How Can I Travel Without Wrecking the Environment?

Jul 9, 2014
Outside Magazine

Think of these little guys next time you buy tickets for a jumbo jet.    Photo: Oksana Perkins/Thinkstock


If we’re actually concerned about climate change and our contribution to it, should we really be flying all over the world to visit places for fun?

The simple answer is no. The International Council on Clean Transportation, a nonprofit that helps transportation industries around the world become more sustainable, estimates that the 17,000 jets in service today produce nearly a third as much CO2 as the billion cars on the world’s roads and highways. Put another way: “Flying emits more carbon dioxide than any other form of mass transportation,” says Daniel Rutherford, program director for ICCT’s aviation arm.

Of course, if we truly cared about climate change, flying isn’t the only modern convenience we’d have to nix (we’re looking at you, electricity and out-of-season strawberries). The depressing reality is that most of us depend, directly or indirectly, on some form of fossil fuel, and the best we can do is make small adjustments to reduce our footprint. We ride our bike to work. We compost. We use Energy Star appliances.

Air travel isn’t the most natural fit for this baby-steps approach to sustainability, but it is possible to be a greener flier. You can start, says Rutherford, by taking fewer and longer vacations to reduce your fuel burn.

Airline choice matters, too, as some carriers operate lighter planes with more efficient engines. According to ICCT data, Alaska Airlines is number one in fuel efficiency, followed by Spirit, Hawaiian, Southwest, and Frontier. The worst offender is American Airlines, with Allegiant Air and Sun Country close behind.

For regional flights, Rutherford says that turboprops—modern propeller planes, basically—are more fuel efficient than jets, based on “underlying propulsive efficiency” (we’ll take his word for it). “Given the choice of taking a regional jet or a turboprop to Yellowstone National Park’s airport,” adds Rutherford, “take turboprop.” Alaska Airlines also scores high in this category; its regional affiliate, Horizon, flies only turboprop planes. 

Beyond airline choice, Rutherford suggests flying coach, where you’ll take up less floor space proportionate to fuel burn than those in first or business class. Also, pack lightly. “If you reduce a pound of luggage weight, you’re reducing maybe a half to three-fourths of a pound of CO2 round-trip,” says Rutherford. “Leave a 20-pound bag at home and that equates to a gallon and a half to two gallons of fuel reduction.” Like we said, baby steps.

One thing Rutherford does not bring up is carbon offsets—attempting to balance or cancel out one’s carbon emissions by funding environmentally friendly initiatives and organizations. We won’t open the can of worms that is the debate over carbon credits, but we will mention that most major airlines now offer passengers the option to atone for all that gas guzzling by donating to various nonprofits, such as the Nature Conservancy and Sustainable Travel International.

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