Last week the New York Times reminded us of what we’ve known for years: All those sustainability efforts we’ve folded into our lives – recycling, composting, Prius-driving, etc. – pale against our biggest environmental transgression: flying. Air travel produces far more carbon emissions than anything else most of us do. What’s more, the problem’s only getting worse, as the number of planes going up in the sky each year is growing far faster than improvements in efficiency.
“One round-trip flight from New York to Europe or to San Francisco creates about two or three tons of carbon dioxide per person,” the article reports. To put that in perspective, you’d have to compost roughly three tons of food scraps to offset emissions on that scale.
At the core of the Times article was U.S. airlines’ resistance to Europe’s “somewhat lonely attempt to rein in planet-warming emissions,” its eight-year-old Emissions Trading System. The program requires power plants and manufacturers – and soon airlines – to pay fees for carbon emission overages. Opponents in the aviation sector claim it would threaten already-narrow profit margins. Advocates claim participation could add as little as $5 to a transatlantic flight. And, you know, help not destroy the planet.
Meanwhile, scientists continue to look elsewhere for solutions – or at least mitigations. This month the MIT Technology Review reported on a manufacturing breakthrough from NASA, which could halve fuel usage via an entirely new airplane wing design. And just last month researchers released a proposal for rerouting air travel around the Arctic Circle, in the hopes of keep it frozen a little longer. (The Arctic sea ice reached an all-time low this year, according to the Times. It could be gone as soon as two or three decades from now, the article reported, an eventuality that would, in turn, hasten global warming.)
For those disinclined to wait for science or regulation, there are always voluntary carbon offsets. From private companies like Carbon Footprint to programs offered by the airlines themselves, an array of options exists for the eco-minded flier. For a few bucks, guilt over a flight can be converted into, say, trees planted in Africa. Of course the offset paradigm is not without its critics, who essentially liken it to a fad diet: The only real way to address unsustainable consumption is to stop consuming so much.
Chris Colin is the award-winning author of “Blindsight,” published by the Atavist and named one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2011. See his work at www.chriscolin.com.