Travel in 2020: Making It More Sustainable
As one of my college friends glided down the isle of her rustic wedding venue in a glittering wedding dress, I felt so glad I was there on her special day. Having planned my own wedding two years earlier, I could imagine how much preparation and anticipation had gone into this one moment.
The event was in Tennessee, and I had considered not going because it would mean traveling from my apartment in Buffalo on New Year’s Day, but I also remembered the pang of sadness every time I received a “regret” from someone I invited to my wedding. This friend was not one of those regrets, and I remain grateful for that. She had traveled all the way from Tennessee for our wedding, so I felt I owed it to her to make hers. I also personally love weddings, especially when they allow me to explore cities I've never been to before.
However, later on a bumpy flight from Nashville, Tenn. to Washington, D.C. to then take a connection to Ithaca, New York (to attend a family business Christmas party there), I wondered about how environmentally responsible traveling to this wedding really was.
I will be honest: this trip is one of many I’ve taken in the past few months, mainly for reasons that involve family and friends. And while I do feel very fortunate to be able to do this much traveling because I know not everyone can, I also feel some regret for the environmental impact of these trips … which at the time of booking, all seemed to have moral reasons behind them.
Thinking about all of this traveling, which at the time of booking seemed like such positive ways to support family and friends, made me want to become more aware of the full environmental cost of air travel in particular.
That’s when I learned this rather disturbing statistic: in 2017, the transportation sector overtook the power industry to be the largest contributor of greenhouse gases that cause climate change (Yale.edu).
I also learned in 2018, the U.S. transportation sector continued to be the top greenhouse gas emitter. Although there was a slight decline in gasoline consumption, rising demand for jet fuel and diesel fuel offset this decrease (RHG).
Perhaps more disturbingly, in 2018 U.S. greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.4 percent, with the transportation sector’s emissions rising 1 percent (Washington Post). This makes the possibility of the U.S. achieving the emissions cuts by 2025 set forth in the Paris Climate Agreement, to avoid catastrophic climate change consequences, extremely unlikely.
Trump officially announced to the United Nations in November that the U.S. would be abandoning this agreement. However, scientifically these cuts are still vital to keep the Earth from passing more climate tipping points that could lead to more deadly weather events—like the 200 fires ravenging Australia as of January 5th that have claimed at least 24 lives (click here to find ways to help) and the lives of millions of animals.
What We Can Do Today
While I know staying home is the best choice for the planet, I also feel that realistically this probably won’t always happen for me and many others—travel is just too accessible these days and I honestly do believe it can provide a more worldly perspective that promotes kindness and understanding.
Adventure.com writer and frequent traveler Leon McCarron wrote in May 2019 through traveling he’s noticed many types of kindness, including an “immediate, visceral urge to help.”
In fact, there are so many stories about acts of kindness people experience while traveling they’ve been compiled into a book you can find on Amazon: The Kindness of Strangers: Travel Stories That Make Your Heart Grow. (and royalties from buying the book go to the nonprofit Oxfam that fights global poverty and injustice).
This is something I constantly grapple with--luckily a friend recently shared with me what I think is a potentially ingenious solution: carbon offsets.
So what are these, exactly?
To understand carbon offsets, it’s helpful to think of them as part of a math problem.
Basically, carbon offsets are ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, from planting trees to replacing coal-powered stoves in third-world countries with renewable-energy powered stoves (National Geographic).
For example, paying about $8.50 to support a Honduras-based program that replaces open-pit, wood stoves with more efficient versions could basically balance-out the emissions of flying across the United States (National Geographic).
I think my favorite part about this idea is how easy it is.
As an experiment, I decided to “offset” my flight to and from Nashville, Tenn. using the website of the nonprofit Cool Effect.
The process was only a few easy steps:
1. Click the orange “Offset Travel” button
2. Select “Flight Type” (one-way or round-trip—round-trip is automatically selected)
Enter number of flights (one is automatically selected)
3. Select “Flight Hours” (calculated using the “EPA’s most recently established emission factor data (2018) and approximated flight lengths from credible online sources” among other factors—you also have the option to enter your own calculation for your greenhouse gas output
4. Click “offset now”
It cost me only $6.14 to offset my roundtrip Nashville flights.
According to Cool Effect, 90 percent of every dollar donated goes to projects worldwide that not only help positively transform communities, but also prevent greenhouse gas emissions.
These projects include preserving Alaskan forests and Brazilian rainforests, restoring Mexican forests, and turning trash into clean fuel in China.
This idea started around a decade ago and booking sites like Expedia initially offered the addition of carbon offsets at the end of a booking--usually for around $10 (Wired).
Unfortunately, many companies found it was hard for consumers to understand this concept.
So, marking companies like 3Degrees started marketing directly to aviation companies like Delta, which announced in April 2019 plans to offset the carbon footprint of more than 170,000 customers (Delta).
3Degrees has also announced projects to capture another potent greenhouse-gas that often gets less attention, methane, as a way to offset commercial air travel (Wired).
In addition, airlines that fly internationally will be required to offset their extra emissions by 2021 according to the 2018 United Nations agreement The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (Wired).
Not all carbon-offset companies may do what they promise, according to National Geographic. There is no government agency that oversees these offsets, however there are third-party groups that do. Consumers can look for these, which include Gold Standard and Green-e.
In addition, it’s important to keep in mind that while the carbon-emissions from plane travel are immediate, some projects such as planting saplings can take longer for the results to materialize—for example, it takes saplings 10 to 20 years for them to reach their full carbon-absorbing potential (Wired).
The world also unfortunately needs much stronger efforts than offsetting individual flights to reduce greenhouse gas emissions right now to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. This includes sea level rise that could be incredibly dangerous and damaging for the 40 percent of the United States population that lives on coasts.
In 2018, electricity created from burning coal, one of the most significant sources of greenhouse gases, led to over a million metric tons (2,204,622,800 pounds) of emissions (National Geographic). For comparison, spending 10 hours of flying emits one metric ton, or 2,000 pounds, of carbon.
Other Ways to Reduce Flying Carbon Footprints
Significant international agreements like the Paris Climate Agreement are likely the best way to combat the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel catastrophic climate change (National Geographic).
However, as consumers are becoming more impatient and frustrated with government inaction or moves against needed carbon emission reductions, Cool Effect told National Geographic its seen its carbon offset purchases increase by about 700 percent since May 2019.
However, I believe it’s also important to remember there are many other small ways to make flying a little more sustainable, such as by avoiding layovers and their take-off and landing emissions and flying economy to maximize the number of people planes can accommodate (Alternative Airlines). Travelers can also choose more eco-friendly airlines, such as Delta, United, American Airlines, JetBlue, and if it makes sense Alaskan Airlines (Alternative Airlines).
However, in my research, it seems the top way we can minimize our travel carbon footprints is to avoid air travel altogether (and of course traveling by cars).
Now I’m not going to promise that my jet-setting days are over, since I do love traveling as much as the next person, but I know the planet—and of course my wallet—would appreciate a much-needed scaleback, which is one of my many goals for 2020.
My husband and I are still mentally wrestling with when is “necessary” to fly.
I think this is probably different for everybody.
However, I think no matter how much you travel, giving some money to projects that reduce carbon emissions is something that can not only help us ease our conscious today, but also hopefully improve our lives in the future and the lives of generations to come.