Whether it’s to drive dune buggies in the Sahara, go whale-spotting in the Pacific, or trek the rainforests in Brazil, travel has made every explorer’s dream possible. We have more access to the wonders of the world than ever before — and people are flocking to them in unprecedented numbers. Today, over 300% more people are flying than in 1990.
Yet it’s undeniable: travel is also putting an environmental strain on the climate. But don’t cancel your travel plans just yet — we’ve researched these nine different choices you can make to combat your CO2 impact when heading off on your next great adventure.
Choose nonstop flights
Unless you’re trying to squeeze in a sightseeing tour or visit a friend in a layover city, there’s not much reason why you wouldn’t pick a nonstop flight anyway, right? Nonstop flights not only save you hours of idle airport time, they also cut down on CO2 emissions.
Typically, a large part of the CO2 a flight emits is during takeoff and landing, so the fewer of these you can make during a trip, the better. And often, the price difference between a direct flight and one with a layover is minimal enough that the time and stress saved makes this choice more than worth it.
Choose to fly straight
Sometimes it’s impossible to fly nonstop. Maybe an airline goes on strike, the destination’s airport is too small or it’s just too far away to get there in one go — we get it. The important thing when looking through your carbon glasses is to pick the most direct connecting routes; not ones that zigzag across the map like a bee with a bad sense of direction.
Choose a fuel-efficient airline
Not every aircraft is created equal in terms of fuel efficiency, and not every airline company prioritizes investing in a fuel-efficient fleet. A good rule of thumb is to choose an airline with a more modern fleet; usually the newer the plane, the more fuel-efficient it is. The Airbus A350, Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Airbus A330, Embraer E2, and Airbus A220 aircraft all burn less than one gallon of jet fuel per 60 passenger miles.
Once you know which types of aircraft are more efficient, you can use momondo’s aircraft model filter to show the results that are scheduled to fly those airplanes.
Choose to downsize your plane
When it comes to carbon emissions, size does matter. For example, smaller twin-engine planes like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350 run on average 24% more efficiently than four-engine giants like the 747 and A380. And if you’re flying over shorter distances and have the option, choose turboprop planes to shave off even more emissions.
Choose economy over business or first class
This is one of those times when being cheap is also being good to the environment. Simply put, the more people you can get into a plane, the fewer CO2 emissions that plane will emit per passenger. Business and first-class seats are heavier and take up more room on the airplane — making the carbon footprint of their passengers three to nine times higher than that of economy passengers. So (try to) relax and feel good about feeling cramped!
You can find out the class seat ratio of different airlines to see who offers more economy seats vs business/first-class seats. As much as 25% of some airlines’ seats are of the latter kind, while other airlines only offer economy seats on their flights. If you know the aircraft model that your airline will use for your flight, you can see the number of economy vs business/first-class seats on sites like this.
Choose airlines and airports that use biofuels
Believe it or not, more and more airlines are using cleaner-burning fuels like biofuels sourced from raw materials like algae, jatropha, municipal waste, forestry slash, industrial waste gasses and even used cooking oil to tank up their fleet. Taking a bio-fueled flight can reduce emissions significantly compared to the same amount of fossil fuel, depending on the material used. So keep an eye out for the airports and airlines worldwide that regularly take this greener route.
You can also put your hard-earned green directly toward initiatives that promote the use of biofuels. Some airlines, airports, and organizations allow customers to purchase biofuel for flights. For instance, with Sweden’s Fly Green Fund you can buy locally produced biofuel through their website.
Choose to lighten your own load
When packing for a trip, you may be tempted to prepare for any situation with the appropriate attire (including footwear). But how often are you invited last minute to a cocktail party? And do you really need your laptop and your tablet?
The benefits of packing light go way beyond avoiding baggage fees; every little ounce results in carbon emissions when you need to get it airborne. And airlines have been experimenting for years on how to make things lighter; from meals and cutlery to in-flight magazines to the flight attendants(!). One airline estimated that losing just a pound in weight from every plane in its fleet would save 14,000 gallons of fuel a year! So pack a little less next time you fly — it makes a difference in your carbon footprint.
Choose the train
Ever considered taking this low-carbon form of transport to your final destination? Yes, it takes longer and often costs more than flying, but if you’re a “the journey is the destination” kind of person and would enjoy looking at the local landscapes rather than clouds, this is a great option.
Taking the train emits far less C02 than flying. And if time savings are one of the reasons why you choose to fly, remember that most major airports are located outside of the city, so you also have to include ground transport time (with those emissions) to the center — whereas the train usually pulls right up into the heart of the city. Factor in airport time checking in, going through security and waiting for luggage and, depending on the route, the trip time starts to even out.
Choose to offset your emissions
This option can be seen as a kind of last resort, band-aid solution if no other options are available or enough. Carbon offsetting is essentially paying money to “make up for” the amount of CO2 that will be emitted to transport you on your flight. Many carbon offsetting sites include a flight carbon calculator so you can pay the equivalent of your emissions on your flight.
Dig into this universe and you’ll find a heap of projects you can contribute to that reduce the production of CO2 (think replacing inefficient and unhealthy charcoal cookstoves in third-world countries with cleaner-burning ones) or reduce already-existing CO2 (e.g. planting trees). You can use your money to buy carbon credits from polluting companies and then “retire” them too, theoretically ensuring they will never be emitted.
The real effects of offsetting can be hard to measure, so make sure you choose organizations that use the highest standards for certification of project CO2-reduction, like the Gold Standard and the VCS.
Bottom line? Every choice counts.
Fun fact: the aviation sector will be making some big choices of its own in 2021, when the UN deal CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation) kicks off. CORSIA will cap airlines’ respective CO2 emissions at their 2020 levels and force them to either offset any emissions that go beyond those levels or use lower carbon fuels. By 2027 CORSIA will be mandatory for all but the poorest of the 191 countries in the International Civil Aviation Organization.
For us as travelers, all of the options in this article means, quite simply, that we do have options. There are choices we can make right now that will affect the future of the planet. And that’s something worth acting on.
Passenger growth: The Guardian
Biofuels: atag.org, Fly Green Fund
Fuel-efficient airplanes and percentage of CO2 in aviation: Atag.org, The Telegraph, ICCT, ICCT, UCSUSA
Carbon offsetting: Öko-institut, Atmosfair, Nature.com
Train vs plane offsets: EEA
CORSIA: carbonbrief.org, IATA
Ways to lighten the plane: Traveller.com