Flying is one of the most environmentally destructive actions that many of us take, yet it is very easy to hop on a flight without putting much thought into it. Flying is a relatively quick action and we don’t see the negative impacts directly, as they are all outsourced – out of sight, out of mind. On the other hand our garbage is something that is tangible because we can see it filling up in our trash cans day after day. We see the food on our plates every day and we see the advertisements of “eco-friendly” on the packages and in the markets.
To put it into a bit of perspective though, a single roundtrip flight from Los Angeles to New York City has the equivalent carbon footprint of about 350 factory farmed hamburgers. A flight is a big deal. Yet it is so easy to overlook.
The global average carbon footprint is about 4 tons per person per year and the average person in over 30 different countries generates only 1 ton of carbon in a year. That roundtrip flight from LA to NYC generates about 2 tons of carbon. That is twice the amount that a large proportion of people around the world generate from ALL of their activities in a YEAR. Again, a flight is a big deal.
In my teens to mid-twenties I flew a lot as a world traveler and for business as well. I didn’t wake up to the destruction that flying causes until 2011 and didn’t make significant change until 2015. When I decided I was going to take responsibility for my flights I calculated that I’d traveled roughly 199,500 miles by air since I first began flying in around 2001, 13 years prior. I ‘d taken 21 roundtrip flights and 49 one way flights. My portion of those flights emitted roughly 125.6 tons of carbon. That is substantially more than a lifetime of carbon for many people around the world, just for my flying alone.
I had made hundreds of changes in my life over the few years since I’d woken up, but flying was one that I delayed on. I just found it so convenient and easy to ignore, and I hadn’t put enough energy or time to see the alternatives.
In 2015 I committed to taking responsibility for my flights and following a deep set of ethics to use the flying that I do utilize as a tool for positive change. I have laid it out in this article.
1. I offset the carbon of every flight I had taken up until I took responsibility for my flights in late 2014 using the Gold Standard of carbon offsets.
I calculated the carbon on four different websites, all of which have a high standard for carbon offsetting, and chose the highest estimate I found*. After choosing the highest calculation that I found within the Gold Standard I added an additional 25% to account for possible underestimates. That totaled 157 tons of carbon, at a cost of $14/ ton makes a total of $2,198. (More on the Gold Standard in the following commitment).
2. I commit to offset the carbon of every flight I take 3 fold using the the Gold Standard of carbon offsets. I commit to choosing offsets that benefit underserved communities and improve their quality of life nearly immediately.
For example, a roundtrip flight from San Diego to London emits about 8.6 tons of carbon. Multiplying that by three, I would offset 26 tons of carbon, costing about $360. This will always be calculated using the Gold Standard, which is widely considered to be the highest standard for carbon offsets and is 3rd party verified. Gold Standard carbon offsets are high quality energy efficiency and renewable-energy projects that encourage a shift away from fossil-fuel use. My offsets have gone to the The Ghana Clean Water Project, Honduras Coffee Grower Clean Water Project and Redd in the Yaeda Valley. You can learn more about the projects by clicking on them. What I look for in a carbon offset is that it improves quality of life of underserved communities nearly immediately, reduces the issue that results in the emissions of carbon in the first place, and provides a more sustainable alternative. To be honest, by using this strategy my actions will have a positive impact whether humanity manages to substantially alleviate or reverse climate change or not. If the carbon offsets make absolutely no difference for the climate, which is quite possible, they will still have improved quality of life for people now, and that is meaningful to me. The Ghana project for example installs water filters into homes to avoid potential greenhouse gas emissions by preventing the burning of wood and charcoal, which is often used for boiling water to purify it. It also prevents deforestation because the people who receive the filter won’t have to harvest wood from the forest to burn for fuel. Those are the environmental benefits (among other things) but what is even greater is that people who might not otherwise have clean water will have safe drinking water for a decade with the filter that is provided to them. Also, charcoal is often burned indoors, decreasing air quality and causing respiratory diseases, and these filters provide an alternative that does not pollute their air at all. Also local Ghanians are employed to install and maintain the filters which provides meaningful jobs to members of the community.
These projects match my three standards by:
Providing clean water for people now who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it and providing an improvement in their air quality, by giving them an alternative to burning charcoal. Air pollution like this is one of the largest contributors to lower quality of life.
Preventing of the harvesting of trees, which means leaving forests standing.
Providing a sustainable alternative to cutting down trees and burning charcoal made from those trees.
I could certainly to choose use a much lower standard and make my numbers sound much better but this is all about making responsible and well thought out decisions for our planet and humanity. That is why I am supporting sustainable projects that contribute to a real reduction of CO2 emissions and serve the best interest of the local communities where the projects happens.
See the bottom of this article for more details on carbon offsetting.
It is very important for me to forgo unnecessary flights because offsetting the carbon does not mean that the negative effect of the flight is truly nullified. It is best to avoid the burning of the fossil fuels in the first place, rather than to offset. True offsetting is not about rationalizing flights and flying frivolously, feeling like it is all fine because the carbon is being offset. For me it is a tool to be used as part of a larger set of ethics and critical thinking (more on this below). However, if every single one of us at the very least offset our flights just 1x with quality programs it would drastically lessen our negative impact, and 3x would be a larger step. By requiring myself to offset my flights 3x I pay a price that is closer to the true cost of flying. An airline can fluctuate its prices to entice me to fly but the self imposed environmental tax will always be there to remind me that money does not reflect the environmental costs of flying.
3. I am practicing complete transparency with my flights and my offsets.
By knowing that all of my flights are readily available to all eyes I will hold myself accountable for my actions. I can not hide my flying. Click here for a continuously updated record of all the flights I’ve taken and the offset information. The blue trip descriptions are clickable and will take you to a page within this website that shares that trip. (Last updated 08/16/2020 and currently up to date.)
4. For every flight I take I will volunteer five hours with nonprofits working to make the world a more sustainable and just place. A roundtrip flight would result in me volunteering for 10 hours.
5. This goes completely without saying for me but I will always fly in economy seating. I never have and never will fly in business, first class or any spacious seating arrangement. The more people who are on planes, the lesser the impact of flying per person. One of the simplest ways of doing this is by keeping the seat spaces reasonable rather than spacious. I’m more than ok with not being perfectly comfortable on a flight. In my mind it’s a miracle to be able to speed through the sky in a tiny metal tube. I don’t expect, deserve, or need to be spoiled during this tiny fraction of my life.
6. When I fly I will dedicate some of the trip to inspiring and educating others to reduce their environmental impact. This will be done by public speaking, hosting a day of action, a hands on workshop, an environmental activism campaign, etc. Most of the flights I take will be done for the main reason of spreading environmental messages and effecting positive change, as discussed later in this article, but when I take a trip solely for personal reasons this will apply. I have not taken a flight solely for personal reasons since May 2017.
7. I will always attempt to use my trip as a means to raise funds for environmental and humanitarian nonprofits by forgoing luxuries offered to me. Often when I am being brought somewhere to speak I am offered far more than I need. Fancy seats, fancy hotel rooms, and private transportation are a few examples of this. I will forgo these unnecessary options and have the organization donate what I save them to a nonprofit instead. For example when I flew to London in October 2014 to promote my first TV show I had them donate $1,980 to a nonprofit working to reduce food waste and hunger, simply by flying economy instead of economy plus, staying with a friend rather then in a hotel, and taking public transportation rather than private. Also because I’ve vowed to donate 100% of my media income to nonprofits, as of August 2018 I’ve raised over $50,000 for nonprofits, much of which would not have been raised if I completely refused to fly.
Those are the solid commitments that I have made to take responsibility for my flights. Now I’d like to be explain my philosophy on flying and how I aim to use flying as part of my strategy to effect change, as well as how I choose whether to fly or not based on different scenarios.
I generally choose public transportation or ride sharing over flying when it is feasible and when it means less of a carbon footprint. However, I have done calculations and have been quite surprised at how close the carbon emissions of flying vs. driving or public transportation can be in certain scenarios so I look at each scenario accordingly. Generally, I fly to cross large bodies of water of passes of land that are not reasonably easily crossable overland. Within a continent I choose train, bus and car over flying. On my three European speaking tours I have flown across the Atlantic Ocean and then carried out the tours across the continent via ground travel. This has included over night trains and boats and travels of around twenty-four hours, for trips that could have been a few hours flight. I also schedule as much as I can into a flight to use that flight wisely. For example, when I was invited to give a TEDx in Paris in 2017, I organized a European speaking tour of over twenty talks. In this way I was able to make a much larger impact with my flight. I analyze every potential opportunity as to the best means of travel to achieve the task, and whether it is truly worth it in the grand scheme of things. This includes looking at the opportunity and deciding whether my impact there will be worth it and also looking at the big picture of my life and deciding whether the flight will contribute substantially towards creating the change in the world that I am striving for.
A vast majority of all the flights I take are because they are opportunities to effect positive social and environmental change, and enough to really make them worth a flight. This means I don’t travel solely for the sake of personal enjoyment, like I did in the past. However, I do enjoy the trips I take and use them as opportunities for education, personal growth and joy. I want to put it out there very straightforward that I am not going to be perfect ever. Flying is the largest hypocrisy in my life and I’m glad that I can at least admit it.
I don’t know exactly what the future holds, but I think that it is likely that in the long run I will choose to fly a fair amount. I intend to effect a lot of positive change for humanity and the environment and I believe that is best going to happen by me being physically available to people around the world. As much as it would be convenient, there are no black and white guidelines to knowing whether I’m making the right choice. At this point, I truly believe that I won’t grow the movement to even close to my fullest capacity without taking some flights strategically. In the grand scheme of things I do truly believe that flying at the right times will be key in my success of creating the positive change I’m trying to. I am not in this movement for a few years. This is a lifetime of work and this will reflect over the decades. The final call of that will come from the earth and I’ll never truly know.
I’d like to note that while I’m traveling I carry on living in a very low impact manner upon landing at the destination. That means taking public transportation when feasible, sleeping in shared or simple accommodations, eating local earth-friendly food, drinking water from the faucet rather than bottled, not creating garbage, and the list goes on. I don’t do a perfect job of holding my standards, but I make a strong effort to.
My aim is to lead by example and inspire others to travel more ethically as well.
Here’s what you can do to reduce your impact from flying and what I’m doing as well.
First, reduce flying in the first place by:
-Taking vacations closer to home
-Take trains or buses rather than flying
-Using webcams for meetings and keeping in touch with people
Here is my guide to more sustainable transportation and guide for more sustainable travel.
Second, if you do have to fly:
-Fly economy. Less butt space means higher fuel efficiency.
-Combine trips so that you fly less often.
-Fly the most direct route possible, without layovers, since take-offs and landings use the most fuel.
-Pack light. Less weight means less fuel burned.
-Offset your flights using The Gold Standard. It is extremely affordable and if you can afford to fly you can afford this small additional cost. Flying roundtrip across the USA will cost you about $30 to offset.
More information on carbon offsetting:
*I calculated the carbon emission amounts using four websites that are recommended by The Suzuki Foundation, a source I highly trust and respect. Of the four websites, I chose Native Energy the site that gave me the highest calculations of my carbon footprint, which was between 21%-43% higher than MyClimate, Less, and ClimateFriendly.
The calculations include the Flight Emissions Factor and the Radiative Forcing Index (RFI) so it is the highest calculation out there taking this into account. If I chose to ignore these factors I could have easily cut my calculation in half but I’m sticking to the highest standards on the market for calculating carbon emissions.
What is The Gold Standard?
“The Gold Standard is widely considered to be the highest standard in the world for carbon offsets. It ensures that key environmental criteria have been met by offset projects that carry its label. Significantly, only offsets from energy efficiency and renewable-energy projects qualify for the Gold Standard, as these projects encourage a shift away from fossil-fuel use and carry inherently low environmental risks. Tree-planting projects are explicitly excluded by The Gold Standard.
First, Gold Standard projects must meet very high criteria to ensure that they contribute to the adoption of additional sustainable-energy projects, rather than simply funding existing projects. The Gold Standard also includes social and environmental indicators to ensure the offset project contributes to sustainable development goals in the country where the project is based. Finally, all Gold Standard projects have been independently verified by a third party to ensure integrity.
Currently, The Gold Standard is restricted to offset projects in countries that don’t have emission reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol, primarily developing countries. Supporting offset projects that meet The Gold Standard therefore helps these countries leapfrog developed countries technologically so they don’t go down the same fossil-fuel path, which would be disastrous for the climate.
The Gold Standard is supported by more than 80 nongovernmental organizations worldwide including WWF International, Greenpeace International, the Pembina Institute, and the David Suzuki Foundation. Read more at The Gold Standard.
What is a carbon offset?
Many types of activities can generate carbon offsets. Renewable energy such as wind farms, installations of solar, small hydro, geothermal, and biomass energy can all create carbon offsets by displacing fossil fuels. Other types of offsets available for sale on the market include those resulting from energy-efficiency projects, methane capture from landfills or livestock, destruction of potent greenhouse gases such as halocarbons, and carbon-sequestration projects (through reforestation, or agriculture) that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Note: There are a lot of fake carbon offset programs out there and not all projects are equal.
Read more at What is a carbon offset?
Go carbon neutral
Air travel and climate change
Top 10 ways you can stop climate change
Worth a read from Wicked Leeks: The Offsetting Delusion