Climate Column: Air Travel — Do we give ourselves a hall pass?

Aviation travel can blow your personal carbon bank, but are solutions on the horizon?|

Flying at 40,000 feet, you can see how thin our atmosphere is. On a school house globe, it would be the thickness of the clear coat. The troposphere – where our weather is – is only about 5-9 miles high, or from Petaluma to Rohnert Park. (It’s thicker at the equator and thinner at the poles.)

This is the space that has been collecting the pollution from our smoke stacks and tail pipes. And it doesn’t miraculously start fresh with the beginning of each new year. It’s been building up and up and up over the last 200 years, until we’ve reached the crisis point we find ourselves in today.

We’ve built our lives around cheap, abundant, heavily subsidized fossil fuels, making it extraordinarily difficult to extract ourselves from the conveniences and expectations they’ve afforded us.

One hundred years ago, my husband wouldn’t have moved across the country from Massachusetts to California with any expectation that he would see his family again. They might write letters, but regular trips back and forth would not have been an option. Now, it is entirely possible and expected that average middle-class families travel by plane to spend time together for holidays and vacations.

Despite the brief pause for the pandemic, businesses are back to flying their employees around the globe with little concern. Just note the number of “premier status” passengers loading first as their special perk for extreme travel.

And saving up for a good retirement often includes budgeting for frequent trips across the planet, visiting Earth’s most interesting and beautiful places as our reward for a job well done.

This is where most environmentalists give themselves a hall pass. Part of the reason we work so hard to protect this planet is because we love it so much. And we love it so much because we’ve seen how magnificent and exceptional it is, fueling our desire to keep exploring.

Unfortunately, aviation is one of the toughest problems to solve when it comes to decarbonization.

When I calculate my own carbon footprint, air travel is by far my biggest greenhouse gas contributor — and that’s with just limiting myself to one trip per year to see the family back east. If I add in one vacation or one more trip back to help the aging in-laws, my carbon budget is completely blown. Not to mention the occasional air travel my husband does for work that helps support my climate activism.

But what do we do? Save the planet for future generations by sacrificing the connection to existing generations? Give up destination vacations and live vicariously through our friends’ social media posts? Quit a career if it requires air travel?

I’ve met a few people who won’t fly out of principle, but they’re a rare bird.

For some perspective, I called up Tauni Berger, a Petaluma friend who works for a climate advisory firm and has some insight into this field through her experience in carbon markets. It turns out there is more progress being made than I expected.

Berger pointed me to the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) – a huge mouthful that described the global agreement developed by the United Nations back in 2016 to help curb the impact of aviation. To this point, the program has been voluntary, but as of January 2024, compliance will be required within the 125 participating countries.

Many airlines have taken measures to get started, finding better flight paths and adding winglets to their wing tips to reduce drag and improve fuel efficiency. Some even request you lower your window shade to keep the sun out, saving energy spent on cooling the cabin.

Ground fleet electrification is helping to decarbonize the operation on land. Investment in sustainable aviation fuel, which looks like a more promising path forward than electric planes for long-range flights, is helping to reduce the impact in air.

For the consumer, Google Flights can help you find a lower-emitting pathway by displaying the carbon dioxide emissions for each option. When a train is available on your route, they’ll now add it to your search results, since this mode of transport can cut your emissions by about 84%.

But at the end of the day, getting the aviation industry to carbon neutrality is a very heavy lift. After implementing all possible carbon reduction measures, the last step is to utilize carbon offsets. Both airlines and customers can fund projects that do good elsewhere to “offset” the impacts that could not be avoided. The carbon market industry could be a whole other column, but it was heartening to learn that what was once the wild west now has stricter requirements to make it more effective.

It’s good to know progress is being made. The questions still remains: will it happen fast enough?

(To calculate your own carbon footprint, check out CoolClimate Network: coolclimate.berkeley.edu/calculator)

Natasha Juliana is the campaign director for Cool Petaluma. She can be reached at natashaj@coolpetaluma.org. For information on how to get involved, visit coolpetaluma.org.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:
  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.