By Elisabeth Gick

Greta Thunberg, teenager, school striker, UN speaker, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee, is setting new standards in so many ways. She came from her home country Sweden to the US by sailboat, because she did not want to add to the global CO2 emissions caused by flying. That set the bar high for all of us.

According to a Washington Post article from Sept 18, flights were responsible for 2.4 percent of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2018 — a figure expected to grow more than threefold by 2050. While 2.4% does not sound like a frightening amount it is flying that explodes our personal carbon footprints to their American average of about 16 metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent a year, more than triple the global average. To illustrate the damage climatologists Dirk Notz and Julienne Stroeve calculated that each additional metric ton of carbon dioxide or its equivalent — your (not the plane’s) share of the emissions on a cross-country flight one-way from New York to Los Angeles — shrinks the summer sea ice cover in the Arctic by 3 square meters, or 32 square feet.

In fact, one trans-Atlantic or cross-country flight blows through 1 person’s entire lifetime carbon budget allotted for aviation and about 16.5% of your entire lifetime carbon budget! (****See flight math below.)

As travelers for fun, business, happy or sad family events most of us get on airplanes without much thought to the climate consequences. We like to tell ourselves that we don’t really have a choice. But, of course, we do.

Except for the recycling part the environmentalist’s mantra “refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle” works in alleviating flight guilt (also called flight shame) with a few tweaks.

REFUSE: well, you just don’t fly at all, or you use the train, a bus, the car (not automatically a better solution), have more Zoom or Skype conferences, write an email or a letter. All this used to work well in the past and it will work in the future.

REDUCE: that’s pretty self explanatory as well. “Do I really need it?” is the question when you see a pretty T-shirt and it has to be the question before booking another flight.

REUSE: can you combine one flight purpose with another, see grandma while on a business trip, take your vacation in Vancouver because you are there for a wedding anyway and so on? It might just work out.

RECYCLE: nope, that one does not work.

After thorough consideration of the alternatives, there will still be times when flying is the right way to go. How to alleviate the impacts then?

For years, environmental organizations like the Nature Conservancy and Rain Forest Action Network have offered off-sets. That means they help you calculate your carbon emissions connected with a certain flight (or with your annual emissions output overall) and put a $$ value on that which you will then donate to any of the certified carbon off-set organizations.

Let’s just be clear that this is not an ideal solution, but certainly better than doing nothing.

You can also fairly easily calculate your CO2 emissions with these guidelines from BlueSkyModel. They get very specific with plane models and other details, but for most of us the averages should work just fine:

On average, one air mile produces 53.3 pounds of carbon dioxide.

On average, one kilowatt-hour creates 1.13 pounds of carbon dioxide.

And one gallon of gasoline produces 18.07 pounds of carbon dioxide.

(They give no numbers for fracked gas for furnaces and water heaters; nothing on consumer goods. And in case you forgot: 1 metric ton is 2,205 pounds)

And then you put a price on your CO2 emissions. 

As it turns out I am just your average American with an annual output of slightly over 16 metric tons; applying the TerraPass* price of roughly $11 per metric ton per year I owe Mother Earth $184. THIS SEEMS WAY TOO LOW!!  

Diving deeper I found an interesting 24-page brochure by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) on the topic of airline carbon offsets. They put the price per metric ton of CO2 at between $5.50 and $33, meaning I owe anywhere between $88 and $528. Clearly, this is not an exact science.

The best solution I have come up with so far is to donate $50 per short flight and $100 per long flight to my favorite trustworthy climate organization: 350 Colorado. Maybe you’ll do the same.


* TerraPass is an organization offering carbon off-sets; they are accredited by  four independent party review audits;

** Trump’s EPA offers a CO2 calculator as well. One without a place to account for flying, however.

*** Some airlines offer off-sets when you book your flight; they are very cheap, some airlines take admin fees out of the low price, and they usually don’t tell you where the money goes.  

**** Here’s the flight math: divide the carbon emissions budget we have left to stay below a 1.5 degree global temperature rise (356B Tons) x the 2% of global emissions from aviation (assuming that flight remains about 2% of our ghg emissions) = 7B tons of the carbon budget from aviation remaining. Divide that by the # of people on the planet to be equitable (7.7B) = .92 ton of carbon per person aviation budget. 1 cross-Atlantic flight (Denver-London) emits 2.8 tons CO2/person. 2.8 tons is far more than our .92 ton/person budget for flights. Divide 2.8/.92 and we should only have ~.33 of those flights per person to stick to our aviation budget. Considering the above, each person’s total lifetime budget of carbon in total is ~46 tons of carbon, so 1 big flight uses ~16.5% of a person’s entire lifetime carbon budget – an enormous percentage considering a lifetime of emissions.