This Space for Rent


We've been thinking about flying back east this year for a summer vacation, so (since I've been hearing about just how spectacularly polluting airplane travel is) I decided that I'd hunt down a bunch of CO2 calculators and figure out just how much CO2 we'd be dumping into the atmosphere.

We don't do much driving, and we've pretty heavily chopped away at electrical usage in our house, so without airplane travel we dump a little less than 8 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. That's too much for my tastes (five tons of that is from our (oil) heat) but it's still substantially less than the average. But when I add a single roundtrip for the family from Portland to Greensboro NC [2700 miles * 2 (roundtrip) * 4 (people) == 21600 air miles], it shoots up to twenty-two tons of CO2 in our personal carbon fountain.

And a large chunk of that additional 14 tons of CO2 will be ejected directly into the stratosphere, where it can help spread global warming goodness in the most efficient manner.

Flying steerage is pretty grim. Dealing with the security theatre that the Department of Homeland Hysteria is putting on is pretty grim. But having one holiday trip almost triple our carbon emissions just takes all the fun out of flying anywhere.

(Sure, we could take the train. It would take 140 hours r/t [airplane takes 12 hours r/t] and it would cost us US$4000.00 if we got a family bedroom. It wouldn't dump nearly as much carbon into the air, but, um, I don't think we could buy enough valium to keep from having mental breakdowns after hour 7 of the 70 hour RAILROAD EXPEDITION FROM HELL ITSELF. I don't think it's really a feasable alternative. We could also drive, but (a) I'd have to get a drivers license and (b) it would take 14 DAYS r/t if we wanted to be able to periodically stop so the bears could run around and keep from going insane as the mighty Prius crept slowly and painfully across North America.)

I can see the appeal of being a global warming denialist. Putting my hands over my ears and screaming "LA LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU AND AL GORE IS FAT!" has the advantage that I wouldn't have to think about doing my part of causing runaway global warming every second I'm in the air.


Is that really the incremental cost of adding 4 passengers to a jet flight that was going to be made anyway, or are you taking the entire carbon cost of the flight onto your shoulders?

Paul Tomblin Fri Apr 13 06:17:33 2007

That’s a good question. I suspect that the calculators average load factors and average fuel consumption, which may overstate the cost of long-distance flights and the sort of pack-em-in loading that the airlines are doing now. I’ve not found anywhere where they say whether they include GA in their averages (if they did, the figures would be worthless because bizjets don’t shovel their pollutants into the same levels of the atmosphere that propeller planes do.)

The only pounds of co2 vs. passenger air mile calculation I’ve seen broken out says that it’s about .5 pound/mile for a 2500 mile flight. That’s much less scary; that would be just over 5 tons of co2 for the cross country flight (still not accurate, since there aren’t any direct flights; to get from Portland to Greensboro means we’d have to bounce off ORD or MEM and that additional landing pushes the count up.

When I hand-calculate the fuel cost, I get about 500 pounds of co2 per passenger on a Portland->ORD->Greensboro flight if the airplane is >90% full. Which works out to a much more appealing 2 tons of co2. So if I could ensure that all of the flights are filled up to capacity, then our fraction of the flight cost drops wayyy on down. But if a flight is empty, then the co2 cost turns around and shoots on up again.

(And I didn’t mention it, but the carbon cost of driving or taking the train isn’t that much better than flying. The computed carbon cost of taking the train is about half that of flying, and driving is about ¾ths that of flying, so the heroic measures needed to not fly don’t even win that much.)

It’s the problem of moving to the opposite site of the continent. 2700 miles is a long way, even using the most ecologically sound method of travel I could find.

David Parsons Fri Apr 13 09:21:04 2007

I admire that you’re even considering your family vacation from this point of view. When I see the unbelievably enormous waste that goes on in workplaces every day (lights and computers left on 24/7, paper spewed out of printers for one small edit, etc. etc.), I resist the idea of capping my own enjoyment of travel. I realize that’s not very responsible of me. I do what I can in my daily life, but I can’t imagine not flying once or twice a year for holidays. As the commenter above said, the plane is going whether you’re on it or not.

L-girl Sun Apr 22 12:55:50 2007

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