January 15, 2014

One Flight Vs Everything Else For A Year

Paul Dickinson, executive director of the Carbon Disclosure Project predicts change is inevitable: 

“I’m absolutely, definitely sure that people will be flying a lot less in 5 to 10 years.”

You could be a farmer's market loving, bicycle riding, hemp-wearing, vegetarian that has significantly lowered your carbon footprint, but take even one flight and all that hard work is nullified.

Just one return flight from Vancouver, Canada to Quito, Ecuador creates as much green house gas as the global average production for everything else for a year.

Flying is the least efficient, most damaging method of travel. Aircraft emissions are especially harmful because they spread a toxic cocktail of gasses directly into the upper atmosphere. And it is getting worse.

The aviation industry is growing at about 12% per year, and represents the fastest growing source of greenhouse gasses in the world. Despite its devastating impact, many countries do not include the industry's international aircraft emissions in carbon calculations.

Aviation emissions are also not included in international climate treaties like Kyoto as the industry has been protected from taking responsibility for their impact for decades.

This damaging industry has always been heavily subsidized, making tickets much cheaper than they should be. The 1944 Chicago Convention ruled that no government can levy a tax on aviation fuel. In the U.K. alone, aviation receives the equivalent of a 10 billion pound tax subsidy annually.

If you do fly, there are a few things you can do to mitigate the resulting climate damage. The following are suggestions for balancing the impact of long-haul flights such as from Vancouver to Australia:

  1. Plant three trees for every 4000 miles of air travel.
  2. Eat vegetarian for a year.
  3. Ride your bicycle for a year.
  4. Switch to a green energy provider for electricity and heat. 
There is no such thing as sustainable high-speed, long-distance jet travel. The best way to reduce your travel carbon footprint is to not fly.

Choose instead, a slower, more efficient alternative. Slower forms of travel are more relaxing and enjoyable anyway.


  1. When you talk about flight being the least efficient, what do you mean? It's the most efficient when it comes to time. I'm not a fan of flying, but I'd much rather take a 2 hour flight than endure a 16 hour car ride with my two small boys. I guess I'll just stick to my vegetarian diet for that once yearly round trip plane ride ;)

    1. Megyn,

      By least efficient I mean that flying has the largest carbon footprint of all modes of travel. It is usually the most efficient time-wise, but we pay an environmental price for such convenience.

      There are some routes in Europe where high speed train travel is faster (but more expensive since air travel is heavily subsidized ) than a trip to the airport and taking a flight.

      Our family used to do long trips with 7 people in a station wagon, and I have no idea how we all made it without killing each other. However, I look back on those trips with affection now. I'm not sure my mom does.

      Right now a push is growing toward reducing non-essential air travel. Perhaps your one flight a year is in the essential category.

    2. I think the biggest issue as to why flying seems more essential is the time factor. Most can't get off the extra days to drive to a location, so they fly to get the most out of the little time they have off. If you think that most places that take 2-3 hours of flight take at least 12 hours to drive, most people just don't have the extra 4 days to spend in the car. I'm not necessarily opposed to driving long distances (and my family did it all through out my childhood due to price), but when it means I can spend 2 days with family instead of 5, then yes, I would definitely choose flying. It's a very tricky conundrum. Environment or family?

    3. Megyn,

      Time for most people is a major issue. The way things are going people need to work a year and a half to pay for one year of expenses. That does not leave much time for anything else.

      There are so many tricky conundrums that we are faced with today. Tough choices indeed.

      Life might not be as rich without face to face interactions with family (although there is always phone, email, FB, letters, and skyping), but life will be impossible without a healthy environment.

  2. Gregg, I like that you include things that would offset air travel for those who do fly. It helps put it in perspective. I used to fly a lot both personally and for business. Only fly now to see family every other year or so.

    Over the past few years, I've enjoyed day trips. I've figured out there is plenty to learn about and do within a couple of hours of where I live and even here in town. It has helped me to feel more connected to my community to do things locally and nearby.

    Had to laugh when I read your reply comment above. With fondness, I too remember those long family road trips. There were 5 of us and usually a bird dog in a '68 Mustang. That is about equivalent to 7 in a station wagon. We about killed each other too. And my mom does not talk about those trips with fondness! Those trips are some of my best memories. Thanks for bringing that up. Terri

    1. Terri,

      My first car was a 1969 Mustang, and I drove it for almost 15 years. The back seat was pretty marginal, so 5 and a dog would be pretty cramped. 5 without a dog would be cramped.

      Sounds like fun.


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