The Climate Impact of Flying – How Bad Is It and What Can I Do?

Have you ever thought of decreasing your air travel for the sake of the environment? Most of us in America don’t give these things much thought, but perhaps we should? There is a trend currently gaining momentum in Europe called “Flygskam,” a Swedish word loosely translated to the feeling of climate guilt associated with airline travel — literally "flight shame." Is it coming to the US? Should it? Is flying really that bad for the environment?  

Popularized by Greta Thunberg (shocker), the idea of “Flygskam” has entered the mainstream in some countries in Europe, and it’s having a very real and positive impact. Executives are taking the train to meetings, the idea of slow travel is gaining traction, and airlines are getting involved. Stateside, to quote the recent title of an article in The Washington Post: “Europe’s ‘flight shame’ movement doesn’t stand a chance in the US.” It is certainly true that there are certain barriers that are higher in the US than in other places in the world, but there are still things you can do if you are so inclined.

We’re not here to preach — obviously, flying is our game and we believe in the social positives of flight travel. But we also believe in the power of knowledge and the idea of being as much part of the solution as we can. To that end, let’s get a handle on the landscape and some truths.

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Is Flying Really That Bad for the Environment?

The answer is yes, absolutely. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fly. Of course it doesn’t. But it is important to get educated so that you can make decisions according to your own compass. Here are two popular arguments often used to rationalize the environmental cost of air travel:

Argument 1: Only 2-3% of the world's fossil-fuel consumption comes from air travel.

The numbers vary from 2% up to 5%, if you include the effect of releasing carbon dioxide at high altitudes, which multiplies the impact. Given how important air travel is for the economy and the general function of society, it feels like other areas should be tackled first, such as the consumption of red meat or the burning of forests.

Argument 2: Unless something is done on a macro level, the impact will be minimal.

The thinking here is that any actions or change in behavior on an individual level would have such minimal impact, so why bother, really? The fossil-fuel consumption is so huge in places like China and India, so anything I do in my own life will have zero impact.

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A Change of Mindset

These arguments are compelling — but honestly, they are a cop out. Of course, it’s easy to just throw your hands up and say, "What little difference can I make, really?" But it’s a bit like voting: Everything makes a difference, even on an individual level. The point is not how many millions of tons of carbon dioxide is released by one industry or the other. If you feel like you want to be part of the solution, then what is relevant is your own travel, what you yourself can control.

One return trip to the Maldives is equivalent to 50% of your total yearly greenhouse gas contribution quota.

The findings of the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report imply that every person on the planet should eventually be responsible for the release of no more than one ton of greenhouse gas per year, and the current plan is four tons per person by 2030. The global average today is somewhere around 4.5, and in the US it’s a whopping 17.5 tons per person per year.  

The greenhouse gas emissions per person resulting from one cross-continental return flight is about two tons. This means that you have already filled half of your greenhouse gas quota of four tons per person from one single trip. Put it another way: Flying to the Maldives and back from the East Coast is about as bad for the environment as eating meat for 2.7 years straight.

The simple answer is that we should fly less.

No two ways about it — if you are a frequent flyer, then your contribution to global warming is substantial. The most effective way to mitigate this is to fly less. However, there are other things you can do, as well.

  • Take the train, maybe* — in certain areas in the US, there are decent train links between cities, especially in the Northeast, but also parts of the West Coast. Amtrak runs both electric and diesel locomotives and they are generally better than for the environment than flying. Not to mention cheaper and less stressful!
  • Planning a conference or a meeting? Prioritize proximity. It’s really that simple.
  • Is a physical meeting really necessary? Conference technology is getting so good now that you can have decent audio and visual interaction without actually physically being present.

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If You Must Fly, Fly Smarter

There are things you can do to mitigate your climate impact if you must fly.  

1. Choose to fly with newer airplanes that are more efficient and use biofuel.

  • The fabled Airbus A380 is the most fuel-efficient commercial passenger jet, even though it has been in service since 2007. However, given that the A380 is an exclusively long-haul plane, its impact on the environment should be considered relatively severe.
  • A smaller plane, the new Airbus A350 is a full 30% more fuel efficient than the A340 planes that many airlines still use today.
  • Boeing's Dreamliner series uses 20% less fuel than its similarly sized predecessors. One benefit of this plane is that it can be used for both short and long distances.

By paying attention to the airplanes used on various routes, you can actually make a difference. For instance, when flying from San Francisco to Stockholm, you’ll have a 17% lower climate impact in the A330E via Los Angeles compared to the older A340 via Copenhagen. You can always ask your airline for the optimal route, and we can of course help you here at Chatflights, as well, when you book with us.

2. Offset your carbon footprint.

There are sites such as sustainabletravel.org that enable you to calculate your specific carbon footprint and compensate it financially. Carbon offsetting is controversial, you will find many arguments for and against the idea, and it isn’t cheap. But in the spirit of being part of the solution, it may be an alternative to explore.

3. Take one long vacation each year, instead of many short ones.

In America, we are champions of the long weekend. This is an area where there is a great opportunity to improve not only our impact on the environment, but also our quality of life. There are numerous studies arguing that the mental and physical virtues of a longer vacation. In fact, the general consensus among workplace psychologists today is to take a bare minimum of two consecutive weeks of vacation a year in order to avoid physical stress-related symptoms.

4. Choose a closer destination.

Americans get a lot of grief from smug foreigners for being less than well-traveled. I have always found this to be unfair because Americans have the lowest incentives to travel to other countries on the planet. The United States is a country with four timezones and many climates, not to mention a high level of security and comfort wherever you go. So why leave? One way of reducing your carbon footprint is to consider destinations that are closer to home.

5. Travel on full planes

A recent report released by the International Council on Clean Transportation ranked America’s airlines by fuel efficiency for the years 2017-18, placing Frontier squarely in the lead followed by Spirit and Southwest. Although the age of their fleet had much to do with their ranking, another reason these airlines place so well on the list is that they simply have more passengers per flight.

For the same reason, avoiding first and business-class seats is another way to bring down your carbon footprint. That’s a big ask — but hey, don’t shoot the messenger! 

The word “shame” in Flight Shame is unfortunate. Nobody should be ashamed of habits that until very recently were considered harmless or even commendable. But when new information comes along, then perhaps we should pay attention so that we can each make our own individual choices based on actual knowledge.

* In extreme cases in the US, electric trains and cars can contribute to emissions if the electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels. For example, passengers on the Boston light rail were found to emit as much or marginally more than those on mid-size and large aircraft. This is in part because 82% of electricity in Massachusetts is generated by burning fossil fuels.

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