Ask climate experts about the most effective changes individuals can make to help fight global warming and flying less, or not at all, is sure to be high on the list.
That’s because one passenger’s share of atmosphere-warming carbon emissions created by a roundtrip flight from Los Angeles to Paris is between 1 and 3 tons. For comparison, the average American car currently emits about 4.6 tons of carbon during an entire year of driving.
Industry-wide solutions, such as sustainable aviation fuel and electric jets, are in the works. But they’re also likely decades away from being able to make a real dent in aviation emissions — if they prove feasible to scale at all.
Some environmentalists say anyone unwilling to severely curtail their flying habits for the sake of the planet is denying the severity of the climate crisis. Others say demanding such sacrifices, when industry-level changes are needed to really make a difference in global warming, only serves to turn people off to the cause.
And what about people who need to travel for work or to see loved ones? And those who love nature and want to experience wild places but may not have schedules or budgets that allow for cleaner modes of transportation?
Such questions understandably, and rightfully, are causing angst for climate-conscious travelers, said Scott Fruin, a USC professor who studies the health effects of air pollution and is himself a travel lover.
“They’re kind of in opposition, the desire to enjoy the planet and to not hurt it,” Fruin said.
Some strategies for more sustainable travel, such as buying carbon offsets, don’t get high marks from many experts.
Fortunately, Fruin said, there are strategies that can have a real effect. And many also can save you money while creating richer, more enjoyable experiences along the way.
The first step to more sustainable travel is to plan your destination and your schedule wisely. And that starts by considering locations closer to home.
“People do kind of assume that the further they travel, the better the places,” Fruin said. But he pointed out that we have tremendous diversity of landscapes in the U.S., including in our state and national parks. If you do a little research, he said, you might be surprised at how many great spots are close to home. “So that’s something that can save you a lot of carbon emissions, but also save you a lot of time and money.”
If you are planning to hit popular tourist spots, such as Yellowstone or Yosemite national parks, consider the timing. Traveling outside peak summer season makes for less intense impacts on environment and wildlife, plus you’ll encounter much smaller crowds.
Another tip is to avoid making your schedule too ambitious and embrace what is known as “slow travel.”
Instead of three one-week trips a year, each packed with multiple stops, take one three-week trip and enjoy where you landed. This is the opposite of some travel influencer messaging, where people tout their “country count” and try to squeeze in as many new destinations as possible.
But if you move around less and stay longer in each destination, Fruin said, you’ll learn much more about that place and come back more rested at the end of your trip. Plus, it’s easier to justify the carbon it took to get there if you divide it by a higher number of vacation days in that spot.
If you must travel for work or a family obligation, make a habit of tacking extra time on either end for pleasure so you can squeeze in a vacation without creating extra emissions to get there — even when the destination isn’t somewhere previously on your bucket list. “Almost everywhere I’ve ever gone has been a place worth visiting.”
Avoid flying if possible
Once you’ve selected where and when to go, the biggest choice you’ll make from a climate perspective is how you’ll get there. And, here, pretty much any mode of transportation is better than flying.
In an ideal world, people could get around by train or bus. But in reality, while that’s possible in much of Europe and Asia, public transportation in the U.S. is generally quite slow, expensive and doesn’t go everywhere travelers want to go. There are still great domestic trips to be had by train, in particular, Fruin said, they just aren’t currently an option to replace all trips for all travelers.
Another great option is to drive a fully electric vehicle. But the U.S. is just ramping up its charging infrastructure in hopes of getting enough stations installed for cross-country EV driving. So, for now, Fruin said, the option remains “a little stressful.”
Conversely, there are ways to make the old-fashioned (gas-powered) road trip more sustainable.
First, Fruin said, drive the most fuel-efficient vehicle you can get. That could mean renting a hybrid, which will cost you up front but save you a lot in gas money along the way.
Next, pile in as many people as you can. The more people in the car, Fruin pointed out, the lower each person’s carbon footprint.
And, when you’re on the road, slow down. In some vehicles reducing your speed from 75 mph to 60 mph can cut your fuel consumption in half. Going back to the idea of slow travel, Fruin said he tries to get off freeways and take his time to find interesting stops along the way. And he always gets a kick out of catching up to cars that sped by him earlier because they had to stop more often for gas.
If you’ve gotta fly…
If trains or buses or fuel-efficient vehicles can’t get you where you need or want to go, there are ways to make flying a bit more sustainable.
The most effective, Fruin said, is to fly nonstop whenever possible. Aviation emissions are heaviest when planes take off, and taking off once rather than twice can reduce half the emission from that portion of the flight.
You also might want to consider choosing an airline that prioritizes sustainable aviation. So-called greenwashing (a practice in which companies claim to be more sustainable without making real changes) is a real concern, but some airlines have been transparent about investing in sustainable jet fuel and other long-term plans to reduce the industry’s emissions. So do your research and fly accordingly. And if your airline of choice isn’t on the list of climate leaders, apply some pressure through calls and social media to make it clear you’d like them to do more.
One controversial option for making flying more sustainable is the option of buying carbon offsets. There are dozens of websites and apps that let you calculate your share of carbon emissions on a flight. Fliers can then use airline or third-party carbon offset programs to invest proportionate funds in projects that aim to counteract climate change, such as efforts to protect or restore forests.
LAX created a Good Traveler program, with a website that prompts customers to buy offsets for flights from the airport. More than 75,000 people visited the site in 2022, per data from the airport, but just 63 people actually bought offsets, spending $1,329 to support forest projects throughout North America. That amounted to Los Angeles travelers in the program offsetting around 111 metric tons of carbon last year.
The challenge with such programs is that it can be tough to feel confident about the impact they’re having, noted Rohini Sengupta, director of Environmental Sustainability for United Airlines. There’s also not much enforcement around such programs, Fruin pointed out. It’s hard to prove, for example, that certain trees definitely would have been cut down if a traveler didn’t donate money to a forest preservation group. Most importantly, Sengupta pointed out such programs aren’t actually reducing the amount of carbon created by these flights.
In the end, Fruin said he sees such programs as a “feel-good thing that probably doesn’t hurt,” but also aren’t likely to do much in terms of slowing climate change.
Once you get there
Once you reach your destination, Fruin has what he acknowledges is perhaps a controversial take on how travelers should think about their climate impacts:
“Don’t sweat the small stuff.”
Most climate-conscious folks are going to bring their low-carbon lifestyle with them anyway, which means making good choices in general about using public transit when it’s available, trying to recycle, and turning off lights when you’re not using them.
Many hotels now also promote having you skip daily housekeeping services, which saves them money while reducing the water and power used in washing sheets and towels each day. And you can certainly search out resorts that make transparent commitments to such practices.
But by the time you’ve reached your destination, Fruin said, the vast majority of carbon impacts from your trip already happened. So, once you’re there, he said he wouldn’t let concerns about forgetting to bring your reusable straw spoil the vacation.
After all, if you don’t come back refreshed and with great memories or whatever else you’d hoped to get from the trip, that would truly be wasted carbon.
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