Climate Change
The REAL Cost of Airline Travel

The REAL Cost of Airline Travel

By Laura Kosbar 

Are you feeling safe to travel again, and ready to go on a special vacation or a long awaited family reunion?  Well, here are a few things to consider as you plan your itinerary, in order to make your trip not only enjoyable, but considerate of our planet as well.

Data from the EPA indicates that transportation accounted for almost 30% of US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2019.  While the bulk of those emissions come from cars and trucks, air travel produces about 3% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and it is currently on pace to triple by 2050 according to the International Council on Clean Transportation.   

How does the carbon footprint of flying compare to other forms of transportation?

Let’s compare the impact of a round trip from New York to Chicago using different forms of travel, 

  • Airplane (economy cabin) approximately 0.4 metric tons CO2e (about 2 hr for a one way direct flight)
  • Train – approx. 0.1 metric tons CO2e (about 20 hrs one way)
  • Auto (SUV) – approx. 0.5 metric tons CO2e (about 13 hrs driving one way)

There are obviously several things to consider when you make travel arrangements.  Traveling by airplane emits four times as much GHG as taking the train – but the train will take about ten times as long to get there.  If only one individual is travelling, taking a plane is similar to driving, but if a whole family is traveling, taking a single automobile would produce far less emissions.

What can you do now to minimize your travel carbon footprint?

  • Minimize air travel, and consider traveling by train, bus, or auto (especially when more than one person is traveling)
  • Fly coach/economy rather than business or first class, as the larger seats take up more space on the plane and so have a significantly higher carbon footprint per passenger
  • Take direct flights whenever possible
  • Select flights with the least emissions – some travel search engines, such as Google, indicate average emissions for each flight
  • Consider purchasing carbon offsets to mitigate the emissions from your flights

What is a carbon offset?

A carbon offset refers to either a reduction in GHG emissions or an increase in carbon storage (e.g., through land restoration or planting trees) in one location that is used to compensate for emissions that occur elsewhere.  There are projects around the world which reduce GHGs or increase carbon storage.  The amount of emission reductions attributed to a project can be certified by an independent agency which assigns it a specific number of Certified Emission Reductions (CERs) (often referred to as carbon offset credits).   These CERs are then available for purchase by individuals or companies to offset the carbon emissions they generate – such as by taking an airline flight.  The cost of the credits will vary by project, but it is likely to cost about $10-15 to offset a roundtrip (coach) flight from NYC to Los Angeles.

If you are going to purchase carbon offsets, make sure that the projects have been verified/certified.  Organizations that provide listings of projects include Climate Action Reserve, Green-e, and Gold Standard, or check with environmental or international organizations that you trust.  For example, the United Nations Carbon Offset Platform has programs around the world in developing nations. You can also check with your airline.  Many airlines (including Alaska, Delta, JetBlue, United, etc.) have partnered with reputable programs to make it easy for their customers to offset the carbon footprints of their flights – check their websites for more information.

How can the carbon footprint of flying be reduced in the future?

Airlines are looking towards a greener future.  Delta Air Lines recently committed $1 billion to become carbon neutral by 2030.  Jet Blue pledged to get there by 2040, and United Airlines by 2050.  How do they plan on achieving these goals?  It won’t be easy…

One of the primary approaches is to replace current fossil-derived jet fuels with ones made from renewable sources.  They are also investigating materials that will make planes lighter and more aerodynamic to reduce the amount of fuel required.  Some manufacturers are working on battery powered planes for shorter flights.  Unfortunately, all of these approaches have significant technical hurdles to resolve, so it is unclear just when they will be used for commercial flights.  So, for the near future, try to minimize your travel carbon footprint and consider options to offset your carbon emissions when you do.


3 thoughts on “The REAL Cost of Airline Travel

    • Author gravatar

      Hello Laura:
      Thanks for a great blog on carbon offsets for flying. As the word begins to open up, your information is timely! I am curious about biofuel for aviation versus electrifying flight. The airlines themselves will not be able to buy carbon offsets to achieve their carbon neutrality! –

    • Author gravatar

      Thanks for an informative and well-written article! It may be of interest that our Carbon Tracker now gives you appropriate carbon credit if you purchase flight offsets.

      In terms of future long-haul big airliner travel, the leading contender is “green hydrogen.” Green hydrogen is made from electrolysis of water (i.e., splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen) using clean electricity. This can be done whenever we have excess renewable energy that has almost zero incremental cost. Green hydrogen can help us with hard-to-decarbonize activities like making cement, making steel, high-temperature metallurgy, shipping and air travel.

      Short haul smaller planes will likely have electric variants that will be practical by the end of this decade.

    • Author gravatar

      Very helpful and useful article, thank you.
      Those of us who are immigrant Americans have travel built in to our adult lives— even when it’s no longer to visit relatives, the urge to travel still lingers. It’s such a conflict when the need for in person contact to nourish relationships has to be weighed against carbon footprint. Well, we suffer our own consequences.

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