Take the train instead? Learning the environmental cost of your flight — and what you can do about it.
When booking a flight on Spain’s Iberia airline recently, I had the chance to do something I’d never done while planning travel.
“Find out your trip’s carbon footprint,” read a link just below the cost.
A small screen popped up to tell me that two round-trip tickets between Chicago and Barcelona, with a layover in Madrid, would result in “3.984T.”
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I had no idea what that meant. And, no matter how noble Iberia’s intentions, a lack of context made the figure relatively useless. So I dug a little.
I asked an Iberia spokeswoman what exactly the T stood for and what it was measuring. Further, did that figure represent the total carbon spent on the planes that would be traveling back and forth, or did it reflect the impact that my wife and I would have?
Word came back: the “T” stood for metric tons (slightly more than the U.S. ton) and would, in fact, reflect the role of just two people making the trip.
Some quick math revealed that nearly 9,000 pounds of carbon emissions would be attributed to two Chicagoans traveling to Barcelona and back. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that’s nearly equal to a year’s output of carbon dioxide from the typical passenger vehicle.
Enjoy that with your paella!
I, of course, had already bought the ticket. And, even knowing the environmental cost of getting to Barcelona and back, I still would have bought the ticket. But I did begin to think of air travel in a way I hadn’t before.
While the relationship between road travel and carbon emissions is part of regular discourse, the role of air travel seems much less so. Yet for those of us who rely on feet, bicycles, public transportation or hybrid technology to get around in our daily lives, but enjoy a handful of plane trips per year, flying accounts for the vast majority of our carbon footprints.
“The amount of fuel that a plane burns is astronomical,” said Sarah Burt, a staff attorney with the environmental law organization Earthjustice. “Air travel is very carbon-inefficient, but (travelers) don’t see the alternative, so they don’t think about it.”
Burt also acknowledged that people aren’t going to stop flying, “and asking them to give up flying isn’t realistic.”
The answer is to make changes where we can.
For activists like Burt, that means attacking policy weakness. In August, Burt was part of a team of lawyers urging EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to “propose and adopt an emission standard that reduces greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft, contributes to the attainment of the United States’ international climate commitments and catalyzes the development of clean aviation technology.”
The heavily footnoted, 29-page letter declares aircraft emissions to be “among the fastest-growing contributors to climate change.” Compared with the auto industry, aviation emission standards are virtually nonexistent, Burt said.
Further, she sees trouble in an aviation industry resistant to change. Most, if not all, airlines offer expansive online explanations for the depth of their commitment to the environment. This includes American Airlines, which finished last in a recent survey of fuel efficiency for U.S. airlines. (Alaska, Spirit and Frontier airlines tied for most efficient.) Hence, in an industry where profit rules, Burt is skeptical of a professed commitment to the environment.
“What business doesn’t say that?” Burt said. “I don’t buy it.”
While the details of stricter regulation are hashed out, the consumer is left to make some tough decisions. Can you take the train on a trip of, say, six hours or less? Amtrak is a far more eco-friendly way to travel, especially when coupled with the fact that short flights are the most damaging (due to takeoffs emitting a large percentage of a flight’s CO2).
Is it worth patronizing the airlines that are most fuel efficient? Perhaps.
Can you fly direct, rather than with layovers? It is far more efficient.
Can you stand flying coach instead of business or first class? It reduces your carbon footprint because first-class seats take up far more space than seats in economy class.
I’ve heard the argument that passengers are blameless when it comes to flight emissions: “The plane would be going whether I was on it or not.” That might be true — except that if everyone decided not to get on that flight, it would not take off.
I asked that Iberia spokeswoman why the airline bothers alerting customers to the CO2 output of their flights when the vast majority of travelers will buy the tickets regardless. “Transparency,” she said. There’s something to be said for that. There’s even more to be said for starting a conversation.