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How Flying Undermines Your Green Lifestyle

As you can see, doing something like cutting out one cross-country flight can reduce your carbon footprint more than eating vegan for a whole year. And while doing some basic insulating at home has about the same impact as replacing old single-pane windows with new Energy-Star ones (and costs way less), you’d do even better to skip a single long flight (or car trip, since long car trips taken alone can be even worse than flying) per year!

(Note that while the average impact each of us has through recycling is quite small, the total impact of recycling is still impressive: almost 16 million tons of CO2 are saved each year through recycling, not to mention less landfill waste and less resource use.)

Many people are willing to spend lots of money to “green” their home or car, but this chart shows that cutting back on long-distance travel can have a bigger impact.

So, does this mean you should stop doing the little things that help reduce your carbon footprint? Of course not. You should do whatever you are willing and able to do to help the environment. Making changes to your diet, your car or your home do make a difference (especially if you look at more than just carbon footprint).

And many of the common “green” actions we take have other environmental benefits besides reducing carbon emissions—for instance, carrying a tote bag to the grocery store reduces plastic, eating a vegan diet saves water over meat-and-dairy intensive diets(4), etc.

But if, like me, you’ve been giving Hummer drivers dirty looks while flying on a regular basis, take a moment to think about how you can reduce both the frequency and distance of your travel. For me it was a wake-up call to calculate my carbon footprint in terms of the average annual Hummer emissions—6.5 metric tons(5)—and visualize towing a few Hummers behind me on my bike, everywhere I go.

From now on, I’ve resolved to look closer to home for vacations, and to cut back on travel for work as much as possible.

Want to calculate your carbon footprint? Check out The Nature Conservancy’s carbon calculator to get started. You can also consider carbon offsets for your travel.

Download Jon’s Sources & Footnotes (PDF).

(Image: airplane. Source: Flickr user xlibber via a Creative Commonse license.)

Jon Fisher is a data management specialist for The Nature Conservancy, the world’s leading conservation organization. He has studied forestry, environmental biology, stream ecology, environmental engineering and how technology and spatial analysis can improve wildlife management at airports. He also loves to cook delicious vegan food. Opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

Read more: Eco-friendly tips, Environment, Green, Life, Nature, Travel, , , , , , , , , ,

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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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