When we travel, one of the most challenging carbon impacts to avoid and clean up is the emissions associated with air travel and transportation.
Using a carbon calculator to estimate the emissions generated by flying from Frankfurt to Barcelona, one of many favorite destinations for European travelers, or New York City to Miami for citizens of the United States, illustrates that in those two hours of flying a short distance, an average of nearly 500 kilograms of carbon dioxide per passenger is emitted. If you’re having trouble visualizing the magnitude of 500 kilograms/ half a ton of carbon dioxide, have a look at the Carbon Visuals developed by artist and scientist Adam Nieman.
According to the UN aviation organization ICAO, in 2018 there were about 4.5 billion people worldwide taking flights. And although the pandemic halted or radically decreased travel, there are signals now of a strong recovery: Skyscanner, a travel booking site, reported an 800 percent spike in bookings the day after President Biden’s announcement that vaccinated foreign travelers would be allowed to enter the United States. Air traffic volume is projected to continue to increase, reaching 10 billion passengers a year by 2050.
While some might call for an end to flight, recognize that even this drastic action would not get us out of our current predicament without the help of carbon removal at a massive scale. A recent article in the quarterly journal of the The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine observes, “Even if we stop burning fossil fuels today, tons of historical carbon dioxide emissions sitting in the atmosphere will continue to warm the planet, causing dangerous climate conditions for at least another 1,000 years. Therefore, excess legacy carbon dioxide must be removed from the atmosphere while we simultaneously stop adding new emissions.”
The solution is not to cease all flying. The solution is to become better educated travelers, adapt our flying behavior, and support both natural and technological solutions to clean up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
1. Know your emissions: try tools like the flight emissions calculator created by International Civil Aviation Organization to learn the flight emissions generated on your planned trips
2. When you do fly, try to support airlines that use alternative fuels - check out Alternative Airlines for example which helps identify airlines using biofuels. Prioritize airlines that have publicly committed to using sustainable aviation fuels: United, American, Alaska, JetBlue, Southwest, Delta.
3. Fly like a NERD. Nicole Cocolas, a Lecturer in Transport Management at the University of Surrey, shares a discussion of what it means to fly like a NERD:
4. Support technological carbon clean up solutions alongside popular carbon offsetting. You might choose to offset the emissions for your upcoming flights by supporting a project that protects swamplands in South Carolina or forests and rhinos in Kenya, for example. These projects help avoid nature loss which supports our overall climate goals. They do not however help address the serious issue of legacy emissions. In an article in The National Academies of Science monthly publication, ISSUES, experts note that "Even if we stop burning fossil fuels today, tons of historical CO2 emissions sitting in the atmosphere will continue to warm the planet, causing dangerous climate conditions for at least another 1,000 years. Therefore, excess legacy CO2 must be removed from the atmosphere while we simultaneously stop adding new emissions." (LINK)
Therefore, it makes sense to add an increment of carbon removal with permanent storage into your personal approach. Whatever amount you contribute helps chip away at the trillions of tons of legacy emissions stored in our atmosphere. Innovative carbon removal and storage solutions such as the direct air capture solution offered by Tomorrow’s Air are undoubtedly necessary alongside emissions reductions and natural solutions.
5. Plan fewer flights overall when use your travel time to stay longer in the places you visit, ditching the bucket list mentality in favor of deeper quality time when you venture far from home. Practically speaking this might mean that if you have two weeks of vacation per year, take those two weeks all in one place, versus two different trips with flights.