Travel and tourism was a $700 billion global moneymaker in 2022, and the industry has shown no signs of slowing. While this is great for the world economy, because travel also requires burning fossil fuels, it can be a significant contributor to the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions we put into the atmosphere. Whether it’s by car, airplane, bus, or train, emissions are almost always a part of travel.
A common debate centers around the carbon footprint of driving vs. flying. Below, we explore this question to help you decide which is the better choice. We also have suggestions for how to offset your trip-based carbon emissions, whether you’re traveling via plane, train, or automobile.
Carbon Footprint of Driving vs. Flying: What Is the Greenest Way to Travel?
If you want to reduce your personal carbon footprint on your next trip, a few variables come into play when deciding whether it’s better to drive or fly. These include how many people are traveling with you, the distance you’re traveling, and the type of vehicle you would be driving.
A good point of reference is that a cross-country airplane trip from New York City to Los Angeles, and then back to New York City, would emit 0.62 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per passenger. The same trip in the average vehicle getting 21.6 miles per gallon would emit 1.26 tons of carbon emissions. So, it may immediately seem like flying is the best bet, right?
If you’re flying solo on this trip, you’d be right. However, the gap quickly closes if you have multiple people in your family or several friends coming along. As you add more passengers, the amount of emissions your party produces increases on a flight. In contrast, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, which trap heat and lead to global warming, produced decreases per person when driving.
The break-even point for driving vs. flying in this example is 2.03 people. So, if you’re traveling with three or more people, driving is the better option, and here’s why: Three people on the cross-country flight would account for 1.86 tons of carbon emissions (0.62 tons of CO2 x 3), compared to the total 1.26 tons of carbon the vehicle would produce (ignoring that the extra weight would increase the vehicle’s carbon emissions slightly). Driving turns out to be an even smarter environmental decision as you increase the number of passengers in your carpool.
Additionally, a road trip becomes an even better option if you own a more fuel-efficient vehicle, such as a hybrid, a plug-in hybrid, or an electric car.
How Do You Offset Your Travel?
If you’re looking to lower your carbon footprint beyond choosing the greenest travel option, you can do so through carbon offsets. A carbon offset is when you essentially donate money to a green cause, such as a factory installing new carbon emissions-reducing technology or a company planting several thousand trees on its campus.
So you donate your cash to the emissions-reducing project, and the amount of carbon your donation helps the company stop producing or sequester — meaning absorb from the atmosphere, like many plants do — offsets the carbon emissions from your trip. Airlines often offer carbon offsets that you can purchase along with your ticket to help eco-conscious travelers easily offset their emissions. You can also purchase offsets through other marketplaces.
Terrapass, for example, offers a wide range of carbon offset options for travelers, including a flight carbon offset option and an ecotourist bundle that offsets the equivalent of either a four-hour flight or 8,600 miles of travel by car.
How Do You Offset Carbon From Flying?
For some trips, air travel may be the only logical option due to time constraints, the need to deal with impatient children, or if you’re headed overseas. In these cases, your best bet is to purchase carbon offsets so you can rest easy knowing you’ve helped prevent or sequester enough CO2 emissions to offset those you produced by flying.
But how do you go about offsetting aviation emissions? It all starts with determining the carbon footprint of your flight. Many airlines will tell you precisely how much CO2 a flight emits when booking the flight, but you can also use a carbon footprint calculator, like this carbon calculator from Carbon Footprint, to figure it out.
The calculator will tell you the estimated number of tons of carbon emissions you’re responsible for on a particular flight. You can then purchase the equivalent amount of carbon offsets.
For example, if you were taking a round-trip flight from Tampa, Florida, to Pittsburgh, you would be responsible for 0.40 metric tons of CO2 emissions. So, you’d want to purchase carbon offsets totaling the same 0.40 metric tons to become a net-zero traveler. And don’t worry, while 0.40 metric tons sounds like a lot, these offsets are rather economical.
What Are Some Examples of Carbon Offsets?
Carbon offsets help fund green initiatives that either help sequester greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere or reduce or eliminate GHG production at the source. Organizations can do this in two ways.
The first type of carbon offset initiative is a forestry project. This simply ensures there are more trees in the world to help absorb or sequester the CO2 in the atmosphere. This can be done through supporting a company’s commitment to not participate in deforestation or to plant new trees.
The other type of carbon offset initiative is an energy project. These projects are generally more complex than forestry ones. They can include supporting companies in a wide range of efforts to use less energy, such as:
Switching to renewable energy sources and clean energy (solar panels, wind turbines, etc.)
Installing energy-efficient equipment, like replacing incandescent light bulbs with LED light bulbs and using Energy Star appliances (refrigerators, air conditioning, etc.)
Developing business procedures that reduce energy use or increase sustainability
Installing a fleet of green vehicles (hybrid or electric vehicles)
How Do You Travel With a Low Carbon Footprint?
Low carbon footprint travel is an essential part of helping slow and hopefully reverse man-made climate change, while still being able to travel and enjoy yourself. You can take many actions to reduce the climate impact of your travel and produce less carbon with the following climate action tips:
Avoid Short Flights
Avoiding flights altogether could devastate global tourism, so that isn’t a viable option. Instead, focus on reserving air travel for long distances. If you’re traveling 200 miles or less, look for alternative travel modes.
For example, while a flight would emit around 109 pounds of CO2 per passenger on a 200-mile trip, that trip on a train or charter bus would emit just 26 and 19 pounds of CO2 per passenger, respectively. As a solo rider, driving a car wouldn’t help lower your emissions — it would be higher than air travel, at 120 pounds of CO2. Though if you had four people in the car, the air pollution you’d emit would fall to just 30 pounds of CO2 per passenger.
When a long-haul flight is a must, always aim for a nonstop flight or the one with the fewest stops. Taking the most direct flight path reduces the miles you travel in the air, lowering the carbon emitted per passenger.
Another fact is that jets produce the most carbon emissions during takeoff and landing. With each stop, that’s another landing and another takeoff you are part of, increasing your carbon footprint. With the most direct flight, you minimize your environmental impact.
Stick to Economy Class
While first class and business class seats are larger and the service is typically superior, those seats also take up significantly more room on the plane. Your carbon footprint on a flight is determined by how much space you consume on the plane, so those larger seats can double your carbon footprint or more.
So, save a little cash and reduce your carbon footprint by booking economy tickets instead of opting for those big, comfy seats.
Limit Your Luggage
The more you have in your suitcase, the heavier it is, and the more energy (fuel) is required to move it, which increases your carbon footprint. Limiting your luggage can make a pretty big dent in your carbon footprint.
For example, if you reduce your luggage weight by 15 pounds on a 10-hour flight, you can cut your emissions by roughly 80 pounds. If there are 150 people on your flight, that’s 12,000 pounds of emissions cut if they all make this small change.
You can lower your luggage weight by packing items you can wear multiple times without washing or items you can easily wash during your travels. You can also leave larger, heavier items, such as camping gear, behind and rent those at your destination.
An added benefit is that many airlines now offer discounted tickets for those not checking baggage. So, if you can limit your luggage to just a small carry-on bag, you can save some cash and help the planet.
Use Public Transport or Carpool
When you finally reach your destination, opt for public transportation to get around instead of a personal vehicle. As we mentioned earlier, buses offer some of the lowest per-passenger carbon footprint numbers in terms of transportation.
You can also carpool with others to reduce the amount of carbon per person.
How Much Will It Cost to Get to Net Zero?
Becoming a net-zero emissions traveler is important to many people, but a big concern is what it will cost to do so. Fortunately, many of the carbon footprint-reducing ideas above can also save you money, like skipping air travel for short trips, carpooling, booking an economy ticket, and lightening your luggage. But these alone won’t get you to become a net-zero traveler.
To reach net-zero status, you’ll need to offset your remaining carbon emissions by purchasing carbon offsets. To determine how much this will cost you, you must first use a carbon emissions calculator, like the one mentioned above, to calculate your total emissions. Then, determine the cost of the carbon offsets required to bring your net carbon emissions to zero.
So, if your carbon footprint from a flight was 1,000 pounds of CO2, you’d need to purchase 1,000 pounds of carbon offsets. With a Terrapass Flight Carbon Offset, this would cost you just $8.00 per person.
Green Travel Doesn’t Mean Depriving Yourself
There’s no denying that travel impacts the growing global warming and climate change crisis, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up taking trips. Instead, for each destination you have in mind, focus on determining the carbon footprint of driving vs. flying to find the better option. A bus or train may even be preferable.
Once you’ve decided on your transportation, reduce your personal carbon footprint further through other actions, like taking less luggage and choosing public transport once you arrive. Finally, make your travel net zero by purchasing carbon offsets.
Terrapass can help with that last part — we offer a wide range of carbon removal options designed specifically to help you achieve net-zero travel emissions, regardless of your mode of transportation: flying, driving, riding a bus, or taking a train.
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