Environmentally conscious travelers are at a crossroads, balancing their desire to see wonders like the Great Barrier Reef or Iceland’s glaciers with the environmental impact of traveling to these destinations. An article published in Science notes that air travel is one of the biggest single actions that a private citizen can take to worsen climate change.
One seat on a flight from New York to Los Angeles effectively adds months worth of human-generated carbon emissions to the atmosphere. But according to the International Air Transport Association, the number of airline passengers worldwide has more than doubled since 2003.
The two climatologists who authored the article published in Science were able to show a direct relationship between carbon emissions and melting Arctic sea ice.
The scientists found that one passenger’s share of emissions on a 2,500-mile flight melts about 32 square feet of Arctic summer sea ice cover. So a Hoosier’s roundtrip flights between Indianapolis and Juneau, Alaska, would melt enough sea ice to fill the bed of a full-size pickup truck.
Add any driving once in Juneau and other carbon-emitting activities, and a seemingly harmless weekend getaway could prove devastating for a family of polar bears.
Unlike other pollution sources, there’s not much that can be done right now to make flying significantly greener, making the best solution to fly less.
While there are other ways to travel that don’t involve a plane, like cruises, these are far worse for the atmosphere, emitting three to four times more carbon dioxide per passenger mile when compared with a jet, according to Bryan Comer, a researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation.
In an effort to cancel out their individual footprints, some tourists are turning to carbon offset programs to absolve their carbon-emission sins. These offsets work by the tourist giving money to a broker who then gives it to someone to plant trees, build a wind farm or capture methane emissions from a landfill.
There are doubts surrounding the effectiveness of offsets and some argue trees would have been planted anyway or wind farms would have been built without a guilty traveler’s money. Carbon offset doubters say tourists should just stay home.
Not flying at all would be better, Peter Miller, a policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told The New York Times, “but the reality is that there’s lots of folks that are going to do what they’re going to do.” For them, offsets are a lot better than nothing.