Should you fly if you care about climate change?

If we are “addicted” to oil (as even George Bush admitted), then I guess air travel would need to be classified as heroin: Extremely harmful, and yet almost impossible to quit.

As an example of how deep this addiction runs:
I’m on an email group list of well known climate bloggers, and one of my colleagues recently asked,  “So… what bloggers on this list are going to Copenhagen?” (for the UN climate meetings next month)

A few of the Answers:

  • “We will have several people there.”
  • “We will be sending two people.”
  • “We are sending 12 Midwest delegates.”

You get the idea. These folks are among the most active and engaged on the issue of climate change, and yet many will be jetsetting multiple writers to Denmark (possibly myself included). 

They are almost certainly aware that in terms of personal carbon impact, flying is one of the worst things you can do: Without flying, the average person’s carbon footprint in the US (the amount of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gasses we emit as individuals) is 16 tons. But for the 25% of American who fly, the average footprint is 6 tons higher. And for the roughly 6 Million ‘frequent fliers’ in The US, the typical footprint is 40 tons – almost triple the average. Yikes!

Flying is especially harmful because the emissions are released much further up in the atmosphere. There was a memorable scene in the movie The Age of Stupid, where a family tries to work out a reasonable carbon budget, and realizes that their holiday flying makes it impossible. As the father says, “the only thing worse than flying seems to be to set fire to a rainforest.”

So what is a concerned eco-citizen to do?  Waiting for the airlines to fix the problem is certainly not a good option. The Air Transportation Association is lobbying to avoid taxes or cap-and-trade on their industry, while also making vague promises to reduce emissions by 50% in the next 40 years. Unfortunately, most estimates are that airline travel will actually grow substantially as a portion of total emissions in upcoming decades.

Can we stop flying? Given the global nature of business and politics, as well as the importance of cultural sensitivity and awareness in an interconnected world, I hope not (although we can fly less, that’s for sure.) I’m glad that concerned writers will be in Copenhagen to document the UN climate talks, even if they need to get on airplanes to get there.

The only remaining answer seems to be for fliers to fund activities that reduce their flight emissions via what is known as ‘offsetting’ — funding other programs that do more good than the harm we create. Offsetting often gets a bad name, sometimes called the equivalent of a medieval pardon, or simply purchasing guilt reduction. But what it really does is pragmatically mitigate a potential environmental problem through a ‘swap’, something we do all the time. As examples, we chose to set aside national parks rather than halt westward expansion, conservation funds often trade forest tracts and logging rights with timber interests, and we support hatcheries to make up for dams and lost Salmon habitats. So why not set aside forests or support wind energy to make up for the flying we can’t seem to avoid? While none of these ‘swaps’ are perfect, they are much better alternatives to doing nothing to mitigate activities that – for economic and other reasons – we just can’t stop doing. 

In the case of flying, offsetting the impact of a one way trip overseas adds roughly 2% ($15) to the price of a ticket. In an era where airlines now charge $32 for advanced seating assignments, $25 for an extra bag, and even for meals, that seems like a bargain to me.

Going back to the original heroin analogy, I suppose offsetting would be the moral and practical equivalent of Methadone — a safe way to allow us to gradually withdraw from our addiction, rather than quitting cold turkey.

I think it’s a good solution to the air travel dilemma, but I know not everyone agrees. What do you think? / CC BY 2.0


LMj Sunshine

Thank you for article.

LMj Sunshine

Thank you for article.

LMj Sunshine

Thank you for article.

LMj Sunshine

Thank you for article.

LMj Sunshine

Thank you for article.

Casey Broughton
Casey Broughton6 years ago

i disagree...this is impractical. sure in theory it would be great if we could just teleport but until we find a better way to run our planes we will have to cut other things to keep them. they are too important to our species.

Dmitry B.

Jets should fly on electricity
No pollution

Judy C.
Judy C.7 years ago

We need to ground planes. Besides adding an exorbitant amount of carbon to our atmosphere, jet fuel damages each tree that it passes over. Because of the economic realities of the situation, I don't see this happening, but if we really cared about the Planet -- as much as we do about our ability to analyze, editorialize, witness, and investigate what is "wrong" with what we are doing, we would act now with the best scientific knowledge available to curtail climate change. This means that 1. We would quickly shift to renewable energy with industrialized nations leading the way . 2. Coal/ gas production must end 3. We would stop consuming vast amounts of meat (vegetarianism is good for climate change) 4. We would live in urban areas or "sustainable" communities 5. We would develop green mass transit system 6. We would work to protect the rainforests as do the following project: the Princes' Rainforest Project and the Amazon Conservation Team 7. We would begin planting "perennial" crops -- as the Land Trust is doing 8. We would begin to reforest desertified areas -especially around the equator 9. We would invest in new bio-technologies proposed at sites such as EcoGeek 10.To fund these actions, we would de-invest in military activity (because right now the greatest threat to our security is Climate Change and the millions of environmental refugees that it will produce.)

Carol H.
Past Member 7 years ago

Unfortunately there is no way to ground planes because we can no longer go by wagon train anywhere but the planes should be able to change the kind of motors that have to used in plane that is what could be changed if we really try hard.

Lisa B.
Lisa B.7 years ago

Catherine, that is exactly the kind of attitude that encourages the rest of the world to hate Americans. We read that as “We will do what we want, because we can, and stuff the rest of you”. A government is meant to represent it’s people. Why should your government care, when you obviously don’t?