That return flight you took from New York to London probably seemed inconsequential, in the grand scheme of things. Six or seven hours each way, a few hundred dollars (maybe you paid in miles?), a few days of jet lag. A small price to pay to cross an ocean, see the sights, and then head back home again.
But here’s another way of thinking about it. Your economy class seat on that one return flight put an extra 1.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide in the air—about as much as taking a round-trip 15-mile commute every day for a year in a fuel-efficient car. By some calculations, it cost the future world as much as $60 worth of damage, or was equivalent to a reduction in polar summer sea ice cover by roughly the area of a downstairs bathroom or office cubicle.
The Dutch call it vliegschaamte; in Swedish, it’s flygskam, the Germans say Flugscham. “Flight shame,” in literal English, is the sinking feeling of guilt you get when you realize your trip to Miami or Lisbon might be turfing a polar bear out of its home. The connection between our jet-setting lifestyles, and a planet going up in smoke, is getting harder for many people to ignore.
Some Europeans are skipping flying altogether in favor of less harmful overland travel: buses, trains, cars. The Swedish national train company SJ last year reported a record 31.8 million customers (pdf), in a country of about 10 million people. Meanwhile, Dutch airline KLM is encouraging its passengers to “fly responsibly,” and consider bringing fewer bags, buying carbon offsets, or even opting out of flying altogether.
But in countries such as the US, with more land to traverse and less reliable public transport connections, avoiding flying is a bit harder. Overland rail travel, where it exists, may be unreliable, expensive, and slow, while driving such long distances is often simply unfeasible. And though your accounting department might thank you for pushing for more remote meetings and fewer pointless flights, there are many professional and personal situations in which it simply isn’t feasible not to board a plane. (Cruise ships are even more environmentally damaging than planes, if you’re looking for other options.) So, what’s a traveller to do?
There is no quicker way to reduce your emissions than by not flying. Opting out of that return flight from New York to London, for instance, would reduce your emissions by significantly more than giving up beef for a year. By contrast, switching off the lights when you’re out of a room, or unplugging your phone charger when you aren’t using it barely even register. (One surefire way to limit your emissions is to opt out of having kids.) Moreover, choosing not to fly, and telling other people about your choice, lends climate action credibility, helping to encourage collective action, which in turn may lead to policy change.
In lieu of stopping altogether, there are small changes that can help. Takeoff is the most fuel-intensive part of flying—if your lifestyle means a flying ban isn’t realistic, minimizing stopovers and flying directly will help. Opt for economy (or feel quietly superior about it, even if you had no real choice): a single US domestic round-trip flight in first class can contribute more greenhouse gas emissions than a whole year of driving, in terms of the carbon footprint of the seat. Try to vacation locally where you can, keep weekend trips to a minimum, or consider taking the train, despite the longer travel time.
This table with data from the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics lays out the difference:
You can take some small comfort in the fact that air travel is only a tiny part of the problem. Airplanes contribute about 2.5% to global emissions—and while that seems certain to soar as more people fly, it’s nothing compared to the effects of agriculture or the burning of coal, natural gas, and oil for electricity. Grounding every plane in the world would still only make a very small dent in our emissions targets, which is why it’s worth looking at much wider structural overhaul.
That’s part of the reason why some people argue that, while we should all be doing our bit, individual lifestyle changes like not flying or deciding to not have children shouldn’t be the primary or even a significant part of the fight against climate chaos.
“A fixation on voluntary action alone takes the pressure off of the push for governmental policies to hold corporate polluters accountable,” writes climate scientist Michael Mann. “In fact, one recent study suggests that the emphasis on smaller personal actions can actually undermine support for the substantive climate policies needed.”
Taking a broader view, even the best possible personal actions have a negligible impact, and could even be politically harmful, Mann concludes. “This new obsession with personal action, though promoted by many with the best of intentions, plays into the hands of polluting interests by distracting us from the systemic changes that are needed.”
Much more important than personal action, some might argue, is being committed to supporting politicians who put climate issues front and center, and who will make tough calls about putting high-emission industries on notice. (It also means being prepared to pay more taxes to support those goals, if necessary.)
If you haven’t come across them before, carbon offsets can seem like a magic get-out-of-jail-free card for travel fans. Before boarding, you simply pay for someone to perform an environment-friendly practice to “cancel out” your flight, such as supporting solar cooking and heating solutions in rural China, or renewable energy generation in Turkey, and the slate is wiped clean. “Through effective carbon offsetting, you’re preventing anyone from being harmed by your emissions in the first place,” argues philosopher Will MacAskill in his 2015 book Doing Good Better. “If you emit carbon dioxide throughout your life but effectively offset it at the same time, overall your life contributes nothing to climate change.”
Unfortunately, the jury’s out on how true this actually is. There are hundreds of different carbon-offsetting schemes, whose quality vary tremendously. The offset is seldom perfect, and can almost never guarantee that carbon dioxide will be sequestered for the minimum century that it’s supposed to be. On a more practical note, it simply isn’t possible to “remove” the carbon that you released in the first place.
Once again, the best option would be not flying at all—we keep alighting on more discoveries about the harm planes can do, which may mean even the most conservative estimates are still too optimistic.
If you’re going to fly regardless, it’s still worth exploring your offsetting options. But, crucially, don’t use offsetting as a way to justify even more frequent flying, and do your research before you buy. Many airlines will give you the option to offset at the time of purchase; otherwise, consider carbon emission-reduction projects such as WWF’s Gold Standard, Germany’s Atmosfair, or the US-based Carbon Fund. You can also support Cool Earth, a world leader in preventing deforestation.
The UN has its own scheme in the offing to take the onus off the consumer. CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation) will start its pilot scheme in 2021, before a full roll-out in 2024. It aims to cap net emissions from international aviation at 2020 levels by forcing airlines to buy emission reductions or offsets to keep their impact in check.
CORISA has the backing of the International Air Transport Association, and 78 countries have signed up so far, including the US, Australia, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Japan, the UK, and many EU countries. China, Brazil, and India have not taken the plunge. As the scheme currently only runs up to 2035, its effects may be limited. There are concerns, too, that low-qualify offsets may be used, or even “double counted,” according to analysis from the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT).
In a best case scenario, CORSIA might freeze the carbon footprint of some airlines. But what it won’t do is shrink it. “Our next goal is even more critical—cutting net emissions to half 2005 levels by 2050,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s director general at the group’s annual meeting in June. “Airlines are investing in efficiency measures to achieve that—including new aircraft, better procedures and making forward buying commitments for sustainable aviation fuels. We will continue to make progress, but we need governments to be aligned in their policy actions.” In practice, de Juniac said, that means streamlining air traffic management and supporting “the commercialization of sustainable aviation fuel.”
Biofuels are perhaps the best hope we have for a greener, less harmful flying future—though the technology is still a long way off, and many of the options identified so far, such as palm oil, are deeply unsustainable. Nordic countries in particular are backing research for it: Norway is aiming to have 30% of the fuel used by its aviation sector from alternative sources by 2030, while Sweden’s efforts to be entirely fossil-free by 2045 rely heavily on renewable fuels.
The will might be there, but the technology is not. And when it finally arrives, it’s by no means certain that these biofuels will be as effective or as inexpensive as present fossil fuels. Now may be a good time to start thinking of flying as a luxury—something to be done yearly, or even less often. The planet will thank you for it.