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How Flying Undermines Your Green Lifestyle

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How Flying Undermines Your Green Lifestyle

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:

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36 comments

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10:27PM PDT on Mar 30, 2014

I never ever read such type of info before this was really incredible. Beauty Pixie

7:16PM PDT on Sep 13, 2012

i only fly about once a year...

8:00AM PDT on Aug 10, 2012

i knew about it (that flying is most carbon intensive, that's why in Europe the carbon trading law is pressing airlines) however i think that the reason of the flight is good enough if important and acts as a carbon offseter - the problem is when you are a flying maniac, especially applying to business people, when you don't restrict the number of flights to reach a destination (if i'm not wrong it's actually the take off which is the most emitting) and you don't choose another means when available (i will always smile at the memory of traveling to Greece by bus comparing to the horrific experience of flying to Greece in the tail of an old airplane, which was shacking from all its joints - during the flight I was thinking: if they kill me, I swear I'll haunt them. I became very "green" after that flight, I started to avoid planes).

10:57AM PDT on Aug 9, 2012

I just saw that my last comment got cut off before the final link (to the spreadsheet I used for the calculations) was included. If anyone wants to play around with the equations and numbers I used, you can download the spreadsheet at http://fish.freeshell.org/green/CarbonComparisons.xlsx

10:23AM PDT on Jul 20, 2012

Hi Kimberly, good questions, thanks for continuing the discussion! There is a link to my sources and methods at the end of the article (http://dingo.care2.com/pictures/greenliving/uploads/2012/07/Sources.pdf) but essentially most of the discrepancy is due to the effects of "radiative forcing." This means that the impact of emissions at high altitudes have a much greater warming effect than they would at ground level (some of this is due to contrails, for example). To account for this effect, the IPCC recommends multiplying emissions by 2.7 to get effective equivalent emissions (http://www.grida.no/publications/other/ipcc_sr/?src=/climate/ipcc/aviation/064.htm has some details). The remainder of the discrepancy is a combination of the calculations I provided accounting for gases other than carbon (methane and N2O), and the fact that the EPA equation I'm using is only a general estimate (since I don't have access to actual gallons of fuel burned / flight as you do, and they will vary). I used the carbonfund calculator to save time, but their calculations are based on the equations and table in this paper: http://www.epa.gov/climateleadership/documents/resources/commute_travel_product.pdf I actually double-checked their calculations myself to see if there might be an error, and in fact I found that carbonfund's numbers were a bit lower than they should be. They are investigating the discrepancy now. I hope this helps, you can also download the spreadsheet I used for these calcu

11:32AM PDT on Jul 15, 2012

I am a professional pilot, Captain of a widebody for a major airline. I do not disagree that flying increases your carbon footprint dramatically, but I'd be interested to see how you made your calculations and from where you got your data.

Things I know:
- Jet fuel is on average 6.8 lb per US gallon.
- Jet fuel is not 100% carbon. It has hydrogen, oxygen and other elements.
- Jet engines suck in air and combust the fuel with the atmospheric oxygen.
- Jet engines convert the hydrocarbon-based fuel into heat and mechanical energy, ejecting the combustion by-products of water, CO2, CO, O3 and others in the exhaust. The more efficient the engine, the less waste is produced.
- Significantly more fuel is burned (per hour) in the climb to altitude than in cruise and descent; therefore short flights are the least efficient and longer ones the most.
- The DOE says that a jet engine produces on average 22.1 lb of CO2 per US gal of jet fuel. So how does 6.8 lb of fuel become 22.1 lb of CO2? Combine all that carbon in the fuel with oxygen from the air. Jet engines use a lot more oxygen by volume and weight than they do fuel.

On a recent two hour flight we burned approximately 5000 U.S. gal, thus generated roughly 110,500 lb of CO2. With 300 passengers on board, that's about 370 lb of CO2 per passenger.

Overall, this seems quite efficient to me as long as the airplane is full of passengers. With only one passenger on board, the carbon footprint would be horrendous. But sha

11:23AM PDT on Jul 15, 2012

I am a professional pilot, Captain of a widebody for a major airline. I do not disagree that flying increases your carbon footprint dramatically, but I'd be interested to see how you made your calculations and from where you got your data.

Things I know:
- Jet fuel is on average 6.8 lb per US gallon.
- Jet fuel is not 100% carbon. It has hydrogen, oxygen and other elements.
- Jet engines suck in air and combust the fuel with the atmospheric oxygen.
- Jet engines convert the hydrocarbon-based fuel into heat and mechanical energy, ejecting the combustion by-products of water, CO2, CO, O3 and others in the exhaust. The more efficient the engine, the less waste is produced.
- Significantly more fuel is burned (per hour) in the climb to altitude than in cruise and descent; therefore short flights are the least efficient and longer ones the most.
- The DOE says that a jet engine produces on average 22.1 lb of CO2 per US gal of jet fuel. So how does 6.8 lb of fuel become 22.1 lb of CO2? Combine all that carbon in the fuel with oxygen from the air. Jet engines use a lot more oxygen by volume and weight than they do fuel.

On a recent two hour flight we burned approximately 5000 U.S. gal, thus generated roughly 110,500 lb of CO2. With 300 passengers on board, that's about 370 lb of CO2 per passenger.

Overall, this seems quite efficient to me as long as the airplane is full of passengers. With only one passenger on board, the carbon footprint would be horrendous. But sha

11:21AM PDT on Jul 15, 2012

I am a professional pilot, Captain of a widebody for a major airline. I do not disagree that flying increases your carbon footprint dramatically, but I'd be interested to see how you made your calculations and from where you got your data.

Things I know:
- Jet fuel is on average 6.8 lb per US gallon.
- Jet fuel is not 100% carbon. It has hydrogen, oxygen and other elements.
- Jet engines suck in air and combust the fuel with the atmospheric oxygen.
- Jet engines convert the hydrocarbon-based fuel into heat and mechanical energy, ejecting the combustion by-products of water, CO2, CO, O3 and others in the exhaust. The more efficient the engine, the less waste is produced.
- Significantly more fuel is burned (per hour) in the climb to altitude than in cruise and descent; therefore short flights are the least efficient and longer ones the most.
- The DOE says that a jet engine produces on average 22.1 lb of CO2 per US gal of jet fuel. So how does 6.8 lb of fuel become 22.1 lb of CO2? Combine all that carbon in the fuel with oxygen from the air. Jet engines use a lot more oxygen by volume and weight than they do fuel.

On a recent two hour flight we burned approximately 5000 U.S. gal, thus generated roughly 110,500 lb of CO2. With 300 passengers on board, that's about 370 lb of CO2 per passenger.

Overall, this seems quite efficient to me as long as the airplane is full of passengers. With only one passenger on board, the carbon footprint would be horrendous. But sha

11:19AM PDT on Jul 15, 2012

I am a professional pilot, Captain of a widebody for a major airline. I do not disagree that flying increases your carbon footprint dramatically, but I'd be interested to see how you made your calculations and from where you got your data.

Things I know:
- Jet fuel is on average 6.8 lb per US gallon.
- Jet fuel is not 100% carbon. It has hydrogen, oxygen and other elements.
- Jet engines suck in air and combust the fuel with the atmospheric oxygen.
- Jet engines convert the hydrocarbon-based fuel into heat and mechanical energy, ejecting the combustion by-products of water, CO2, CO, O3 and others in the exhaust. The more efficient the engine, the less waste is produced.
- Significantly more fuel is burned (per hour) in the climb to altitude than in cruise and descent; therefore short flights are the least efficient and longer ones the most.
- The DOE says that a jet engine produces on average 22.1 lb of CO2 per US gal of jet fuel. So how does 6.8 lb of fuel become 22.1 lb of CO2? Combine all that carbon in the fuel with oxygen from the air. Jet engines use a lot more oxygen by volume and weight than they do fuel.

On a recent two hour flight we burned approximately 5000 U.S. gal, thus generated roughly 110,500 lb of CO2. With 300 passengers on board, that's about 370 lb of CO2 per passenger.

Overall, this seems quite efficient to me as long as the airplane is full of passengers. With only one passenger on board, the carbon footprint would be horrendous. But sha

4:49AM PDT on Jul 10, 2012

I've never flown and don't see any reason to start now.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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