Almost everybody likes to travel and those that don't do it very often probably fantasize about doing it more. Our culture glorifies traveling as a way to experience life in a more meaningful way. We have all seen plenty of films where the stuffy business person who works too hard finally sees the light and decides to quit their job and travel the world. The final scene of the movie will show them packing their bags and picking a random destination on the board full of departures before boarding their plane to some adventurous location. The other common experience we all share is reading an article about somebody in their mid 30's who was successful early in life and now they travel the world and blog about it. They are living the dream. The problem is that every time I read one of these articles or watch one of those movies I’m left wondering, does the dream come at a cost? What kind of affect do all those plane rides have on the environment? So I decided to do some research.
It turns out that the impact of flying on the environment is quite complex. Obviously airplanes run on jet fuel which produces your usual green house gases the same as a car or truck does. It even turns out that these fuels actually have about the same CO2 emissions per gallon as well. Also the aviation industry has made great strides to reduce their annual carbon footprint from previous years and have more improvements planned for the near future. Unfortunately research shows that air travel emissions are still worse then other forms of travel. When you run all the number and consider a multitude of factors planes end up being one of the worst way to fly green. Flying is worse the cars in most cases and behind trains in all cases. In fact traveling by train is the most environmentally responsible method. Riding the rails can accurately reduce emission from traveling by as much as 90%!
If a train won't take you where you want to go, then there are a variety of factors that go in to picking the next best option. First off, flying by plane is almost always better than driving a long distance on your own. But driving gets the edge if you can load up passengers. In fact driving a fuel efficient car with 3+ passengers starts to approach the same carbon emission reduction as a traveling by train. Alas if you must travel by plan but you want to do so in the greenest way you can then here are some interesting facts to consider when booking your flight.
- When you fly matters.
This has to do with the contrails that are left in the sky by planes. They are the long white cloud like lines you see after a plane goes by. The effect of these contrails differs depending if your flying at night or during the day. During the day these contrails will actually reflect some of the suns rays away from the earth reducing temperatures. At night however, these contrails will act like a blanket that traps heat on the surface, raising temperatures. So skip the red eye and fly during daylight hours.
- Pack in like sardines!
Airplane seats are getting smaller and smaller and we all hate getting stuck in the middle of two complete strangers and feeling claustrophobic. While traveling on a full plane may make for a long and uncomfortable flight it does help reduce emissions. Like cars, the more passengers you can transport at once the more you will reduce your footprint.
- Fly economy.
This is derivative of my previously remark. But just to really drive it home, studies have shown that flying first class has the carbon footprint of 3 to 7 times that of a passenger. This is due to the fact that the bigger seats and amenities offered to first class passengers take up space that could be used for more regular, smaller seats. This means that over a large amount of flights one or two could have been avoided if only first class didn’t exist and more people could have piled onto less planes.