The impact of travel

By | January 6, 2020

I travel a lot. I go on a lot of international trips for business, I travel to see Philip Glass performances, and I travel to see family and friends.

I love to travel, but like Marley with his heavy chains, I am getting more and more concerned about my enormous carbon footprint.

Sure: I could stop traveling to see performances (I have vowed to myself to cut down). But with a sick family member to visit and the poor state of virtual meetings making business travel a necessity, I don’t see my plane travel going down very much any time soon.

How much impact does just one person really have?

The carbon footprint of flying is very high. This New York Times article cites a recent study computing each individual’s share of the mighty carbon footprint of a flight, and it is measured in metric tons. Per person on the flight. Put in terms that are more relatable, each metric ton of carbon emissions equates to three square meters (32 square feet) of melted ice on the Arctic summer sea.

But the fuel burned and the carbon emitted by the plane is just one part of the hit to the environment. There’s also all those people driving to and from the airport, the enormous number of water bottles and other single-use plastics used to serve the passengers, and the many, many people and pieces of equipment used and fuel burned to build, service, and fuel the plane, haul luggage around, maintain giant airports, and so much more. It’s an incredibly hefty carbon footprint. There is some activity in the world of aviation to improve this, but the industry seems to be only in the early steps of this effort.

So what can we do about it?

1. Make it possible to not have to travel for business.

I have a blog post about why business travel is unfortunately necessary in many cases. In this post I conclude that until big improvements are made in the solutions for running and attending virtual meetings, business travel is here to stay. A snippet from the post:

How is it possible in this day and age that there are still telephony and audio-quality issues at these meetings? … We need someone to come along to solve the virtual meeting problem…. In light of the very real and very imminent impacts of climate change, we need to find a way to be able to effectively work without the global travel.

And in the post, I conclude that until it’s possible to effectively meet virtually, I’ll keep getting on a plane.

2. Combine trips whenever possible

Whenever I am flying somewhere on business, I try to make the trip pull double duty. I see if I have any other clients in the area I can visit while I’m there. I also call any family members who are within a reasonable distance to see if a visit can be arranged, and I look into whether there are any Glass (or other) performances nearby.

3. Try to make up for it in other ways

I know this is like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound — but I’ve decided to look for ways to offset my hefty carbon footprint in other ways. On the plus side, I have a fairly low carbon footprint aside from my travel.

  • I don’t commute to an office (except when it involves getting on a plane), so do very little driving.
  • I avoid single-use plastics: I bring my own bags and mesh produce bags to the store,  I use metal straws, I purchase low-plastic and no-plastic alternatives when I can.
  • I recycle fanatically, including coaching others on it (often to their annoyance, if I’m being honest).

But as I know this is a tiny drop in a huge bucket of environmental sins, I’ve decided to look into contributing to a carbon offset program. I’m only now starting to investigate, but I’ll start by investigating Cool Effects, which is the firm used by the New York Times to offset their reporters’ travel. I’ll update this post when I learn more