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Staci Montori always considered herself to be eco-conscious. But four years ago she finally faced a grim reality: The two or three round-trip flights she was averaging per year had a massive carbon footprint.
“I have a lot of climate grief and anxiety,” Montori, of Lincoln, Mass., tells Yahoo Life, explaining that a carbon footprint calculator showed her flights to have a CO2 equivalent output — the way of measuring atmosphere-damaging greenhouse gases — of roughly 3.5 metric tons, which is equal to about a quarter of an average American's entire carbon footprint (already much higher than the global average).
In response, the massage therapist and mother of three made a huge, proactive decision: She joined the growing number of people pledging to go flight-free.
“How could I not," she asks, "when I read the grim statistics and see it happening now?”
Though the choice to completely give up plane travel might sound like something reserved for radical environmentalists and those with an extreme fear of flying, Montori’s choice to do so is actually in step with a growing movement: Flight Free USA, the stateside arm of a popular U.K. campaign that urges people to take a no-fly pledge.
“There was this cognitive dissonance when I would fly,” Dan Castrigano, co-organizer of Flight Free USA and a teacher turned climate organizer in Vermont, told the Christian Science Monitor recently. “I was teaching about climate to seventh and eighth graders, and I just kind of became embarrassed that I was flying to Europe for vacation.” He soon gave up flying altogether and noted, “It’s extremely joyful not to fly. It’s liberating.”
The Flight Free campaign's website asserts that “the solution to the climate crisis is straightforward: to significantly reduce our emissions” — and that reducing flying, the most polluting activity we commonly take part in, is the way to do it. And while efficient land travel is admittedly easier in the U.K. than it is in the U.S., especially when it comes to international exploration, the Flight Free campaign appears to be landing with many people in the United States too.
So, how bad is plane travel, really?
Joshua Spodek, a Manhattan-based author and host of the podcast This Sustainable Life, stepped off an airplane for the final time in 2016 when a self-directed challenge to go a year without flying turned into a pledge to never fly again. “Within a few months, the withdrawal symptoms passed and I realized my sense of need was the addiction speaking,” he says — adding that since pledging to go flight-free, he has connected more deeply to nature, enjoyed more meaningful experiences with family and created more adventure in his life.
For Spodek, this choice was not only about his commitment to lowering his footprint but also about recognizing his privileges and acting in accordance with his ethical beliefs. “For most Americans who fly, it's their greatest pollution,” he says. Indeed, globally, the wealthiest 10% of people (the same percentage of global citizens who have ever flown or will ever fly in a plane) contribute a whopping 49% of “lifestyle carbon emissions,” while the poorest half contribute just 10%.
But is airplane flying the worst thing we can do to the planet? It's certainly up there (topped only, according to some experts, by taking a cruise). Aviation is responsible for around 2.5% of the world’s carbon emissions, according to experts, with an overall impact on the climate that's even more severe.
To find out more specific impacts, bookmark this flight calculator from Flight Free USA and consider this: A round-trip flight from New York City to San Francisco (2,583 miles) emits 1.5 metric tons per passenger — the same carbon output as traveling 6.3 times around the world in an electric train and enough emissions to melt 48.5 square feet of arctic sea ice.
One of the worst problems of air travel, explains Julie Sinistore, a Portland, Ore.-based scientist specializing in comparing the impacts of different types of fuels, is that it is inefficient. “For example, it may cost less money to have a connecting flight, but it leads to more greenhouse gas emissions than a direct flight," she tells Yahoo Life, explaining that an airplane's takeoff is the most polluting part of air travel, with the biggest footprint, making shorter or multi-leg domestic flights among the worst polluters (as critics of Kylie Jenner's recent and very quick private jet flight didn't hold back about out recently).
80% of people have never taken a plane and Kylie Jenner is out here taking regular 10 minute flights, 5 flights in the last week under 30 minutes, one was 3 minutes long. Her carbon footprint for one ten minute flight, is more than some people make in a year.
— Sommer Ackerman (@lifewithsommer) July 17, 2022
Alternative modes of transport and how they stack up
Is driving, assuming you are still using a gas-fueled car, any better than flying?
According to Hannah Ritchie, head of research for Our World In Data and author of “Which form of transport has the smallest carbon footprint?” the answer depends on the set of circumstances.
“Between the two, which is better depends on the distance traveled," she writes, noting that for moderate-distance trips, such as those less than 600 miles, or a domestic flight within the U.K., "then flying has a higher carbon footprint than a medium-sized car." If the distance is longer than 600 miles, then flying, she says, "would actually have a slightly lower carbon footprint [per mile] than driving alone over the same distance.”
But better than either, say experts, is choosing train travel.
Amtrak, the U.S. system of rail travel, produces 83% less emissions than driving and up to 73% less than flying, depending on which line is being traveled, according to a recent press release.
For those already across the pond, Eurostar’s International Rail claims to emit up to 90% less emissions than flights of equal distance within Europe.
Which form of transport has the smallest carbon footprint?
→ walking, cycling or train (esp. if run on France's nuclear-powered electricity)
→ car-sharing has massive benefits
→ EVs better than conventional cars
Our latest @OurWorldinData article:https://t.co/vUbLFDRW5Y pic.twitter.com/VZLapcjOnE
— Hannah Ritchie (@_HannahRitchie) October 13, 2020
But energy efficiency isn’t just about the total greenhouse gases emitted. According to the Washington Post, "it’s about how many people a vehicle can carry and how far it can take those people. To evaluate modes of transport, scientists calculate the amount of CO2 equivalent generated to transport one passenger over a given distance."
All things considered, experts agree that train travel tends to come with the smallest carbon footprint. And, says Montori, train travel has allowed her to see interesting places she might have otherwise skipped — even though it took her a little while to get on board.
“I was panicked about not easily seeing my family and friends in California and in Florida," she says. "I have always traveled to both places at least once a year." Soon, however, she discovered the joys and affordability of train travel.
“It also allows for some really pleasant human connections,” Montori says, adding that she still sees those family members around the country, albeit less often, and that the trips are now longer and packed with sightseeing. “The landscapes are incredible,” she notes. “I break up the cross-country trips by stopping in cities that I probably would never have made one of my destinations.”
But what about carbon offsets?
Some fans of flying who have good environmental intentions may think they're doing their part by taking advantage of “carbon offset programs" from various carriers. But if you check that carbon offset box and pay a few extra bucks, can you really fly guilt-free?
As you probably suspected, the answer is no.
Programs that promise to support carbon removal and emission reductions are, at the very least, overpromised and inaccurately reported, according to experts.
“In theory, carbon offset programs allow polluters to ‘cancel out’ the harm of their emissions by funding someone else to do something good for the climate,” explains Freya Chay, program director for CarbonPlan, a nonprofit research organization working to improve the transparency and scientific integrity of climate solutions. But these claims often fall short.
“When we emit CO2 into the atmosphere,” she continues, “it impacts the climate for millennia. To truly counteract that emission, you need to take CO2 back out of the atmosphere and store it permanently. There are very few carbon credits on the voluntary market today that represent this kind of high-quality carbon removal. If carbon credits are not high-quality, carbon offset programs allow polluters to trade a clear climate harm for an unclear climate benefit.”
Sinistore agrees, pointing out that other seemingly hopeful claims — such as that certain airlines are more sustainable than others because of alternative fuels — have to be taken with a grain of salt.
“I am very skeptical about sustainable aviation fuels because many of them are made from biofuels,” she says, “which are made from commodity crops like corn and soybeans — which have just the same [environmental] problems as other products of industrial agriculture, like meat, dairy and eggs.” Biofuels, Sinistore explains, rely on large-scale monoculture of commodity crops, which depend on fertilizers that contribute to eutrophication — which is when bodies of water become enriched with nutrients, usually due to runoff from the land, resulting in plant density that leads to animals dying from a lack of oxygen.
The good news is that both Sinistore and Fray believe some airlines are taking this seriously and investigating low-carbon fuel alternatives — and even experimenting with what they call 100% sustainable aviation fuel, including those derived from algae.
What if you can't go fully flight-free?
For those whose work relies on travel — or whose families are in countries separated by large bodies of water — there are half-measures and compromises that can still make a difference.
“I think we all should think more judiciously about how we travel,” says Sinistore. “I would encourage people to consider alternative methods when it is possible to not fly.” But still, simply minimizing the amount of air travel can help; Sinistore says that she batches together personal and professional activities during the times she does fly, thereby cutting down on her footprint significantly.
This resonated for Montori, whose family members committed to flying much less often than they had been, rather than boycott it altogether.
“Flight reduction and moderation are impactful too,” she says, adding that she’s hopeful the recent infrastructure bill introduced by the Biden administration and passed by Congress will make Amtrak travel even easier and more affordable for all, and noting, “Resources are finally going back into our train infrastructure."