Smarter Living: Energy

Beachgoers waving goodbye to jet taking off.

photo: Matt Hinsa

Whether you're planning your last trip of the summer or thinking ahead to an escape from the cooler days of fall and winter, how you travel can have as great an impact on your carbon footprint as any other single activity this year. For their short duration, flights have an outsized global warming impact, to the point that European flights automatically come with a carbon tax compris. This year, skip one flight you would take normally, whether for work or personal reasons.

What is the CO2 Smackdown? Read the overview.

Plan

Consider your upcoming destinations -- and if you really want to go.
When it comes to obligatory travel, whether for work or family get-togethers, you may find yourself asking (to paraphrase the WWII poster): Was this trip really necessary? If you would accomplish just as much with a conference call or will be visiting family members again shortly anyways, give yourself and your wallet a break.

Be flexible about the destination and mode of travel
Rather than trying to cover all of Europe in two weeks with multiple flights, pick a locale you can explore in depth via train, bicycle or even on foot. This can allow you to drop one or more short-haul flights. Short-haul flights are generally considered less than 3 hours long, medium-haul between 3 and 6 hours, while long-haul flights are over 6 hours. As it happens, short flights have the highest per mile CO2 emissions (at .64 lbs/mile), while long flights have the lowest (at .39 lbs/mile) and medium flights average closer to long haul at (.44 lbs/mile).

Don’t forget that high speed rail systems in many countries can take you hundreds of miles just as fast as flying and often in more comfort. For domestic travel, see if you can accomplish the same trip by train or bus—if not, be open to other options that are accessible without a car or a jet (if need be, you can rent a hybrid when you arrive).

Remember that when you must go by air, day-time flights reduce the impact of aircraft contrails, which have a greater global warming impact at night when they trap more of the earth’s heat in the atmosphere which would otherwise be radiated into space.

Savings

By skipping at least one round-trip flight, you can eliminate from half a ton to over a ton of heat-trapping pollutants, depending on the flight length.

Reducing Costs

If you’re able to skip a flight altogether, clearly you’ll save on costs. But trains can be pricey. For the best deals, buy early and look online to find off-peak fares; also check for cheaper options that may be slightly slower. Amtrak’s Northeast corridor, for example, has widely varying prices depending on how fully booked trains are and whether you ride the local or the Acela.

Or go with the bus instead--competition has kept intercity bus routes cheap (often half the price of trains). Furthermore, buses offer comfortable seats, snack, free wi-fi and entertainment.

Alternatives

Staycations have garnered a lot of attention, but don’t just stay home to save money—plan a real vacation in your region by exploring nearby wilderness areas (preferably traveling by rail, ferry or bus), renting a beach house, visiting local farms or spending a few days in the city. Be sure to disconnect from work as much as you would were you traveling several time zones away.

last revised 4/15/2011

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