How to travel by plane sustainably, according to experts

  • By flying direct, cheaply and with new aircraft, you can reduce the impact of your flight by up to 45%.
  • Airlines offer options to buy offsets and fuel surcharges to reduce the carbon impact of travel.
  • Experts say carbon offsets are good, but they need to be chosen carefully.

Like many people who live in New York, I’m not from here. I’m from Milan, Italy, and being the good, devoted daughter that I am, I fly back home at least twice a year to visit my family.

That’s 4 flights, over 16,000 miles and 5.29 tonnes of CO2 emissions, according to the Native emissions calculator.

That’s more than a typical gas-guzzling car emits in a year and a third of what the average American emits in a year, according to the MIT Climate Portal.

Flying is pollutants. Aviation accounts for 2.5% of global carbon dioxide emissions — the US accounts for 25% of all global aircraft emissions.

Startups and engineers are working to power airplanes with batteries and hydrogen. and airlines are adopting newer, more efficient aircraft, but carbon-neutral travel is currently non-existent.

But aside from flying less or not flying at all — something my mother would frown upon — there are ways to reduce your impact on the environment while flying.

Simple steps like flying direct, flying economy and choosing newer planes can reduce the impact of a particular trip by up to 45%, according to Sanchali Pal, founder and CEO of Commons, an app that lets you track and offset your carbon emissions.

25% of a flight’s total emissions occur during takeoff and landing, which is one reason why delays are discouraged and some airports adopt optimized profile descents with idling engines. The more people on a plane, the more efficient the whole process is, which is why economics is better than business.

Airlines also offer passengers the option to purchase offsets and surcharges to reduce the impact of their travel.

Should you take them?

Displacements — yes, but which ones

If a passenger takes a one-way flight from New York to Los Angeles, they emit 471.68 pounds of carbon dioxide, according to Southwest Airlines’ assessment tool. Pay $3.59, the airline says, and you can offset it.

Southwest will take that $3.59 and invest it in a project that reduces or removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The offer is tempting, but some experts are skeptical about whether that money will actually do any good.

“If you’re buying an offset for $3, you’re not flying carbon neutral,” Daniele Rao, an aviation divestment expert at the nonprofit Carbon Market Watch, told Insider. “Its amazing.”

Last year, Carbon Market Watch commissioned a study that looked at the effectiveness of carbon offsets bought by major European airlines. According to the study, “most of the carbon offset options offered by airlines came from cheap and low-quality projects with uncertain climate benefits and no guarantee of permanence.”

A popular and inexpensive offset project is a forestry project in a developing country, according to Carbon Market Watch. A typical forestry project involves ‘storing’ carbon in a forest by protecting it or planting trees.

“The challenge with forestry projects is that maybe those trees would be protected anyway, your dollars didn’t do anything more to keep them there,” Sanchali Pal of Commons told Insider. “And how long have the trees been there? The trees have to be there for 30 years to absorb the amount of carbon we want. And what if they burn in a forest fire?”

Pal’s company, Commons, spends a lot of time researching tradeoffs to make sure they make an impact. The same NYC-LA flight shift that Southwest has for $3.59 would cost three times as much on the app.

Commons has a guide on its website about how best to choose offsets.

Preparation for fuel

Sustainable aviation fuel — similar to conventional jet fuel, but up to 80% less carbon intensive — is what all airlines are betting on to become more sustainable. But right now it’s rare and expensive — it can cost up to 8 times the cost of conventional fuels.

Some airlines, mostly European at the moment, ask passengers to check-in for the extra cost. AirFrance, for example, increased all its ticket prices by an amount ranging from €1 to €24 to cover the company’s increased use of sustainable aviation fuel.

Other airlines, such as Brussels Airlines, ask passengers if they want to pay more for sustainable jet fuel. A €174 ticket from Brussels, Belgium to Milan, Italy has a surcharge of €132 if you want to buy sustainable jet fuel, almost double the price, which doesn’t make it the most attractive option for customers.

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