Sustainable Travel: How to Limit Your Carbon Footprint When Flying

As Covid-19 travel restrictions continue to be lifted in most countries, several people have resumed flying or are considering flying for various reasons. In the course of booking your next flight, you might have come across mentions of carbon emissions associated with your flight, or given the option to offset your flight. But do you know what that means? While some of us with interest in sustainable travel might understand what flight carbon footprints and offsets mean, many of us probably do not. The aim of this post is to equip you to travel more sustainably, by elaborating on five tips to reduce your carbon footprint when flying.

Before you decide to fly!

Transportation accounts for about one-fifth of global carbon dioxide emissions, which are responsible for climate change. Different modes of transport vary significantly in their carbon footprint, that is, the amount of carbon they emit per passenger kilometre. Consequently, different transportation modes also vary in their impact on the environment. A study in the UK, highlights domestic flights as having the highest carbon footprint, and traveling by rail, the lowest carbon footprint.  

Carbon footprint per passenger kilometer for different transportation modes
Source: Our world in data

If you seek to travel more sustainably (which we all should be aiming for), then it is important to take into consideration the carbon footprint associated with your trip when making travel plans. Based on the above graph, before you decide to fly, it is better to first explore travel options by rail, and car in order to limit the carbon footprint and environmental impact of your trip.

How can you fly more sustainably?

The carbon footprint of flights is determined by different factors such as aircraft types, route specific data, passenger load, and cargo carried. Therefore, if you decide to go ahead with flying, there are a number of ways you can limit the carbon footprint and environmental impact of your trip. Here are five tips to fly more sustainably:

  1. Choose flights with lower carbon emissions per passengers. When booking flights, several search engines highlight the carbon footprints of each flight option. Take these figures into consideration and opt for flights with lower emissions. Google flight for example, highlights the carbon emissions of each flight option, and compares this emission to the average emission on that route. You can also determine the carbon footprint of your flight using the ICAO carbon emissions calculator.
Carbon emissions for flights from Vancouver to Kahului

2. Fly economy. This is more efficient compared to flying business class. An economy class ticket can emit up to four times less emissions than a business class ticket, because packing more passengers in a plane increases efficiency and decreases emissions per passenger. Purchasing an economy class ticket will limit your carbon footprint when flying.

3. Choose a non-stop flight. Landing and take-off emit high emissions. By choosing a direct flight, you will limit the release of high emissions during take-off and landing compared to flights with several stops. Direct flights therefore have a lower carbon footprint compared to flights with multiple stops.

4. Give preference to daytime flights over night flights. Research suggests that night flights are twice as bad for the environment. This is because, the clouds generated by aircrafts trap more heat at night when compared to the day, causing extra heat. During the day, the presence of sunlight counteracts this effect, and reduces the flight’s carbon footprint.

5. Consider purchasing carbon offsets to compensate for the carbon footprint of your flight. Carbon offsets are simply credits that can be allocated to a party (for example a tree planter) for undertaking an activity that reduces carbon emissions from the atmosphere. These credits can be sold to another party (for example an air traveler) to compensate for their emissions, in this case emissions generated from flying. They are typically sold/bought directly though some airlines, or through international brokers, online retailers and trading platforms. In addition to reducing emissions, purchasing carbon offsets also advance other causes such as enhancing biodiversity, clean energy, coastal blue carbon, and local communities. When purchasing offsets, it is key to verify that these carbon offsets support innovative projects to fight climate change and that they meet recognized standards such as The Gold Standard, and the IATA standard.

Leslie Fotso
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