Fly Less, Fly Light

by Carl Duivenvoorden ( Carl is one of 22 Atlantic Canadians trained by Al Gore to deliver presentations of 'An Inconvenient Truth.' His column runs every other Monday in the Telegraph Journal.

What do you do when something you really like doing turns out to be really bad for the environment?

Unfortunately, I can speak with a bit of experience on this, because I love to fly. However, in recent years, it’s become clear that from an environmental perspective flying is one of the absolute worst ways to travel.

In a world where time is money and faraway paradises beckon, people have come to depend on the ability to travel long distances quickly. What’s a well-intentioned, green-minded person supposed to do?

The impact of flying

The impact of aviation on the environment is rooted in three facts.

First, there are more airplanes flying than ever before. Boeing estimates that there are over 19,000 commercial airplanes in the world today – a lineup that would stretch from Oromocto to Quebec City if lined up nose touching tail. It’s fair to guess that about half of those planes are flying this very instant, or at any instant. Since 1990, CO2 emissions from international aviation have increased by 83%, and Boeing expects the number of commercial planes to nearly double in the next 20 years.

Secondly, airplanes are gas guzzlers by unavoidable nature. New ones guzzle less than old ones, but there’s no such thing as an eco-friendly plane. Consider this: it takes over 200,000 litres to fill the gas tank of a jumbo jet for one long-haul flight. That equals 5,000 fill-ups for a compact car. Even the small regional jets that serve many Atlantic Canadian airports require 8,000 litres to fill.

Thirdly, jets produce most of their emissions high in the atmosphere where they do more damage. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that those contrails that line the sky have 2-4 times the climate changing effect of similar emissions at ground level.

What to do?

If you’re ready to swear off flying, congratulations – it’s the ultimate solution. If you aren’t ready or able to go that far just yet, there are plenty of other steps you can take to greatly reduce the impact of your travel.

First, use alternatives to flying whenever possible. Business teleconferences, videoconferences and webinars are faster, cheaper and better for the planet. Consider vacationing locally. That may not sound as exotic as an African safari or a Caribbean cruise, but it’s a whole lot better for Mother Earth and your local economy.

Secondly, buy carbon offsets to compensate for the impact of your unavoidable flights. Many airlines now offer them, or you can find them on line by Googling “Gold Standard offsets”. The Gold Standard certification ensures your offset is credible (because many out there are not).

Thirdly, fly light, because when it comes to flying, every ounce counts. Birds know this – they’re built for the sky, with special adaptations like hollow bones and efficient digestive systems. When a bird releases a splattery mess in full flight, it’s lightening its load in more ways than one.

Unfortunately, airlines don’t charge by weight (in contrast to the pragmatic folks at the post office), so your reward will be limited to a warm and fuzzy feeling for the planet. But by using a light suitcase, packing fewer clothes, leaving behind what you can, and even using tiny containers of personal care products, you can make a difference. Every ounce counts.

One last thought: it surprises most people to learn that the world’s largest airline carries no passengers at all. It’s FedEx, with nearly twice as many planes as Air Canada. Convenient as it is, overnight delivery has a massive carbon footprint. Much of it could be avoided by a little more advance planning, and a reassessment of what really is urgent.

The heavy environmental cost of flying is an inconvenient truth, especially for those of us who love to fly. But if you’re committed to a better environment for future generations, please remember these five words. Fly less, fly light, offset.