Ask Eartha: How can I take care of the planet if I travel frequently?
Dear Eartha, I am concerned about climate change, but I also love to travel. Do I need to give up flying to protect the planet?
Flygskam is a newly coined Swedish word for “flight shame,” which is a movement that started trending a few years ago in Europe. Folks concerned about climate change decided to reduce the amount they fly — or stop flying altogether — and shamed others into following suit. But using shame as a carbon reduction strategy is a controversial tactic. Opting not to fly is a deeply personal decision, one that may not be practical for everyone. Moreover, traveling to new places has known psychological benefits. And many of us live far from our families, making this an ethical quagmire. So, let’s start by taking a look at the bigger picture.
Aviation and climate change
Transportation is the largest source of carbon pollution in the United States, and aviation makes up roughly 10% of those transportation emissions. For context, nearly 60% of our transportation emissions comes from light-duty vehicles and trucks — so electric cars and trucks truly are the low-hanging fruit here. And while many of us drive, not everyone contributes equally to the emissions that come from jetting across the country — or the ocean.
Recently, a number of celebrities have come under intense scrutiny for excessive private jet usage. The top offender was Taylor Swift’s jet, which has logged 170 flights just since January. That’s a lot of carbon, and it’s certainly more than most of us are flying.
In fact, the results of a 2017 survey on flight habits showed that for the average American, flying isn’t a significant part of our carbon footprints. Instead, just 12% of the U.S. population accounts for nearly 70% of all flights. The International Council on Clean Transportation reports that for Americans who fly five or fewer times each year, aviation makes up just 3% of their carbon footprints.
Now, this doesn’t mean that we should all run out and fly more. For one, at 15 metric tons per year, Americans’ carbon emissions per capita are way higher than the global average of just 4.5 tons. That’s pretty astounding.
So, if you’re one of those people who takes more than six trips a year, you’d be doing us all a favor by intentionally traveling less. For the rest of us, there are ways to lessen the impacts of the limited traveling we do. We can fly economy — cramming more people into a small space is a great way to maximize fuel use; we can choose to fly with companies focused on fuel efficiency; we can fly direct as often as possible; we can use public transportation when we travel. I could go on.
What’s really interesting is diving into the future of sustainable aviation. Lots of major players, including the U.S. Department of Energy, NASA, aviation industry groups and large airlines are researching and investing in developing jet fuels made from plants. Just this past December, United flew the world’s first passenger flight powered by 100% sustainable aviation fuel.
Head in the clouds
As a climate activist, it’s hard to square my love of overseas travel (and croissants) with the understanding that the climate crisis is real and — hello — a crisis. In fact, while I’m hiking in the Alps this month, several iconic mountains are closed because the unprecedented heat in Europe is making classic climbing routes too dangerous.
Michael E. Mann, a renowned climate scientist from Pennsylvania State University, says that if we rely on individual lifestyle change alone, we’ll never solve the climate crisis. That’s not to say your individual action isn’t important — it is! How we use energy, who we vote for, what we eat, the stuff we buy, the cars we drive — it all matters. And these choices must be coupled with system change — weaning society off our dependence on fossil fuels, so that everyone’s carbon footprint is smaller, whether or not they care about climate change.
So, what then? Well, I’m going to take my trip, use public transportation the entire time I’m there, enjoy locally produced wine and cheese, offset the emissions from my flight and keep working for systemic change once I’m back.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to email@example.com.
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