It’s undeniable that the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from air travel contribute to climate change, a fact that can easily leave you with flyer’s remorse. Fortunately, you have options when it comes to reducing your carbon impact while flying. For example, you can pay for environmentally-friendly “carbon offsets” that help balance out the CO2 emissions from your flight. You can also cut your personal carbon footprint by flying as eco-friendly as possible, and help on a broader level by reducing your daily carbon emissions and advocating for widespread change.
Fly with airlines that have carbon offset programs.
Some airlines donate to carbon offset efforts for an extra fee. Airlines with carbon offset programs estimate the cost of offsetting your flight’s CO2 emissions, add the cost to your ticket, and donate that fee to carbon offset efforts. Unfortunately, participating airlines often don’t go out of their way to promote the fact that they offer carbon offsets, so your best bet is to contact individual airlines directly and ask.
Major airlines that currently offer carbon offset programs include JetBlue, United Airlines, Delta, Lufthansa, and Air Canada, but this list is subject to change.
Carbon offsets might include planting trees as well as broader social efforts, such as rolling out renewable and fuel-efficient energy resources for those who might not have easy access to them.
Carbon offsets aren’t always cheap—the longer you fly, the more you pay. Some airlines allow you to donate frequent flyer miles in place of money, though, so check what the program offers.
Certain carbon offset providers offer offset options on behalf of individual airlines. Both JetBlue and Alaska Airlines offer air mileage offsets through Carbonfund.org Foundation.
Donate to carbon offset organizations yourself.
You don’t have to rely on your airline to offset your flight. If your flight’s only “heavy lifting” is lifting you off the ground, you can always offset your emissions by contributing to an offset organization directly. Use an online emissions calculator to plug in your basic flight information and figure out how much you need to donate to offset your emissions. Then, search online for a carbon offset organization that supports projects that meet third-party validation and verification to the highest international standards.
Carbon offset providers, including Carbonfund.org, offer air travel mileage offsets so that you can tailor the level of carbon reduction to meet your needs.
You can find a flight emissions calculator at: https://carbonfund.org/take-action/individuals/individual_carbon_footprint_calculator/
Choose eco-friendly airlines.
It helps to pick an airline that’s doing their part. Some airlines don’t put much effort into being environmentally friendly, but there are others that make an effort to offset their flights, cut down on emissions, and switch to sustainable fuel sources. If you can, book with an airline that’s actively working to have less impact on the planet. Here are a few ways to find eco-friendly airlines:
Pick airlines with newer planes. Old planes tend to need more fuel for shorter distances, meaning more CO2.
Use flight-booking websites that offer an “eco-friendly” option that can help you find low-emissions flights. The tools aren’t perfect, but it’s better than nothing.
The ICCT periodically ranks airlines by fuel efficiency, so you can look at their lists to make a more environmentally-friendly decision.
Sit in economy class.
Economy class has better fuel efficiency. You might be tempted by the extra amenities (and legroom!) of business class and first class, but the fewer people seated on the plane, the more fuel being used per person. If you book your seat in economy class, it’ll cut down your personal carbon footprint.
Take nonstop flights to limit layovers.
A nonstop flight burns less fuel than a multi-flight itinerary. Booking that layover might cut your travel costs, but you’ll pay the price in emissions: planes use a significant amount of their fuel during takeoff and landing. That means every layover causes your carbon footprint to shoot up. If you can, fly directly to your destination—and if transfers are unavoidable, only book the ones you need.
If you can’t avoid a layover, try to pick one on the same direct path, or close to it. (For instance, if you’re flying from San Francisco to Buffalo, pick a layover in Chicago rather than Virginia.) These may be more eco-friendly than more out-of-the-way layovers, and they’re often less hassle, too!
Fly on mid-size passenger planes.
The size of the plane can make a big CO2 difference. It’s true that flying on a private jet is bad for the environment, because it transports fewer people while using a similar amount of fuel as a larger plane. At the same time, though, extra-large passenger planes are less fuel efficient in many cases as well. Therefore, try to fly on single-aisle passenger planes, instead of jumbo jets or private planes.
Ideally, you want to fly on a full flight. But you can’t control the number of people on your flight, so don’t feel guilty if it has empty seats.
Take daytime flights for minor environmental benefits.
Flying at night traps solar heat, while daytime flying helps reflect it away. To be clear, flying during the day instead of the night won’t make a noticeable impact on your specific carbon emissions. However, the contrails and cirrus clouds created by jet flight, as well as the body of the airplane itself, help reflect solar radiation back into the atmosphere during daytime flight. Conversely, nighttime contrails and cirrus clouds help trap heat that would otherwise dissipate higher into the atmosphere.
It may seem like a small difference, but when it comes to combating the rise in global average temperatures, every little bit helps!
Take ground transit for shorter trips.
Trains and cars emit less carbon over shorter distances. Flying is faster than ground travel, but if you’re only traveling a short ways away, the environmental impact usually isn’t worth it. If you need to travel a relatively short distance, look into driving or taking a train instead.
In many countries, trains are more eco-friendly than planes or cars, so they’re often your best option.
If you’re taking a car, pick a smaller gas-powered car, or an electric car. Driving a giant gas-guzzler long distances can actually be worse than flying, especially if you’re traveling solo.
Sometimes it’s not always clear what’s more environmentally friendly: a short-distance flight or a long-distance drive. It depends on the distance and your car’s mileage, so you’ll need to calculate the carbon emissions of both.
Carbon offset providers, such as Carbonfund.org, also offer Vehicle Offsets in order to neutralize the carbon emissions released from your automobile.
Fly less often.
Unnecessary flights are a huge part of your carbon footprint. You don’t have to sacrifice all visits with long-distance family members or feel guilty about taking an occasional vacation, but at the same time, you shouldn’t fly if you don’t need to. To cut down on air travel, you can:
Conduct business meetings over phone or video calls.
Take vacations closer to home, so you don’t need to fly.
Stay longer at your destination.
“Budget” your carbon usage: take one long trip every few years, instead of multiple trips every year.
Skip frivolous flights, like helicopter tours.
Advocate for emissions reform and legislation.
Slashing airline emissions will need widespread legal regulations. It’s always good to reduce your personal carbon footprint, but that won’t ground planes—and flight emissions clocked in at 918 million metric tons in 2019 alone. Obviously, if you’re not a politician, you can’t pass laws yourself. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take any action, either. There are several ways you can advocate for legal regulations, such as by:
Donating to or volunteering with environmental or climate-action groups to educate others.
Joining demonstrations calling for emissions regulations or climate action.
Contacting your elected officials to ask them to take action.
Voting for politicians who support action on climate change.
Reduce your overall carbon footprint.
Cutting your daily emissions has a larger impact than offsetting your flight. While it’s always better to offset your flights than not, the truth is that offsets alone don’t cut it. That means it’s also important to “wipe up” your carbon footprint in everyday life, whether through big or small changes. Here are some things that will help:
Walk or bike rather than driving, or carpool.
Change your diet; eat less beef and store leftovers.
Reuse and recycle more often.
Hang your laundry to dry instead of using the dryer.
Cut down on AC and heating where possible.
Buy your food from local sources.
Switch to LED lighting.
Use a smaller car, or an electric one.
Install solar panels on your roof.
If you take a flight, pull down your window shade while the plane is taxiing—especially if it’s warm out. The plane’s cooling mechanisms need fuel to work, and closing the shade means the plane uses less fuel.