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Air Travel and Your Carbon Footprint

As Americans reemerge from the pandemic, many are ready to jump on a plane and escape their home for a more glamorous, exotic setting. During Thanksgiving alone, AAA estimates that air travel will reach pre-pandemic levels with 4.2 million people traveling by plane.

air travel carbon footprint

Flying, however, is one area where your personal carbon footprint can be quite substantial. A roundtrip flight from New York to Los Angeles emits roughly 1.15 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per person. When you consider that the average American’s carbon footprint is 16 tons of CO2, you can see how your greenhouse gas emissions quickly add up and contribute to climate change.

So how does the eco-conscious consumer resolve the desire to fly with the environmental consequences of choosing to do so? Below are some suggestions for navigating this conundrum.

Compare Flying With Other Travel Alternatives

Before you automatically select flying as the mode of transportation for your next trip, calculate and contrast your CO2 emissions from air travel with the emissions that would be accrued from other transportation options. ClimateCare has a helpful calculator that estimates your emissions for air travel and a variety of road transportation types like motorcycles, trains, subways, etc. And if you don’t mind converting your miles to kilometers, GoClimate also has a straightforward travel emissions calculator that includes estimates for travel by boat.

Stay Closer to Home

In most cases, taking a train or driving will have a much lower carbon footprint than flying. The advantages of these options are that you can sight-see along the way and make your journey more of an adventure!

If You Must Fly, Do These 3 Things

If you’ve done the homework recommended above and have come to the conclusion that flying is your only option, then take these steps to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions:

  1. Take a nonstop flight, if possible - Flying direct will cut down on the emissions of taking off and landing multiple times when you have layovers.

  2. Fly economy rather than business or first class - Business and first class seats cover more space on a plane and and weigh more, so their carbon footprint is higher than flying economy.

  3. Choose an airline that uses the newest aircraft available for your flights - Newer fleets are likely to be more fuel-efficient than older models and generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon Offsets: Are They Worth Buying?

The idea of being able to compensate for your air travel by purchasing carbon offsets—that support programs like reforestation or creating renewable energy to “remove” the CO2 that you just emitted through your flight—is very appealing. Unfortunately, the reality of carbon offsets isn’t as clear cut.

Many carbon offset programs are run through nonprofits. As with any organization, some are more effectively managed than others. To make certain your carbon offsets are in capable hands and truly doing what they were intended to do, look for organizations that have been verified by third-party certification programs like Gold Standard, Green-e Climate, or others.

And although carbon offsets may ease your conscience and somewhat help the environment, they can simply serve as a justification for continuing to emit high levels of greenhouse gases through flying. Instead, be good to your carbon footprint by saving your air travel for special occasions and using other travel alternatives for the rest of your adventures.


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