Today is the second day of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Summit, a two-day portion of the 74th U.N. General Assembly. In Manhattan, the world’s leaders are discussing how they will work to complete the 17 goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. And so in the spirit of helping the planet, we’d like to help answer a question: How can the average commercial flyer lessen his or her impact on the environment?
How does flying affect the environment?
Flying is “one of the worst things an individual can do for the climate” in the words of The New York Times. That’s because planes emit carbon dioxide, which traps heat in the atmosphere, when they burn fossil fuel. And with more people flying every year, the quantity of carbon dioxide emitted by planes is rising. In fact, the International Council on Clean Transportation calculated that the rise in plane-emitted carbon dioxide “over the past five years was equivalent to building about 50 coal-fired power plants.” According to The Guardian, the aviation sector is currently responsible for “2% of global emissions but that figure could more than double by 2050.”
If you can avoid flying, you’ll therefore lessen your footprint. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t fly. If you have a week to see Japan, for example, you’re going to have to fly there. And that’s okay. For starters, new aircraft from the likes or Airbus and Boeing are consistently more fuel-efficient than their predecessors have been. Virgin Atlantic’s new A350-1000s, for example, are 30% more efficient than the planes they’re replacing. Airlines and governing bodies are investing in and testing alternatives to fossil fuels like hydrogen, recycled-waste-as-fuel and better batteries. On a smaller scale, flying non-stop and in economy class can also lessen your carbon footprint. And almost all major commercial airlines (and even private operators like Victor) offer you as a passenger a chance to offset your carbon emissions, if you’re willing to pay a few bucks for it.
How to offset your carbon emissions
In the words of the Times, “carbon offsets compensate for your emissions by canceling out greenhouse gas emissions somewhere else in the world. The money you pay to buy offsets supports programs designed to reduce emissions. Those might include projects to develop renewable energy, capture methane from landfills or livestock, or distribute cleaner cooking stoves.”
In general, a carbon offset won’t cost you much, between maybe $3 and $20 for a flight from New York to Los Angeles in economy. The cost varies because “there is no fixed price on carbon, and the cost of an offset varies from project to project, depending on how expensive it is to run a given program,” Sarah Leugers, director of communications at Gold Standard (see below), told the Times.
When you book directly with an airline, you’ll often be given the option to pay to offset your carbon emissions by simply checking a box. The amount will have been calculated by the airline and partnering organizations (like Alaska Airlines and JetBlue with Carbonfund.org), and often, but not always, you’ll be able to see what projects the airline will support with your money. This is the simplest option and a place to start. A quick guide to some of the major airline carbon offset programs can be found here.
Not every airline offers a checkbox option, however. And beyond that, “not all carbon offset programs are created equal,” the Times says, “as made evident in a recent investigation of forestry projects by ProPublica.” If you want to be diligent about seeing your money put to work, or offset more than an airline allows, you can calculate your carbon footprint yourself using the tools below and then pay the indicated amount (or more) to an organization that you like. Here are three tools that you can use to calculate the carbon footprint of a flight (notice that the results are not the same):
Next, you’ll need to direct your money to a project that will effectively offset your carbon emissions. The Times suggests looking “for certifications by rigorous third-party auditors like The Gold Standard or Green-e.” Gold Standard in particular is easy to use. On this page, you can see and sort through its available projects. Right now, for example, you can help supply refugees in Chad with solar cookers and a solar project in Rajasthan, India. If you can’t decide, you can choose to donate to its Climate+ Portfolio. You select how many tons (“tonnes,” so metric tons) of carbon you’d like to offset, pay via the secure portal, and let Gold Standard “distribute your contribution over a range of certified projects.”
You can support good projects like Gold Standard’s without flying. With or without a flight booked, putting money into sustainability-minded projects will do the world (and your conscience) good.
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