1.6754 metric tons.
That’s how much carbon I’ll produce with one round-trip from Chicago to Europe this year.
That one trip is 10% of the emissions the average American emits in an entire year.
Not to mention, the aviation industry as a whole is responsible for approximately 2% of total global emissions and a whopping 12% of the CO2 emitted from transport.
Now I see why Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote an article in the New York Times calling out airline travel as “the biggest carbon sin”.
Of course the most sustainable solution would be to stop air travel completely, but with friends abroad and an insatiable case of wanderlust, I haven’t been able to come to terms with that idea. Plus, in a broader sense, travel is incredibly important for society. It broadens our perspectives, opens our minds, gives us a better sense of the world, and allows us to interact with people from cultures we never would have otherwise been able to meet.
So how do we, as travel lovers with a conscience, make the best of this? Here are some ways to make air travel a little more green:
1. Fly less
Even though flying can sometimes be cheaper and quicker than driving or riding the train (especially in Europe), opting for the slow route has its benefits. Instead of viewing the extra hours as time wasted, view it as an opportunity to view the scenery, read that book you’ve been meaning to get to, write in your journal… or just sleep!
2. Choose a fuel-efficient airline
Not all airlines are created equal.
The International Council on Clean Transportation found that there was a 26% gap between the least and most fuel-efficient airlines in the US and a difference of 51% between the most and least efficient intercontinental airline.
So which airlines are the most fuel-efficient?
In the U.S., the winners were Frontier, Spirit and Southwest. In Europe, the top four were Norweigan, AirBerlin, Aerlingus and KLM. (having flown the latter 3, I can vouch for them being great airlines, though AirBerlin has since gone out of business.)
It also matters which aircraft the airline is flying. Generally, newer aircrafts tend to be more efficient—Airbus A319 and Boeing 787 Dreamliner are among the most efficient options.
3. Fly nonstop
Nonstop flights save emissions—not to mention a ton of time and hassle.
A plane’s takeoff and landing contribute an estimated 25% of a flight’s total emissions. While it’s usually more expensive to opt for this option, saving the emissions (and the valuable vacation time) makes the extra cost worth it in my mind.
5. Pick coach instead of first-class
An eco-friendly and budget-friendly option.
According to a World Bank study, a person flying business class contributes up to 4x the carbon emissions as someone in coach. The extra emissions come from a combination of factors—first-class seats take up more space and add more weight, business class flyers receive numerous on-board amenities, and they require more staff than a person sitting in economy.
6. Select green airports
While you may not always have a choice on which airport you fly into, it’s worth taking a look through eco-conscious airports in the U.S. or globally—the area of your departure or destination may have a few hubs to choose from.
7. Pack lightly
The more weight on a plane, the more fuel consumption that is required, and the more carbon emitted—reduce your footprint by learning to pack like a minimalist.
For more responsible packing tips, check out this conscious travel guide from the founder of One For the Road.
8. Offset your carbon
Opting for these options reduces emissions from a flight, but there’s still a huge amount of CO2 emitted. An imperfect solution to this is carbon offsets. Carbon offsetting programs allow you to donate money to environmental charities and programs that are working to absorb carbon from our atmosphere through tree planting and other projects.
A few airlines offer programs, including United Airlines, Delta Airlines, Jet Blue, KLM Airlines and Lufthanasa. There are also separate programs offering carbon offsets—just be sure to do your research first.
There is truly no way to fully take back the damages from our emissions though, and there is controversy over the true impact of carbon offsetting and whether it’s all just a big greenwashing scam. Some informative reads on this debate can be found here and here.
9. Don’t forget the details
A few more things to consider:
- Check if there’s a way to get to the airport by public transit before reserving or driving a car
- Bring an empty reusable water bottle to fill up at the water fountains in the airport
- Charge your devices beforehand—charging on the plane requires extra energy
- Use an e-ticket on your phone instead of printing it out
- Bring your own snacks in reusable containers to avoid buying packaged products
While consumer awareness and decision-making is absolutely necessary, there is a large responsibility on airlines to do their part. As air travel—and carbon emissions—continue to grow exponentially, airlines must increase their sustainability efforts.
Recently, there has been more urgency from the UN to reduce air travel pollution and there have been some interesting technological advances in green travel, but much more can be done before we can ever call flying “sustainable”.