Aviation, Climate, and Travel

According to scientific estimates, travel is responsible for eight percent of global emissions. This estimate was developed by considering the travel experience “end-to-end”, including the carbon dioxide emissions generated by flights, as well by accommodations, meals, and shopping. 

Flights are an especially knotty topic for climate conscious travelers because the means of decarbonizing flights are not yet available. Whereas for other components of our travel - accommodations, ground transport, meals, shopping - the means of decarbonization (think renewable energy at hotels, electric vehicles, eating local and in season) are available and understood, when it comes to aviation, the means of decarbonization is still in development. 

Quantifying the carbon emissions associated with travel means considering transport broadly (not only flights) as well as the carbon dioxide emissions associated with tourism activities, such as the fuel burned in vehicles, emissions from waste including creation of  single use plastic (for example, water bottles, bathroom amenities), and the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the many purchases people associated with travel - think of the energy used in providing food, accommodation, transportation and shopping. In terms of tourism’s overall contribution, flying is thought to make up 12 percent of the sector’s global carbon footprint. 

Aviation’s emissions will ultimately be brought down through: 

(1) technical  improvements in propulsion, such as planes powered by electricity, new wing designs, and other energy efficiency  advances in airplane manufacturing,

(2) increased use of low carbon fuels (including sustainable aviation fuels), and

(3) more efficient air traffic management including routing and landing cycles to reduce emissions. 

Until such time as though improvements are manifest, many argue that the only way to reduce emissions is to reduce air travel volumes as compared to the past. Especially because so much of the pollution from any given flight takes place during take-off and landing cycles, re-thinking short haul flights where ground rapid transport exists has been encouraged in the popular press. For example, as noted in the mainstream travel magazine AFAR, and in The Guardian, “the emissions produced per kilometer for each passenger on a domestic route are 70 percent higher than long haul flights–and six times higher than if the same journey was made by rail.”

Flights remain necessary however in many situations and are still often required to bring travelers to places where tourism funding is vital to supporting local conservation initiatives.  Travelers grappling with “flight shame” will take comfort in knowing there are ways to minimize the impact of your flying, and make sure the local benefits of your travel are fully realized.

Here’s the playbook for climate conscious travelers:

  • Adopt the slow travel philosophy and aim to go deep in a few places versus traveling fast, far, and wide. Try to take fewer international trips, stay longer when you do travel far afield.
  • Consider the overall return on investment of your trip: understand the impact your spending can have on local businesses such as dining, accommodations and transport providers as well as conservation efforts that often depend on visitor funding for their programs. 
  • Bearing in mind that air travel is approximately 12 percent of travel’s emissions, consider carefully the emissions generated by other aspects of travel, and favor businesses and activities that are taking decisive steps to reduce their emissions in the places where they can. You can start with the signatories to the Glasgow Declaration. Look into companies’ climate strategies and understand how they’re reducing emissions as well as supporting offsets and removals. Consider also early adopter travel companies adding carbon removal to their sustainability approach such as kimkim, Geographic Expeditions and others partnered with Tomorrow’s Air.
  • Book flights responsibly:
  • Prioritize airlines that have publicly committed to using sustainable aviation fuels: United, American, Alaska, JetBlue, Southwest, Delta 
  • Fly like a NERD. Nicole Cocolas, a Lecturer in Transport Management at the University of Surrey, shares a discussion in this video of what it means to fly like a NERD. N: Fly newer aircraft, such as the Boeing 787; E: Fly economy; R: Choose regular size aircraft, small craft are more fuel intensive; D: Fly direct to avoid unnecessary fuel burn between take-off and landing
  • Especially for travel in Europe look at Seat61 for helping hints on train connections
  • Continue to support reliable conventional carbon offsets, and consider making a carbon removal purchase through Tomorrow’s Air, the first and only traveler collective providing climate education and channeling funding to carbon removal innovators. 
  • Engage with climate policy in your area. Travelers based in the United States can talk to their member in Congress about the Carbon Dioxide Removal Leadership Act. OpenAir Collective is a great resource for this, check out this unboxing video about the act here

Find the full report here.

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