Travel Ethics: To Fly or Not to Fly?


I was at my doctor’s office last week. With February fast approaching, I remembered that his annual family trip to Hawaii must be in the offing.
“Not this year,” he told me, a bit hesitantly. It sounded to me like there was more to the story, so I waited for him to fill in the blanks. “We’ve been thinking about our impact on the earth, and we just don’t think we can justify the long flight.”
How about that? My doctor and his wife have canceled their annual Hawaii vacation because they’re committed to reducing their family carbon footprint. Perhaps their two young sons understand, or maybe they don’t yet. But it illustrates the fact that tackling the climate crisis begins with real personal choices.

 

Aviation fuel emissions: growing impact on climate
How can you know how much CO2 you’ll be emitting on your planned vacation? This is actually not hard at all to figure out. But let’s start with the basics:

For starters, Americans on average emit 17 to 18 tons of CO2 every year.  That’s about double the level of the average European, and many times more than those from developing countries.  For many of us, our homes are our largest carbon emitters. Here at Good Hand Farm, despite years of work on insulation, window replacements, programmable thermostats and solar panels, our old farmhouse still burns enough heating oil to emit 9.5 tons of CO2, or about 3 tons per current occupant.

Our cars add more carbon emissions, of course. Our small diesel sedan and hybrid hatchback each account for about 2-3 tons of CO2 per year. A large car or SUV would emit about 2.5 times as much.
How do we know all these things? We found a great website from the World Land Trust that helps people like us figure out the carbon impact of our lifestyle choices: the houses we live in, the distances we commute, the cars we drive. I’d recommend it to anyone. Take a look here.
But (returning to our topic) what about business and leisure air travel? Well, it turns out that flying can be a huge carbon binge. Last year, I helped lead a student group in South China. My share of the flight’s emissions? A whopping 5.9 tons of CO2! That’s almost double my annual share of home heating emissions. This spring, I’m planning to fly to Nairobi, Kenya for consultations with other creation care workers. Chalk up another 5.3 tons!

 

Spacious skies? They’re getting pretty clogged.
I can thank the New York Times for highlighting the heavy carbon cost of air travel. Last Sunday, they printed a great piece on this topic, titled Your Biggest Carbon Sin May Be Air Travel. Business people, they note, routinely cross the country, adding 2-3 tons of earth-warming CO2 per coast-to-coast trip. A visit to London or Frankfurt? Add another 3 tons. Frequent fliers will do well to turn down the thermostat at home, but cutting one or two flights may have a much greater impact.
It’s important to note that how we travel also makes a big difference. Taking the train from New York to Washington generates only one-third the emissions of the flight from La Guardia – before considering the often-greater carbon costs of cabs or rental cars to and from the airport. And taking the family car may sometimes be the very worst choice. My little fuel-sipping cars are just barely more climate-friendly on a trip to Washington than the plane, but a larger vehicle would emit significantly more carbon than flying – unless we were carrying multiple passengers.
So before booking your next trip, spend a little time on the World Land Trust’s site.  You may be surprised at how easy it is understand the carbon impact of your life choices. And consider purchasing carbon offsets to reduce the climate impact of your flight. The proceeds fund projects that reduce greenhouse gases. Sure, your trip will cost you a little bit more, but someone is bearing those costs anyway — among them, your own children.
And my doctor’s choice to skip this year’s family trip to Hawaii? They’re saving the earth 14.4 tons of earth-warming CO2. That’s almost a year’s worth of emissions for the average American. Admittedly, this February will be a good bit colder for them. But they can begin planning their summer boating trip to nearby Lake George, secure in the knowledge that their choices are making a difference for the future of the children they love.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood

3 thoughts on “Travel Ethics: To Fly or Not to Fly?

  1. andrew

    I’m encouraged to see examples of people like that doctor choosing vacations that have lower CO2 emissions. However, I wonder about the extent to which people who save money that way use the money to fund other activities with different emissions. For instance, will the doctor buy or rent a few jet skis for that vacation on Lake George? Will s/he upgrade the family’s lawn mower? Small engines like those are surprisingly wasteful & fuelish, as they usually don’t have catalytic converters & are not well tuned.
    Hopefully, the small actions that some people are taking will slow down global warming, at least a little. That said, even if we were to stop GHG emissions altogether, now (and no one seems to have a serious plan for how to do that), we have already committed to quite a bit of warming over the next 30 or 40 years.
    I think the question now, then, is whether God will miraculously intervene, to limit & retard the warming, so that people can adapt.

    Reply
    1. John Elwood Post author

      Andrew, no one (certainly not me) can claim to be an expert on the topic of whether God will intervene miraculously on a global scale. I must say that nothing I have seen in natural history leads me to hope that God’s intervention, however it comes, will negate the natural laws he has put in place to govern the world, and the consequences of ignoring those laws. We may wish for miracles causing Ebola to tame itself, or for nuclear waste to become less lethal, or for heavy metals to cause fewer birth defects. I suspect that the miracles will be evident in the changed hearts of people to redeem the harm that comes from these ills, and others. Thanks for the comment.

      Reply
  2. Andrew

    You might be right, John. It’s the same theme as your later post in Feb 2016, about God promising to rescue His people from Egypt, & then sending Moses as His agent.
    Sometimes, at least, God seeks to use us as His hands & feet.

    Reply

Leave a Reply