My story is undoubtedly similar to all of yours – I took my first long-term backpacking trip at 21, got bitten by the travel bug, and have been addicted to exploring new places and experiencing the world’s natural beauty ever since. However, for many of us based in the United States, flying is synonymous with travel, since we’re so geographically isolated from these exotic locales. Unfortunately, air travel emissions are one of the biggest ways we increase our individual carbon footprints, thus impacting the very ecosystems and natural wonders we traverse the world to experience, possibly for decades to come.
Air travel was responsible for 2.5 percent of global carbon emissions as of 2015, meaning that if aviation were a country, it would be among the world’s top 10 carbon emitters. That percentage will only continue to increase as commercial air travel becomes more accessible to millions of people, threatening to push us closer to the 2 degree Celsius line where we will reach dangerous climate change.
Unsurprisingly, the United States, Canada, and the European Union have among the highest per capita Co2 emissions in the world. Some of these emissions are seemingly unavoidable, such as the carbon footprint from the air conditioners that turn our office buildings into arctic wastelands during the summer, no matter how much we shiver and complain and beg the management to turn up the temperature so we don’t have to spend the day huddled in a blanket.
However, there are a few things that we can control. One of the travel agencies I used to work with at my day job has started to include the data on the carbon footprint created per person, per flight at the bottom of their flight confirmation emails. Naturally, I was curious as to my own ecological footprint from my last two years of frequent travel, so I pulled up their carbon estimator and generated the following horrifying result.
Since I started traveling regularly in 2016, I’ve taken the following flights:
- Chicago -> Paris (379.2 KG)
- Paris -> Budapest (134.2 KG)
- Budapest -> Paris (132.5 KG)
- Paris-> Washington DC (334.6 KG)
- Washington DC -> Boston (round trip) (177.3 KG)
- Washington DC -> Chicago (117 KG)
- Chicago -> Montreal (162.3 KG)
- Washington DC -> Nashville (round trip) (190 KG)
- Washington DC -> Orlando (round trip) (254.0 KG)
- Washington DC -> Columbus (round trip) (177.8 KG)
- Washington DC -> Miami (round trip) (266.4 KG)
- Washington DC -> JFK (61.6 KG)
- JFK -> Taipei (491.9 KG)
- Taipei -> Bangkok (168.6 KG)
- Bangkok -> Taipei (168.6 KG)
- Taipei -> San Francisco (415.3 KG)
- San Francisco -> Washington DC (285.3 KG)
- Washington DC -> Chicago (round trip x 2)(463.2 KG)
- Chicago -> Washington DC (115.2 KG)
This brings my total carbon footprint (from flying alone) to a whopping 4.5 metric tons. If you include my next two/three upcoming flights, Boston -> Ft. Lauderdale next week (172.9 KG), Miami -> Chicago(158.7 KG), Chicago -> New Orleans (133.5 KG), New Orleans -> Miami (133.5 KG), and Miami -> Lisbon (364.0 KG) in a little over a month, that brings me up to 5.46 tons.
5.46 metric tons.
This does not include other forms of transportation (trains, buses, cars, bicycle, etc.), general electricity usage, the footprint from the air conditioner that turns my office building into a desolate arctic wasteland, the environmental impact of my Netflix addiction (details here), my use of water / other resources, and the environmental impact of food supply / production.
5.46 TONS OF CARBON EMISSIONS. JUST FROM FLYING.
It’s horrifying, I know. But for many of us, travel has become a lifestyle we can’t live without. So, below are some concrete steps to decrease / offset the massive carbon footprint this lifestyle can create.
1. Fly less – take trains / buses / other creative forms of transportation instead.
Not everyone will have the luxury to add more hours to their travel time, but for times when your vacation days aren’t strictly limited, try stick to ground transportation if you can.
2. Seek out eco-friendly accommodation.
Many hotels / hostels have implemented processes to use less water and energy to run their facilities, and are often advertised as such. These accommodations are often comparable in price to other less environmentally-friendly options in the area, so let ecological impact become another factor in your decision of where to stay.
3. Eat less meat (or at the very least, eat less beef).
This one is a fairly simple change that you won’t have to wait until your next trip to implement. It requires more than three times as much energy to produce a pound of beef, as opposed to one pound of pork or poultry, and more than 30 times as much energy than producing one pound of plant-based foods (evidence here, here, and here). I know myself too well to say that I could ever become a full vegetarian, due to my weakness for chicken nuggets and the occasional cheeseburger, so eliminating one type of meat was the best option for me. Not only will it save you money (meat is expensive – add that into your travel fund instead), but any step towards decreasing your carbon footprint is a step in the right direction.
4. Walk, bike, or take public transportation to work.
If you live in an area where this is an option for you, ditch the car and get creative for your daily commute. Not only will it save you money on gas (and insurance, parking, and your car payment if you’re able to ditch your car completely), but it’ll also force you to get some exercise and fresh air while you’re at it. It may add a few minutes to your commute, but it’s just a small step to making yourself, your city, and your planet healthier.
5. Reduce the amount of single-use plastic you consume.
For the love of god, get a reusable water bottle if you haven’t already. The drinking water in most areas of North America and Europe is safe to drink, so there’s no reason to waste your money on bottled water. (If you’re worried, ask at your hostel or hotel to be sure.) If the taste bothers you, invest in a bottle with a built-in filter, so you can have crisp-tasting water literally anywhere. Beyond water bottles, pay attention to things like plastic grocery bags or single-use Ziploc bags, which can quickly increase your plastic consumption. Instead, consider getting some reusable alternatives to pack your lunch. How else do you reduce plastic consumption in your daily life?
If all of this seems overwhelming, just pick one thing from this list that you can immediately accomplish, like making a meatless dinner tonight or biking to work tomorrow. All of these things are completely doable, and are all things I have implemented in my own life. It’s okay to slip occasionally (sometimes I just really need to eat pot roast, or forget to bring my reusable bags to the grocery store. It’s impossible to completely eliminate your carbon footprint in today’s Western society, so instead stay focused on the small steps you can take to offset the carbon produced by your insatiable wanderlust.
Do you have any other steps that you take to offset your carbon footprint? Let me know below in the comments, along with your calculated carbon footprint (if you dare to find out)!
Hanna (Bubu Backpacks)
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The featured photo for this article is my own, but the rest are from Unsplash, a free stock photo for digital creatives. Not an affiliate link, just something I think is cool. The city smog one is by JC Gellidon, the public transit one is by Serhat Beyazkaya, the hammock one is by Jared Rice, the bike one is by Tiffany Nutt, and the plastic mountain one is by Hermes Rivera.