Is it just me, or does it seem like there’s a big overlap between the people who want to live eco-friendly lifestyles and people who love to travel? “Sustainable travel” is starting to become a buzzword, and ecotourism is a huge industry in many countries. And it’s easy to see why that connection exists: if you cherish the natural wonders of the world, you’ll probably want to leave your hometown once in a while to see them. Furthermore, if you’d like to live a low-waste lifestyle, you probably try to keep your consumption to a minimum and might prefer to spend your money on experiences rather than things. But here’s the problem—all of those flights are contributing to climate change, and just one transatlantic flight per year can drastically increase your carbon footprint.
The day I learned how damaging flying is for the environment, I felt like a massive hypocrite. Here I was, telling anyone who would listen that animal agriculture was awful for our planet, ditching plastic straws was definitely the right move, and how I loved living in such a walkable neighborhood so I rarely had to drive. Meanwhile, I’ve already taken one flight within the US this year, I have two more booked for this fall, and next week, I’m flying from Virginia to Tel Aviv. Feel free to call me the world’s worst “environmental activist” because clearly, my carbon footprint for 2019 is going to be out of control.
The aviation industry only accounts for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but because travel isn’t as expensive as it once was, that percentage is expected to continue growing fast. It may not be one of the biggest contributors on a global scale, but as an individual, one of the best ways to lower your own carbon footprint is by taking fewer flights.
Just how bad is flying compared to other modes of transportation? The data is a little muddled for short distances, but there are usually “greener” options. For example, someone who is traveling between New York City and Toronto would actually account for lower emissions by flying than driving alone in an SUV or taking Amtrak (driving in an electric car is the best choice, but that’s not a real option for most people). But taking the bus contributes fewer emissions, and carpooling with three or four people would be better than flying.
If you’re in Europe, taking the train is better than flying: the Eurail system isn’t as carbon-intensive as Amtrak in the US, and the emissions from a Eurail trip are substantially lower than a flight. This is probably why the small but growing “flight free” movement is more popular in Europe, where taking the train is a genuinely eco-friendly option that can get you almost anywhere you need to go. For example, environmental activist Greta Thurnberg doesn’t fly at all, and she can easily travel to conferences and protests around Europe by train. Traveling sustainably in the US is more difficult—public transport isn’t as common, affordable, or fuel-efficient—but if you can carpool with friends or take the bus, it’s a smart choice.
Now, here’s where the real problem comes in: transatlantic flights may be cheaper than ever, but that plane ticket for a faraway destination comes at a huge cost to the environment. These flights take passengers across so many miles in such a short period of time that they have to burn a massive amount of fuel to do it. One study found that a passenger taking one round trip flight between Germany and the Caribbean for a tropical vacation would contribute the same level of carbon emissions as eighty average Tanzanian residents for an entire year. You can crunch the numbers between different destinations and airlines and come up with slightly different results, but the bottom line is that flying for pleasure is a huge luxury, and it comes with a price for the planet.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to travel the world, and as I got older, I made that dream a reality—but accepting that living out that dream is actually undermining my other values hasn’t been easy. Unless I move back to Europe one day, I can’t see myself going completely flight free, but I know I need to make some changes. Honestly, coming to terms with this has been humbling—it’s easy to criticize people who drive massive trucks, eat lots of red meat, and scoff at the idea of switching from fossil fuels to renewables. But my own lifestyle wasn’t nearly as sustainable as I thought. My air travel has basically been canceling out any positive impact I’ve made by going vegan.
Next year, I have two flights planned to see friends and family—but to be fair, I wouldn’t expect anyone to give up time with their loved ones. After that, I think I’m going to spend some time traveling a bit differently. Road trips, camping, hiking, and keeping an eye out for those elusive $1 Megabus tickets (I did score one to Boston a few years ago!) might not take me as far away from home, but there is plenty of beauty in my own backyard that I have yet to explore.
Have your travel habits changed with growing awareness of flying’s carbon footprint?
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