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Ask the Conservationist

Can a Frequent Flier Be Green?

One eco-minded reader is doing her part—eating vegetarian, driving less, insulating her home—to reduce her impact on the planet. But travel… well, that's a little harder to give up! So just how bad is the impact of a flight here and there? Our green living expert crunches the numbers.

Anna Smith, of Hoboken, NJ, writes:

I’ve been trying to reduce my impact on the planet by driving less, eating vegetarian and cutting back on my home energy needs. But, I do like to travel a lot. How does airplane travel compare to other efforts I’m making to go green? Do I have to stop flying to really make a difference?

Jon Fisher, data management specialist and member of the Conservancy’s “green group,” replies:

Chart comparing flight emissions to CO2 savings of common "green" activities. Click to enlarge.

Unfortunately, for people who travel a lot—whether for work, pleasure or both—flying can outweigh everything else we do to live green.

Recently I’ve been trying to objectively look at my overall environmental impact, and I’ve realized that some of the things I obsess over make less of a difference than the things I have given myself a “free pass” to do in the past—especially travel.

For example, a few years ago I attended a conference in Borneo (Indonesia) for work. When I calculated the emissions for the flights for that trip, it had a total carbon footprint of 11.7 metric tons of CO2 equivalent(1), more than the total household energy use (electricity, gas, etc.) of the average American family for a whole year!(2)

Which led me to a disturbing realization: all of my efforts to shrink my carbon footprint—from eating vegan/organic/local foods to installing energy-efficient appliances in my home and commuting by bike—are quickly “wasted” if I fly often. Simply staying close to home can have a bigger impact than all those activities, at least in terms of carbon footprint.

Chart: Flying vs. Recycling, Diet Changes and Home Insulation

Take a look at this chart (3) I created comparing the carbon emissions of flight travel to various "green" activities.

As you can see, doing something like cutting out one cross-country flight can reduce your carbon footprint more than eating vegan for a whole year.

And while doing some basic insulating at home has about the same impact as replacing old single-pane windows with new Energy-Star ones (and costs way less), you’d do even better to skip a single long flight (or car trip, since long car trips taken alone can be even worse than flying) per year!

(Note that while the average impact each of us has through recycling is quite small, the total impact of recycling is still impressive: almost 16 million tons of CO2 are saved each year through recycling, not to mention less landfill waste and less resource use).

What Can You Do?

Many people are willing to spend lots of money to “green” their home or car, but this chart shows that cutting back on long-distance travel can have a bigger impact.
So, does this mean you should stop doing the little things that help reduce your carbon footprint? Of course not. You should do whatever you are willing and able to do to help the environment. Making changes to your diet, your car or your home do make a difference, especially if you look at more than just carbon footprint.

And many of the common "green" actions we take have other environmental benefits besides reducing carbon emissions—for instance, carrying a tote bag to the grocery store reduces plastic, eating a vegan diet saves water over meat-and-dairy intensive diets(4), etc.

But if, like me, you've been giving Hummer drivers dirty looks while flying on a regular basis, take a moment to think about how you can reduce both the frequency and distance of your travel. For me it was a wake-up call to calculate my carbon footprint in terms of the average annual Hummer emissions—6.5 metric tons—(5), and visualize towing a few Hummers behind me on my bike, everywhere I go.

From now on, I’ve resolved to look closer to home for vacations, and to cut back on travel for work as much as possible.

Want to calculate your carbon footprint? Check out The Nature Conservancy's carbon calculator to get started. And consider offsetting the emissions of your next flight with our carbon offsets program.

Download Jon's Sources & Footnotes.

Originally posted in July 2011.


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