The Footprint of Flying

By Oscar Bernat

Air travel is more accessible than ever before, but there are hidden costs to flying. Flying just one fewer round-trip transatlantic flight has the same potential to reduce carbon emissions as switching to a plant-based diet for two years. Making two such flights has a larger footprint than an entire year of driving.

Assessments like these, collected by the University of British Columbia, compare all the environmental implications of an action, from the production of raw materials through manufacturing, use, repair, and disposal. The UBC team found that some of the most commonly-promoted strategies in environmental education — comprehensive recycling and changing to energy-efficient light bulbs — have far less potential to reduce emissions than flying less. It takes eight years of comprehensive recycling to counteract the carbon emissions from a single transatlantic flight.

One of the reasons flights have such a drastic impact is due to the fact that planes release their emissions at a higher altitude than cars, so their vapor trails and tropospheric ozone are much more damaging, albeit shorter-lasting. Trains and buses are far more carbon-efficient travel methods, up to 55-75 percent better than flying, according to The Huffington Post.

In many cases, people are stressing to address lower impact problems instead of focusing on a simple way they can reduce their footprint. Yet for college students, this doesn’t do the story full justice.

Study abroad, trips home and vacations are valuable experiences in a college student’s life. They offer students the chance to maintain relationships, practice new languages and explore new values, governance, and art. Yet to reduce our carbon impact, we’ve got to temper our desire for travel with our responsibility to the planet and future generations. Our generation is the most passionate about preventing climate change, and that’s not necessarily compatible with travel - the tourism industry accounts for 10 percent of global carbon emissions, according to The Independent.

Professor Kenneth Doxsee, green chemistry and sustainability specialist at the University of Oregon, has spent quite a bit of time grappling with the hefty carbon cost of air travel. In his “Decision-making for Sustainability” Clark Honors College class, he says the lecture on air travel emissions is, “One of the most stressing, but also one of the most appreciated.” There are several seemingly easy ways to reduce emissions when booking flights, like only booking flights that are near capacity, choosing airlines that recycle, traveling nonstop and going when temperatures are lower, but these don’t have very significant effects.

As Doxsee says, “The most obvious way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from air travel is not to fly. Stay home.” In practice, this might mean challenging conventions like coming home in the middle of study abroad, or during short school breaks: “If [students] are overseas, and their families are here, how do they stay in communication other than coming home? Coming home for the major holidays is just something we’ve come to expect.” Individual action is the clearest retort to the impacts of air travel.

Strategies to take accountability off of the consumer have been largely unsuccessful up to this point. According to Reuters, in 2012 the EU established a carbon credit system that would tax airlines for their flights. However, they couldn’t make the plan as large as they wanted because other countries refused to participate, and they’ve been scaling it down since then.

Another strategy for sustainable travel is carbon offset programs, which calculate the given emissions from a flight, match them with a project to reduce carbon in the atmosphere like planting trees, and allow the customer to pay enough money on top of their ticket to balance the damage. This sounds great, but these programs are so unpopular that, according to The Smithsonian, major airlines with carbon offset programs like United and and Delta refuse to release the statistics on how many people actually make use of their programs. Furthermore, most programs simply aren’t effective. A 2016 study commissioned by the EU found that, of carbon offset projects, “Only two percent of the projects and seven percent of potential CER (Certified Emission Reduction) supply have a high likelihood of ensuring environmental integrity.”

Adoption of biofuels is yet another potential way to reduce plane emissions. According to The New York Times, United Airlines was able to reduce their emissions on flights out of L.A. by 60 percent after switching to a company called AltAir Fuels. Yet so far, per NYT, “a viable commercial market has not been developed.”

Doxsee warns of such fuels, “If you pick the typical plants we’re looking at for bio-fuels, they’re things like corn; they don’t just grow randomly everywhere, but they require farming, and fertilizers, and our fertilizer technologies are bad, so it leads to other environmental impacts. Or we’re taking food and turning it into fuels instead, and we start to starve the planet.” This is why life-cycle assessments, like those done by UBC, are so useful: they aren’t blind to increased efficiency at one step at the expense of inefficiency at another.

Our current flight culture doesn’t seem likely to change on its own. It will take engagement, education and breaking of norms to reduce the popularity of air travel. Doxsee advocates for a “soft-touch approach” when it comes to influencing the decisions of others, educating rather than confronting. He notes, “We do have a reasonably receptive audience here on campus, but people just don’t always recognize the implications of what they do.”

In some carbon accounting situations, choices can end up looking rather ambiguous because of all the life-cycle factors. One example is the impact of printed paper vs. electronic. Doxsee says, “That piece of paper I used came from somewhere, and paper’s very expensive to produce, and tough on the environment. On the other hand, a computer’s expensive to produce and tough on the environment too. But if I use it enough times, and save enough paper, then it makes a difference.” Yet when it comes to air travel, there’s no reason to get bogged down in the numbers. Carbon-wise, there’s a clear win to be had by not flying, even if that means using another means of transportation.

It’s tempting to throw the towel in on the whole carbon-accounting business, but Doxsee is emphatically optimistic about the fight against climate change even if his class does often elicit cynicism. “We can’t give up hope, but at the same time we’ve got to recognize that just being hopeful’s not enough.”

Ultimately, how much you fly is a personal choice. But it’s worth recognizing the gravity of that choice, and giving some real consideration to whether or not flying less is realistic for you.