Air travel has less of a carbon footprint, and is more efficient, than all other forms of travel in America.
TRAVEL ITSELF IS BAD
Perhaps the biggest problem with air travel is that it has made the world a smaller place. People are more likely to buy a ticket and fly to the exact opposite end of the world on a whim, instead of taking a vacation in the next town over, or even just visiting the other end of their country.
You aren't likely to drive your car across a continent and back, a few times per year, for work conferences. Most people haven't seen the tourist attractions in their own town, yet take pride in visiting them in foreign cities. etc.
Though air travel is cleaner than other forms of travel, it encourages so much more additional travel in people that it definitely has a net negative impact on the environment.
Is travel bad for the environment? Yes. Should you travel less? Yes. Should you travel shorter distances? Yes. Should you blame aircraft for that? ...
Well, kinda, but not really. Flying a long distance is better for the environment than driving a long distance. Hate the convenience, but not the vehicle, I suppose.
So we've established that travel is bad. Just how bad, exactly?
Well, let's put it into context using the AAC measuring stick: owning an Average American Car for one year.
- Circling the globe in an airliner is as bad for the environment as one AAC. That's a pretty big deal, and I understand if that's harrowing for you; imagine every big vacation you take, you end up doubling down on every single drive to work. Yikes. (The average flight is usually quite short, but let's use the worst case here)
- Having a cat costs you about 5 AAC. Yep, owning a cat is way worse for the environment than going on vacation to the opposite end of the globe five times per year.
- Air conditioning/heating in the average american home is about the same as owning around 6 AAC. If you turn off that cool breeze you can take a bunch of vacations each year, guilt-free!
- A dog will cost you 12 AAC (plus or minus depending on size).
- Here's a nightmare: babies are 30 AAC, plus each year they end up adding more to the total, and eventually they'll fly themselves and spawn their own babies. If a baby takes a seat on the plane, that makes everyone else's flight worse for the environment as well. Babies are bad.
- Another bad thing for the environment is YOU. Human adults range from 40-80 AAC depending on lifestyle and food choices.
- The absolute worst for the environment is a litter of dogs/cats. There must be a cruel universal inverse relationship between cuteness and how guilty you should feel.
Most of the environmental impact of living beings - the greenhouse emissions, carbon footprint, etc. - come from food intake. Things like beef take a lot of energy to produce, transport, and preserve, and is the main reason why cats and dogs (and humans) are so bad for the environment. Just "going vegetarian" might not help either; the second-worst-thing after beef is a head of lettuce, so you have to be very picky about your food sources. But that's a whole other discussion.
I'm not able to place a scientific value on "life" versus travel, but if you are a classic American-family - white picket fence, a dog, married with two kids, meat BBQ in the back yard, AC running every day - you are almost as bad for the environment as you can get already. Some air travel is just a drop in that bucket. You might as well buy a pickup truck too, and roll coal on weekends.
On the other hand, if you are a single vegetarian living in an too-hot-apartment and you walk to work each day - flying frequently around the world will, at most, double your carbon footprint if you fly a lot.
I believe that all products should have a cost baked into it that includes all carbon offsets (and other such taxes) to bring the environmental impact of the product to net-zero. This will make things more expensive and slow down the economy though, so it's unlikely to happen - especially in America.
Thankfully, the environmentally-minded can donate to charities to buy things like carbon offsets for your lifestyle - to "buy permission" to fly in planes more often. Here's some prices I pulled off one such website today:
- Flying around the globe: $8
- Owning a car for a year: $20
Some airlines even give you a checkbox during checkout to include these rates in your ticket.
If you feel guilty about the environmental impact of your air travel - set aside $20 per trip and you're paying for yourself and a random stranger as well. You're doing your part, and you can fly guilt-free.
What's even better is if you just donate thousands of dollars per year to environmental organizations, or lobbying your government to increase taxes. But hey - I'm a dirty socialist. I would say that.
Okay, you're going to travel. It's a long distance, you have all the time in the world, and your time and comfort isn't valuable. How should you travel?
Mile-for-mile impact ranked, from American data, in order of environmental-niceness:
- Rail (marginally worse than airline)
- Bus (marginally worse than rail)
- Car (1.5x worse than air travel)
- Ocean Liner (10x worse than car)
- Helicopter (10x worse than ocean liner)
Basically, if you travel via any method other than in an airliner, you'll be doing worse for the environment than if you just got in that plane.
This is using average-use-case-data, however. If you have a high-fuel-efficiency car (or an electric car), you're tying an airline, you just have to account for your time.
This data also assumes the average-use of only having one seat filled in your car. If you cram in 4 friends into a high-efficiency vehicle, you are actually beating airlines! Do that! Road trips with your friends is king.
Reminder, though: this is American data. Bullet-trains in Asia are better than air travel, too! The US mass-transit system is not so modern.
Neuter your pets and don't worry about flying. If you do fly, buy a $10 carbon credit. Don't take any criticism from anyone that has children. Consider eating less beef. Turn down your AC. Be a socialist.