By Jon Fisher, The Nature Conservancy
How is it possible that a vegan, car-free, green living fanatic (that’s me) has a bigger carbon footprint than the average American? It’s pretty simple: for people who travel a lot—whether for work, pleasure or both—flying can outweigh everything else we do to live green.
Like many eco-minded people, sometimes I’m a bit self-righteous about green living and I get frustrated when friends and family seem to not “get it.” But 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, learning about The Nature Conservancy’s projects there and conducting a few days of technical training for local staff. 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) While I am hopeful that the purpose of the trip was worth the emissions, it’s still a pretty scary number.
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.
Let’s take a look at this chart(3) comparing the carbon emissions of flight travel to various “green” activities to illustrate my point: