in-cabin service, and are doing things like reducing seat weight for greater fuel efficiency or using more bio-fuels. Look for those.
  • Travel slowly. Don’t jet off from city to city, but rather stay and get to know a single place well.
  • Use Skyscanner to search for your flights. Check the box (bottom left on a desktop) to show flights with lower emissions, which finds the eco-friendlier flights for you. (But book your flights directly through the airline, since customer service tends to be better when you buy tickets directly.)
The screenshot has two main boxes, one above the other. Both show Virgin Atlantic flights from AMS to JFK and from JFK to AMS. Both cost 469 euros.
A partial screenshot of Skyscanner. Notice the little green stripe above each suggested AMS-JFK flight. The Dutch text translates as “Greener choice. The CO2 emissions for this flight are 8% less than the average for this search.” The Dutch text for the second flight means “For this flight 8% less CO2 is emitted.”

Carbon offsetting

Carbon offsetting is the idea that you compensate the world for the carbon and other greenhouse gases that you emit into the atmosphere. Flying is, for travelers, the biggest chunk of our total emissions, so it’s the one that gets talked about the most.

Carbon offsetting usually involves setting up and supporting projects that will have the net result of reducing greenhouse gas emissions through, for example, supporting wind farms or planting trees to remove CO2 from the air.

It’s hard, though, to know whether a project is legitimate and actually reduces greenhouse gases. If a non-profit buys a piece of deforested land in the Amazon rainforest and replants it, it may not help at all if no effort is going into stopping deforestation in other parts of the rainforest. The best projects benefit the community and local economy as well, making the project sustainable so that the community will have the incentive to ensure the project continues.

A deep blue sky, with the top of an airplain wing along the bottom of the photo. A tiny airplane in the center, with its smoke a horizontal line from the middle to the right edge of the photo

How much carbon should I offset?

It’s not hard to figure out how much carbon to offset.

  1. On this Air Miles Calculator site you can type in your departure and arrival airports to figure out how far your flights will take you.
  2. Make sure to double it if you’re traveling round-trip.
  3. Take the result and use this Sustainable Travel International calculator to see how much carbon your flight will emit.
  4. You can then pay a carbon offset provider by clicking “offset footprint” on the same site. Or you can go and find an offset project of your choice.

As an example, I typed a one-way flight between JFK airport in New York City and LAX in Los Angeles into the air miles calculator. The result is 2475 miles. Entering that number into the carbon footprint calculator generated a result of 1213 pounds of CO2 produced. The cost to offset if I use the same site is $7.10.

Finding carbon offset providers

If you don’t want to use a site like Sustainable Travel International to take care of your carbon offset, you’ll need to choose your carbon offset provider yourself. Make sure to look for a 3rd-party verification like Gold Standard, American Carbon Registry, Verified Carbon Standard, Plan Vivo, or The Climate, Community and Biodiversity Standards. They check to make sure that the carbon offset company you’re considering isn’t just a pure tree-planting program – or worse, a scam – but rather takes a holistic, long-term, sustainable approach that serves people and community as well as environment.

All of this calculating and researching before every flight is a lot of trouble and, to be honest, I’m too forgetful. That’s why I appreciate when an airline offers me the opportunity to pay for carbon offset. It makes it easy to do: usually a simple check box as you book the flight. The airlines carry out the kind of due diligence that I often mean to do, but don’t get around to.

The best thing would be if carbon offsets were built into all airfares at all airlines, rather than being an opt-in system. (And train and bus fares too, for that matter. And gasoline prices, home heating, etc.) Airlines all over the world could be required to offset their emissions. If they did, airfares would likely go up. This would increase their incentive to, for example, adopt bio-fuels, run the most efficient planes, and so on, to keep their prices down despite the added offset price and to help reduce the cost of offsetting. Truly sustainable air travel, then, could become a reality.

Text: What you can do to reduce and compensate for your CO2 emissions when you fly (and the Rachel's Ruminations logo)
Image: A blue and while KLM plane seen through a round airplane window.
Image formatted for Pinterest

What about carbon removal?

The problem with the whole carbon offset movement is that it won’t make up for all of the world’s emissions. Even if airlines were required to pay the offsets for every passenger, it would only compensate for flying, not all the rest of our activities that produce greenhouse gases.

Carbon removal is the next step. Replanting is a form of removal, since it helps remove CO2 from the air. It’s not happening fast enough, though, to remove enough. Through the Impact Travel Alliance, I became aware of a non-profit organization called Tomorrow’s Air, a collective focused on carbon removal. Tomorrow’s Air works with a company called Climeworks. They build machines that use renewable energy (geothermal and waste heat) to take carbon dioxide out of the air. At their site in Switzerland they sell the carbon on for industrial uses. At their Iceland site, they inject it into the ground, where it is mineralized. In other words, it turns solid.

It’s clear that carbon removal will need to be done on a far greater scale worldwide until we can reach carbon neutrality by using alternative energy sources. More companies will get into the business of carbon removal, developing increasingly efficient ways of doing it. Elon Musk just announced the XPrize Carbon Removal contest, offering $100 million for practical carbon removal solutions.

The problem will be paying for carbon removal. We can help in our small way by, along with carbon offsetting, contributing to carbon removal as well.

I have subscribed to Tomorrow’s Air to purchase carbon removal on a monthly basis. It’s not a lot, but it’ll help. I encourage you to purchase carbon removal too!

What to do now

In the meantime, when airlines offer carbon offsets, I will continue to pay for them. For sustainable air travel to truly happen, both efforts – offsetting and removal – need to happen at the same time, along with improvements in aviation technology. If you fly, please do the same!

Do you pay for offsets or avoid flying? What are your thoughts on the emissions that aviation produces? Add a comment below!

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