Flying: Take a Greener Route - 27 East

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Flying: Take a Greener Route

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In summer heat, lower window shades to keep the plane cooler, requiring less energy to power the air conditioning system. If every window shade were closed, the temperature in the plane could be reduced by 10°C. JENNY NOBLE

In summer heat, lower window shades to keep the plane cooler, requiring less energy to power the air conditioning system. If every window shade were closed, the temperature in the plane could be reduced by 10°C. JENNY NOBLE

In the past five years, carbon emissions from aviation have shot up 32 percent, and global demand for aviation is expected to double over the next 20 years. JENNY NOBLE

In the past five years, carbon emissions from aviation have shot up 32 percent, and global demand for aviation is expected to double over the next 20 years. JENNY NOBLE

In the past five years, carbon emissions from aviation have shot up 32 percent, and global demand for aviation is expected to double over the next 20 years. JENNY NOBLE

In the past five years, carbon emissions from aviation have shot up 32 percent, and global demand for aviation is expected to double over the next 20 years. JENNY NOBLE

Until flying becomes more fuel efficient, consider a nearby “stay-cation.” Stumbling upon these Chinese dragons visiting The Met reminded me that New York is a world of countries  and cultures to explore. JENNY NOBLE

Until flying becomes more fuel efficient, consider a nearby “stay-cation.” Stumbling upon these Chinese dragons visiting The Met reminded me that New York is a world of countries and cultures to explore. JENNY NOBLE

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Sustainable Living

  • Publication: Arts & Living
  • Published on: Feb 8, 2023
  • Columnist: Jenny Noble

“The space between home and the rest of the world is the hole into which we pour most of our emissions.” —The Climate Diet

Travel is my drug. It always has been. Even when I was working 24/7 in New York with nary a weekend off, Condé Nast Traveler was my bedside reading. I’d clip and file articles about sushi restaurants in Okayama or yurts outside of Oslo, because I was definitely going to need that information. I was one of those people who tried to get bumped from flights in order to get vouchers for yet another flight somewhere. No matter what else I do to live sustainably, travel makes my carbon footprint Sasquatchian.

As I read about droughts and flooding of biblical proportions and the growing list of glaciers cynically marketed as, “places to see before they disappear,” I realize that this travel junkie needs some grounding.

The airline industry is responsible for around 5 percent of global warming. A one-way flight from New York to London emits 1,984 pounds of CO2, the equivalent of 2,520 loads of laundry. As climate scientist Peter Kalmus puts it, “Hour for hour, there’s no better way (than flying) to burn fossil fuel and heat the planet.”

Just when we should be curtailing our wanderlust, we’ve actually been flying more. And according to a report by Boeing, global demand for aviation is expected to double over the next 20 years.

Is this my bad? When I see private jets bopping in and out of East Hampton Airport, I think, ‘I’m not one of those people’ right? Sure I’m not Greta Thunberg crossing the Atlantic on a solar powered sailboat. But I’m not Taylor Swift clocking in at more than 170 flights last year, either.

If I’m being honest with myself, yes it is my bad. In the U.S., around half of people fly in any given year, and just 12 to 15 percent are frequent fliers. Globally, only about 3 percent of the population takes regular flights. The activist group Scientist Rebellion calls the aviation sector, “The pinnacle of climate injustice and emissions inequality.”

We travel addicts don’t have to quit cold turkey. Just fly better. And fly less.

Start flying greener by booking a nonstop flight. Because emissions are highest at take-off and landing, an itinerary with layovers can increase the flight’s emissions by up to 35 percent.

Stick to economy. Buying a first class seat produces an average of four times as much CO2 as an economy seat does, because the more space you take, the more fuel is needed.

Pack light. Avoid the checked baggage fee and reduce the emissions your flight burns hauling your heavy stuff. How many chunky shoes will you really wear? For all the books you think you’ll read, get a kindle.

Fly a no-frills, low cost airline. When you only have to pay for what you want, the plane isn’t loaded down with extra stuff.

Whether switching to more sustainable biofuels, designing lighter, more fuel-efficient aircrafts or ordering electric jets, some of the biggest carriers have started to make a dent in reducing their carbon emissions.

They’re also making a lot of micro-changes, like using lighter drink carts and serving organic food options. On the departure level of JFK’s Terminal 5, JetBlue has built the world’s first blue potato farm.

Biofuels are the most creative way airlines are getting greener. Typically made of fats, cooking oils and grease from plant products, biofuels can reduce emissions by up to 80 percent. Some airlines are developing fuel powered by algae. Others are experimenting in biofuel made from the stumps and branches wasted after a timber harvest. In the U.K., United Airlines is helping to produce jet fuel from landfill waste.

Despite the innovations big carriers are making, the industry as a whole still isn’t doing enough. Most of their solutions are still too expensive, can’t be scaled up fast enough, and often just aren’t effective. Today, biofuel production accounts for less than .1 percent of total aviation fuel consumption. And analysts estimate that sustainable jet fuel will make up only 15 percent of all jet fuel by 2050. That’s 27 years too late.

The most effective way to fly environmentally is to offset your carbon emissions. This means compensating for the amount of CO2 your flight puts into the atmosphere by investing in programs that work to reduce, remove or avoid greenhouse gas emissions.

Good carbon offset programs invest in a variety of projects, doing everything from improving wood-burning cookstoves in Mexico, to investing in solar power, to restoring carbon absorbing peat swamps, all while creating jobs for those hardest hit by climate change.

Carbon offsets get a bad rap. Critics point out that we frequent flyers use them to assuage our guilt so we can continue to contribute to climate change without altering our behavior. Fair enough. But if carbon offsets genuinely help the planet, does it matter why you’re doing it? If I’m planning to fly either way, the very least I can do is offset my flight.

For now, the only real solution is simply to fly less.

This requires a shift in thinking about what constitutes travel. Consider joining the “slow travel” movement. Rushing around, stamping passports and checking off bucket lists in a manic race to visit as many places as possible creates a lot of carbon emissions and isn’t a great way to get to know a culture anyway. If you’re used to hopping on a plane several times a year, pick one destination and go for longer. Aside from combining trips to cut flight time, you won’t come home needing a vacation from your vacation.

For nearby destinations, take the train, which compared to flying, can save up to 90 percent in CO2 emissions and 100 percent reduction in LaGuardia-induced headaches. Case in point, Amtrak’s Carolinian route: By the time you factor in getting in and out of the cities and checking in and getting through security, it actually takes longer to fly to D.C. from New York than to take the train.

I used to think that “stay-cations” were the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard of. How could one possibly have fun without boarding a plane? It took a worldwide pandemic for me to realize that adventure exists everywhere. Take an overnight trip to Block Island. Head into New York for an authentic Senegalese restaurant in Harlem. Take a mini-trip to a Chinese pagoda at the Asian wing of The Met.

At the end of this month, I’m flying to Italy to go skiing and to visit my daughter. Is this bundling together reasons to travel? Sort of. Will I feel guilty that I just wrote a column about staying grounded? Probably. Do I need to ski in Italy? Does anyone need to ski in Italy?

Flying with the new ITA airlines, I used the website MyClimate to calculate my round-trip economy flight from JFK to Malpensa Airport in Milan. It was 7,950 miles, 4,200 pounds of CO2 emissions and would cost $59 to offset.

At first, this seemed expensive. Then when I calculated how much I was spending to go skiing in Italy in the first place, maybe I could search my soul and shake my piggy bank to find the money to do it better.

More Information:

The easiest and most accurate carbon offset programs (all vetted by international watchdogs and offer a variety of projects to support):

My Climate (myclimate.org)

Sustainable Travel International (sustainabletravel.org)

Carbon Footprint Calculator (carbonfootprint.com)

Atmosfair (atmosfair.de): German nonprofit with a good carbon calculator, plus they compare fuel efficiency between airlines.

FLYGREEN (flygrn.com): Offsets a percentage of your flight for free. Book directly through them, find cheap flights and they’ll automatically offset your carbon emissions with their revenues.

No Fly Climate Sci (noflyclimatesci.org): Interesting articles, podcasts and interviews with scientists and academics about why not to fly and how to reduce pollution from aviation.

“Space Monkey”: 2010 commercial for WWF by Leo Burnett. Watch just because it’s a cool commercial with a great sound track.

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