The climate cost of air travel is something I’ve been aware of for many years. Early into my six-year relationship with the Oxford-based politically progressive publication New Internationalist, I was forging a friendship with climate activist and editor Adam Ma’anit as he was completing work on his tour-de-force magazine on carbon.
We had many conversations about the options – from tearing up the runways (or similar ideas proposed by UK-based writer, Monbiot), to carbon offsets (questionable at best, to damaging at their worst) – and how to deal with my personal “carbon guilt” from knowing that I care about the environment, but my work, or family, or friends, or lifestyle require the occasional flight.
I am not a carbon scientist, nor do I want to become one. I find the array of calculators and different ways that different groups calculate my “carbon footprint” dizzying at best. My take away from a cursory reading of some of the “how we calculate your personal carbon footprint” pages on the Internet leads me to believe that rail travel (at least in North America) and car travel aren’t exponentially better than flying, and when climate scientists proclaim “I will not fly,” inevitably comes the response “But the planes will fly anyway, with or without you.”
The big take aways that I remember from my conversations with Adam were: A) to avoid climate change, carbon needs to stay in the ground, and B) as individuals, we need to do our personal best.
Like others, I’ve tried to reduce my footprint in the easy ways. I live a relatively simple life with few possession and with minimal consumption. I don’t own a car (in fact, I only received my learner’s permit this year!) and I’ve always preferred to bike over driving. I spend winters in a climate where heating is not necessary, and I try to arrange summers away from air conditioning. But all of that aside, like many people I would assume, the biggest impact on my annual footprint is the roughly six long flights I take each year. Depending on the calculator, these add up to somewhere around four metric tons of CO2e. That sounds like a lot to me, but out of context it’s hard to really know.
What I do know for certain is that I have an obligation to try and do my personal best in the context of having family and friends in Toronto and Mexico, and clients and friends in New York, Vancouver, and Seattle (not to mention friends that I rarely get to spend time with across the pond :( ). So, over the last few years I’ve tried to strike a balance between these factors by experimenting with different strategies to reduce the number of flights I take each year, while still making it possible to enjoy some quality time with family, friends, and the people I work with regularly.
In 2011, if I had to guess, I’d say I flew at least 15 or 20 times because I was working with an organization that loves to fly people around the world. In 2012, I got that number down to roughly six with one simple personal commitment: whenever and wherever I step off a plane, I will try to stay put for at least four weeks. The first time I broke that rule this year was by taking a prop-engine flight down to New York and back from Toronto to host a talk with some companies that I’m really excited about, and then again to visit a close friend on Salt Spring Island, but – in general – I try my best to stick with the plan. Next year, I’m considering the idea of doubling-down and committing to “stay put for eight weeks at least.” My sense is that I can probably get down to two or three flights a year. Still a lot, but I feel like I’m working toward a balance between my lifestyle and health goals, and my environmental conscience.
Ultimately, I commit to these travel-reduction steps for much more than just the environmental reasons. There are several studies that link air travel and airports to increased stress in humans; not a big surprise, given that those findings confirm my own personal experience (and probably yours too). Beyond that, I find that I often catch a cold after flying and – in general – I’m not nearly as effective in my work when I’m on the road all the time. To do good work and to get “into the flow,” I require a level of consistency and routine that travel makes difficult. Same goes for exercise and eating well. All that to say, for someone who’s often referred to as a “nomad,” I feel like a much better human being when I stay put, carbon guilt aside.
So, for what it’s worth, I present to you one proven strategy for flying less, and being more personally effective: when you take a flight, stick around for a while. Aside from being good for the environment and good for your health, you might actually learn something about the place you landed.