Plastic Free July Challenge - Day 7 : Sustainable Travel

The carbon impact of summer air travel

Summer is one of the best times of the year- we get delicious fresh produce in season, the days get longer, and for many of us, it’s the perfect time to book some flights and go travel! After accumulating some airline miles and brushing off old language skills, many of us are ready to jump on a plane to start our summer adventures. This summer I was lucky enough to travel around Europe for 6 weeks, studying Spanish and sightseeing solo and with my family.

A few weeks into my trip, I was curious about the carbon impact of my air travel and decided to head to myclimate to do a bit of research. I could hardly believe what I found: my total carbon emissions were 5.068 tons of CO2- for context, we should each only be producing 0.6 tonnes of CO2 a year in order to halt climate change. Reducing our reliance on plastics and fossil fuels are essential, but it’s hard to beat air travel when it comes to pollution. According to a 2017 study by Wynes and Nicholas, “You would have to recycle everything in your household comprehensively for almost eight years to equal the greenhouse gas emissions saved by skipping just one round-trip flight from London to New York.” Of course, one person choosing not to fly won’t keep a flight from taking off, so it’s important to make long-term and widespread shifts in our attitudes surrounding jets to truly make an impact.

Guidelines to reduce your footprint when planning future trips

Fly Less

This tip is the most simple, and yet the most difficult to those of us with the travelling bug or who travel for work. With decreasing prices, air travel is becoming more accessible and it’s projected that the amount of planes in the sky will double by 2035. However, given its tremendous carbon impact, it is essential to remember that travelling by plane should be something special and infrequent, rather than the norm. Try to reduce the amount of flights you take to only what is necessary

Travel Local

If you’re planning an upcoming vacation, why not start in your own backyard? Start by playing tourist in your local city-- I can guarantee you’ll be able to find something you’ve never discovered before, and you’ll be saving time, money, and tons of carbon (pun intended!). Check out TripAdvisor or LonelyPlanet for fun things to do in almost every location.

    Hit The Road

    Get exploring using alternative modes of transportation-- you don’t need to fly across the country to get out of familiar territory. Take a look at these routes by Amtrak if you’re a fan of trains, or put together a fun playlist and take a road trip around your area. If you’re looking to spend time outdoors, think about planning a hiking trip or biking trip-- a great carbon-free way to travel.

    As an example, 4 people flying from San Francisco to LA emit 1.2 tons of CO2. The same trip (800 miles) with a car (24 mi/gal, which is under average), emits 0.57 tons of CO2.

    road trip reduce carbon emissions

      Stay a While

      If air travel is the only mode of transportation possible (which is sadly pretty common in the US), make the most of it! Consider staying for a longer time in one place, instead of taking flights to multiple locations and only staying a short time. Not only will this make the most of your flight, it’s a great way to get to know a new location, language, and culture.  

        Go Digital

        If you have to travel for work, your travel plans are probably frequently out of your hands. If it’s possible, try to negotiate with your company to skip the long flight and do online conferences and phone calls instead. If you absolutely need to fly, pinpoint the events or conferences that are the most essential for your company, or try to organize more local events to reduce the distance needed to travel.  

          Calculate and Offset 

          It can be very difficult to avoid air travel. As a last resort, if you have to fly by plane you can diminish your impact by calculating the carbon emissions of your flights and paying organizations to offset your travel carbon footprint. Some airlines provide this service, but their sources are not always clear. My favorite organizations who do this are myclimate and the WWF. Both of them calculate and put a price on the amount of carbon you’re responsible for emitting from each leg of your flight. Then, they give your money to organizations that work to restore ecosystems, invest in renewable energy, contribute to sustainable development, and do other projects to benefit the environment and decrease carbon pollution. Myclimate provides great details on how they calculate the carbon emissions of flights, as well as how they calculate the price of carbon if you’re curious.
            compensate carbon emissions myclimate

            Pressure Airlines and Governments

            At the end of the day, we should be putting the pressure on local government and airlines to be making travel more sustainable. Especially in the US, options for local travel are not as accessible as they should be, leaving flying as the only mode of transportation available. Plus, airlines are focused on keeping their prices low instead of taking the necessary steps to reduce the emissions of their planes. It is still essential that we as consumers take responsibility for our personal impact and decrease our airtime as much as possible, while supporting government initiatives to increase public transportation, implement a carbon tax, and make emission regulations stricter so that airplanes are forced to improve.

            To learn more about air travel, check out these awesome articles:



            Join the conversation!