Imagine this. You are flying high above the clouds. You are sitting in a reclining chair — no passengers are visibly behind are in front of you. You are watching TV on your own 22-inch personal flat screen, but are contemplating whether or not you should go to the planes’ Sky bar for a drink. It’s around midnight and stewardesses are coming around to give out complimentary chocolate chip cookies and mini Godiva chocolates. This is a brief snapshot of some of the services you could receive while flying first class on Qatar Airways, which is one the most highly-rated air services in the world, and starting at $5000 or more per ticket, remains out of reach for most of humanity. This service has been described as top-notch, but often overlooked in our discussion of air travel is just how damaging these flights are to our environment. Qatar Airlines alone self-reported 18 million metric tons of CO2 emitted for the 2016/2017 year.
Air travel is something most residents of the United States have done at least once in their lives (roughly 81%). All of us know the joy of soaring above the clouds and the frustration of listening to someone play candy crush without headphones in the seat behind us. Air travel is not something Americans do consistently, however. It remains a luxury — the majority of Americans every year go on no trips at all.
The most frequent air travel is the purview of an affluent class of people, and the purpose of a large chunk of that is leisure. According to a 2016 survey, 48% of air travel inside the USA was described as personal leisure. This is in direct contrast to business travel, which, at 31%, has been steadily declining within the United States since the late 1990s. Rich people travel more frequently on planes than any other demographic. The rich and successful are flying on planes because their lifestyles necessitate it. They “need” to continue to meet up with other rich people to collaborate on projects, as well as to satisfy their desire to be well-traveled and cultured. They are doing it for fun, and they don’t want to stop.
I was shocked one morning when listening to one of the co-hosts of the liberal podcast Pod Save America discuss his air travel: “None of us behave like [the climate change] problem is real. I drive a jeep. I eat red meat. I fly constantly, right? I don’t live my life like climate change is the biggest problem we face…I am part of the problem.” He knows his travel is a problem, but like most of the affluent, he doesn’t want to truly address it because doing so would mean sacrificing his sense of identity. This man is someone who’s at least conscious of his impact and trying to address it. Many of the affluent don’t have any such hesitations. They are splurging on private jets for the sake of convenience. This is maddening, and it needs to be stopped.
Air travel is not just bad for the environment, it is one of the worst types of pollution you as an individual can bring about. The average American produces about 16.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year (including, but certainly not limited to, breathing), which is roughly 10 adult elephants standing side-by-side. That’s how much CO2 you shit into the atmosphere every year in totality. A round-trip flight from New York to San Francisco emits about 0.9 metric tons of CO2 per person. To continue the elephant metaphor, that is roughly 1/14th of a whole elephant (or one of its legs). You shit out 10 of these endangered buggers in an entire year and you produce a whole leg in a single trip. That’s insane.
If you go on several flights a year for funsies, then you are easily polluting more than your peers. You go on 6 or more and you have one of the biggest carbon footprints out there. That’s a lot of CO2 to stay in the same exact Marriott that’s everywhere else on this godforsaken planet. I hope those Instagram pictures were worth it because, as far as I am concerned, caring about the environment and excessive air travel do not belong in the same sentence (except for this one, obviously).
Now, maybe you are doing some substantial good on the other end of that gate departure. There are people, and you might be one of them, that travel far away to distribute aid and document atrocities. We are a global economy, and we need to inevitably allow for some travel. However, given the serious nature of climate change, traveling can no longer be viewed as a fun hobby. It is a privilege and the wealthy class of people that travel consistently need to take several seats back — by which I mean on a Megabus — because in no universe should they be allowed to continue their delusion of plane-hopping.
A lot of people are oblivious to being rich. They think that because they don’t own a McMansion or a butler, they are working-class. You might be one of these people, so let me make something clear. You should not get on a plane if:
- Your travel newsletter found cheap tickets to Indonesia for under $400. Good to know exploitation has a price tag.
- You want to go on a quick weekend trip to Maine to center yourself. Go find a park.
- It’s your birthday. I am sorry you don’t need to go to Milan to celebrate your 30th.
- You are professionally accomplished and are going to New Orleans to attend your 5th conference for that year. I don’t care what account you are expensing it to, it’s a vacation.
- You want to take your children to Europe because they’ve never been. They can wait for study abroad. Going to a McDonald’s in London isn’t going to make anyone more cultured.
- It’s spring break! That Cancun club isn’t going to be any different from every other tourist trap club around the globe.
- You’re a business person and you just need to get a “feel” for an account. If your travel isn’t tied to a documented process with actual deliverables, it’s a vacation.
- You want to go backpacking through Asia. How about no.
- You need to see the Championships. Do you really? Is watching it on TV going to make you any less of a fan?
- You need to interview someone in LA or NYC for your podcast. Do it online like everybody else.
- You need to register people to vote or engage in other forms of political activism. Yes. This is the only exception.
If you are still confused by whether or not you should hop on that plane to Iceland for those totally cheap flights to Europe, consider the following questions:
- Is this trip for leisure?
- Can the thing you want to do there be done online instead?
- Is there a place in your state or region that would be similar to where you are planning to go?
- Can you travel there by car or train?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, then I want you to seriously reconsider your trip. It very likely isn’t necessary.
Hopefully, one day in the future, planes will run entirely on renewables, and their impact will be minimal. We can’t, however, bank on future technologies making up for all the ground we have lost. The climate has shifted too dramatically already to keep hoping for the next generation to solve this problem. Until we implement the technologies to reduce or eliminate CO2 emissions from planes, we sadly need to reduce plane travel overall.
Every person that opts out of air travel ultimately helps our environment. Fewer people means less jet fuel that the plane has to burn en route, and that translates to fewer emissions. On a macro scale, it also would mean less demand, which would lead to fewer flights overall. When we talk about climate change it usually seems so hopeless, but this is one of those low-hanging fruits that can be picked with minimal effort. Air travel is needed for many things, but you don’t need it to take a vacation.
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