Flying soars above any other environmental impact a single person can make, according to George Monbiot, author of Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning. If you look only at carbon emitted per passenger-mile, air travel may not look so bad compared with the average U.S. family car, or even rail or bus. It all depends on how you crunch variables like distance and number of passengers. But if you fly much, you’re covering a lot of passenger-miles. Three long flying trips could account for more than half your total carbon emissions for a year.
Two other factors really tip flying into the realm of environmental nightmare. First, jet exhaust emits other greenhouse gases and particles, in addition to hot vapor that mixes with cold air in the upper atmosphere, forming long, wispy clouds called contrails that can trap heat below. Contrails may prevent the planet from cooling at night and have a greater impact on warming than carbon. The science is still emerging, but the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has affirmed that contrails are warming the Earth’s surface and they’re increasing.
Second, flying enables us to travel to farther-away places and more frequently than we humans would otherwise go—and we’re doing 5 percent more of it every year. Comparisons to car, rail, or bus are pretty irrelevant. Most of the time, the only reasonable alternative to an air trip is to not make the trip. Flying is a luxury enjoyed by the top 5 percent wealthiest people in the world. It’s also the fastest-growing contributor to climate change, predicted to outstrip carbon reductions we may be able to make elsewhere.
It’s easy to despair that there’s nothing you can do to turn things around, and then do nothing. Yet it’s unconscionable to wait for governments and global corporations to act and not take any personal responsibility. Here are a few ways individuals and communities are wrestling with ethical and environmentally responsible decisions around air travel:
Quit (or radically limit) flying. For some, the only truly ethical response is to opt out. After seeing the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Rob Hopkins swore off flying. A “no-fly pledge” has been circulating online for several years, mostly among members of the international Transition Culture movement Hopkins founded, which organizes local communities to work toward fossil-fuel independence.
No one knows better how tough it can be than the pledgers, who post online their anguish over choosing between the pledge and family events like a wedding or funeral. Last year, when carbon dioxide in the atmosphere passed 400 parts per million, Hopkins, who lives in the United Kingdom, broke his seven-year pledge so he could go on a speaking tour of the “greatest emitter of carbon dioxide” in the West, the United States.* We know broad shifts in citizen awareness and consumer behavior can force industries to change—we’ve seen it with infant formula, fast food, and smaller, efficient cars. But individual ethical stands or small-scale boycotts mainly assuage our own consciences. Those have their place but won’t do much to solve the problem.
Buy a carbon offset. Voluntary carbon-offset schemes lost some of their initial attraction after several scandals in the carbon-trading world. But take another look. The idea is to calculate the carbon you release with your flight (or any activity). Then you buy an offset—usually only a few dollars per person—that will be invested to decrease emissions or provide alternatives to fossil fuel. Look for certification programs that have emerged, such as the American Carbon Registry or the Verified Carbon Standard, showing that auditors and scientists have verified that the offsets represent actual carbon reductions.
Unitarian Universalist Eric Carlson in 2003 started Carbonfund.org, based in Bethesda, Maryland, which invests in wind energy, methane reduction, reforestation, and energy efficiency, and purchases carbon credits to retire them. For the past eight years the Unitarian Universalist Association has offered the offset to General Assembly registrants. “You can reduce 1,000 pounds of emissions while supporting wind energy,” Eric Carlson says. “Our goal is that caring, energy-conscious people will invest enough in wind to bring the price below coal, and that could be a game changer.” Carbonfund also offers a voluntary calculation for “radiative forcing” on flights—which includes the effect of contrails—roughly tripling your offset price.
No one is saying carbon offsets are a complete solution, but they are a way you can say that people who fly should pay for the pollution they create, while doing some good.
Offset your flight with activism. “So you want to go on vacation? You want to fly someplace to expand your sense of self and to connect with others on this precious, fragile planet we share?” asks Dakota Butterfield, climate activist. “Then spend as much time working with others on the fossil-fuel change strategy of your choice as you will working to pay for, planning, and taking that vacation. Then go with a clear conscience and a happy heart.”
Drastic, immediate change in the behavior of fossil-fuel companies is our best shot at turning this ship around, climate-change activists say. Their principal strategies include divesting from fossil fuel; demanding carbon-in-the-ground commitments from companies via investor activism; and forcing polluters to pay for the damage they cause through a carbon tax, cap-and-trade, or cap-and-divestment legislation.
Activists may get the biggest bang legislatively by focusing on state and regional initiatives. Keep an eye on models like the Northeast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and California’s year-old cap-and-trade program, which is partnering this year with a similar program in Québec.
Wealth for the Common Good, cofounded by UU Chuck Collins, offers a guide for individuals to divest from fossil fuels, and gofossilfree.org organizes campaigns for institutions. Many of the big environmental organizations—Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council—as well as climate-change activist Bill McKibben’s 350.org have fossil-fuel campaigns. Get on a list or several, stay informed, join a campaign, call and write legislators, demonstrate, or organize a project at your congregation.
Factor travel into life decisions. Many of us twenty-first-century Americans have organized our lives assuming that affordable airfares based on cheap fossil fuel will always be available to us. We feel free to move hundreds or thousands of miles from loved ones for a job, to study, or just to visit or try living someplace new.
Workers whose jobs depend on air travel may not feel they have much choice. But if airfares start to reflect real costs, companies may be forced to limit travel. Scattered families and friends face real ethical dilemmas over what journalist Monbiot calls “love miles,” the distance between your home and those you love. We simply need to rethink that way of living—when we take a job, choose a college, or make someplace our home—starting now.
3.17.14: An earlier version of this story inaccurately identified the United States as the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world; China emits more.