Wanderlust can be fraught for eco-conscious travellers.
While there are myriad ways to practice sustainable tourism through eco-friendly accommodations and locales that preserve their natural surroundings, flying to get yourself there—and the carbon footprint that comes with it—is one part of our itinerary over which we seem to have little control.
Here are some basics about how air travel impacts climate change and how you can reduce your carbon footprint from flying on your next travel adventure.
How much does air travel contribute to climate change?
A recent 2022 report paints a dire picture of the Earth’s future if we don’t act quickly to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Each year, the world emits about 36 billion metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, with air transport making up about 2.5 percent of it.
At first glance, air travel’s contribution to emissions may seem too low to be of much concern, but with our seemingly insatiable desire to fly, and continuing growth in global tourism, those emissions are expected to triple by 2050. Consider that, in 2019, airplanes carried over 4.5 billion passengers across the skies and, in the U.S. alone, 2.9 million passengers fly in and out of its airports every day.
As innovations to reduce carbon emissions sweep through other modes of transportation, the airplane remains stubbornly old school.
Decarbonizing aircraft, it turns out, is really hard to do.
Is it possible for planes to be electric?
Electrification isn’t likely to expand beyond small aircraft due to the limitations of battery capacity. Zero-emissions aircraft using hydrogen fuel cells, however, are on the horizon. But don’t postpone your travel plans until you can board one––Airbus doesn’t expect its first model until 2035.
How to reduce your carbon footprint when you fly
While you could commit to eliminating all air travel until zero-emission planes land on the runway, this is probably not a realistic goal. Whether visiting family across the globe or exploring rich cultures abroad, international travel is a wonderful experience that isn’t about to disappear, nor the necessity of flying. There are, however, practical ways you can minimize the impact your air travel has on climate change when you take your next trip abroad.
Stick with an economy class seat
There’s a reason the number of economy seats far outnumber first class seats—they have the most affordable price tags and are, by far, most people’s first choice. But if you’re a consummate first class flyer and want to reduce your carbon footprint, consider sacrificing your ample leg space for a cozy economy seat.
Is business class bad for the environment?
A 2013 World Bank study indicates emissions are three times greater in business class than in economy. How is that possible? It comes down to how many passengers can fit onto a plane, and your spacious recliner in first class takes up more space than the centre seat you upgraded from 25 rows back.
How do you calculate each person’s carbon footprint on a flight?
To calculate each passenger’s carbon footprint on a flight, its total emissions are divided by the number of passengers on board. The more seats that are occupied, the lower the carbon footprint of each passenger, and vice versa. Since first class seats take up more space than economy seats, they reduce the total number of seats that can be filled on a flight.
The Boeing 777 300, for example, seats 451 passengers when it offers two class seating, but when it’s set up for economy only, there are enough seats for 500 passengers. Of course, this also depends on how full the flight is, and since you can never know in advance whether a flight is full, choosing economy is your best bet.
If the plane is only half full, whether you’re seated in economy or first class doesn’t make a difference on your carbon footprint.
Larger airplanes leave more room for a smaller carbon footprint
Flying in a larger aircraft tends to be more eco-friendly than catching a ride on a smaller jet. This one may seem counterintuitive given that conventional wisdom dictates that the smaller the device, the less energy to power it. And, yes that does hold true when comparing a jumbo jet that can carry up 300-plus passengers to a business jet that holds 10—if both are carrying only 10 passengers.
If you’re flying on the jumbo jet at close to capacity, the carbon footprint per individual is going to be much smaller.
Another way of putting it: if 300 people had to fly in 10-person jets, that would require 30 jets to do what one jumbo jet can do in a single flight. This also helps explain why private jets are considered the least climate-friendly way to fly.
Fly in moderation
How often do you fly in a typical year? Do struggle to remember the last time you flew, or do you run out of fingers trying to count how often you boarded a plane? A 2017 study found most Americans fly very little or not at all, while about 10 percent of Americans fly an average of 14 times in a year.
Limiting the frequency of your flights is a common sense way to reduce your carbon footprint from flying. If it’s business travel that dictates much of your flying schedule, consider meeting virtually instead. The pandemic has proven how easy it is to chat by video instead of in-person. It’s a trend worth continuing.
Choose direct flights
While you can’t alway choose a direct flight over one that has stopovers, when the opportunity does arise, a direct flight is the more climate-friendly option. That’s, in part, because a significant share of fuel is used during takeoff and landing, so your carbon footprint is going to be smaller on a flight with no stops. In addition, the further the distance an airplane has to cover, the smaller the relative fuel consumption burden from takeoff and landing has on the overall flight.
Purchase carbon offsets to reduce your individual impact
When you travel by air, the potential to reduce your carbon footprint is somewhat limited. However, there is one way you can, theoretically, reverse the amount of emissions you personally contribute during your flight. That’s through carbon offsets.
How do carbon offsets work for air travel?
When you purchase a carbon offset, you support a project that’s working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, such as a wind farm, tree planting, or carbon capture technologies. Thanks to a proliferation of carbon offset platforms, like Less, it’s easier than ever to calculate the carbon footprint of your flight and match it with an eco-friendly project that offsets that amount.
To make this even simpler, many airlines, such as Air Canada and Westjet, offer the option to purchase offsets when you book your flight. In most cases, the cost of the offset is small relative to the cost of the flight it’s offsetting.
Choose to travel by train instead
Taking the train is one of the easiest and most eco-friendly ways to travel, and should be a part of every sustainable tourist’s backpack. Today, three-quarters of passenger rail transportation takes place on electric trains. And, although North American trains are predominantly run on diesel, many of the most popular regions to visit boast high speed electrified rail networks that cross regional and national boundaries, including European Union, China, India, and Japan.
Electrified rail is coming, albeit slowly, to North America. Canada is planning a rail line that will connect Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City and reduce travel times by 25 per cent with electric trains that travel up to 200 km per hour.
Eco-Friendly Travel Tip: Rocketman is a free Canadian transit app that tells you when your next train or bus is coming in real-time, and provides you with the latest transit alerts.
Driving can be more eco-friendly than flying, but not always
When is it more eco-friendly to drive than to fly? The answer depends on a number of factors, such as distance traveled, the vehicle’s fuel efficiency, and number of passengers in both options. Just as a flight at full capacity is going to attribute a smaller carbon footprint to each passenger than one at half capacity, a road trip with four friends is more climate friendly than driving solo.
Another important consideration is the type of car you drive. The difference between an SUV, compact car, or electric vehicle (which has zero emissions) can be substantial.
If you’re feeling more confused than ever, a good place to start is with the distance of your trip. For short trips, driving a fuel efficient vehicle with other passengers will very likely result in a smaller carbon footprint than flying an airplane the same distance. Short distance flights are typically flown in smaller airplanes which, as described above, tend to increase your individual carbon footprint.
As the distance you plan to travel increases, flying grows more favourable, especially if you stick to sustainable travel practices, such as booking direct flights on large passenger carriers.
Small choices can make a big difference
The aircraft technology that fuels our love of flying may have a long way to go before it can significantly curtail its GHG emissions, but there is much we can do, individually, to limit the impact international travel has on our climate.
By considering eco-friendly alternatives and making responsible choices along the way, you can keep your carbon footprint in check while enjoying everything the world has to offer.
This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.