If Air Travel Is Hard on the Planet, Should We Stop Flying? A Climate Reporter Investigates

How one climate reporter, and avid traveler, changed the way she navigates the world.

Photo of a train and an airplane balanced on a scale

Flights longer than 930 miles account for 80 percent of air travel carbon emissions.

Photo by Margeaux Walter

My earliest memory of being on a plane involves a metal tray sticky with the syrup that coated my pancakes. I was eight years old. My parents and I were somewhere between New York City, our origin, and Port-au-Prince, Haiti, our destination. The sky was a crystalline blue, and we hovered above thick, white, fluffy clouds. I fantasized about leaping out of the plane and frolicking among them like characters from Care Bears, a cartoon I adored. From the very beginning, I loved every minute of flying.

But by February 2020—when I took my last prepandemic flight, from a conference in San Diego to my home in New York City—flying had become unremarkable. My memories of the trip are shaded by decades of other flights across North America, Europe, Africa, and the Arctic. When I set foot on the jet bridge in San Diego, I no longer dreamt of playing in the clouds; the flight was little more than something I’d have to endure. Of this journey, my last before the COVID-19 lockdown, I remember almost nothing, not even the airline.

Three years later, leisure travel in the United States has returned to prepandemic levels, and yet instead of eyeing flight deals, I find myself unsubscribing from newsletters that promise me cheap tickets to Nairobi, intriguing fares to the Yucatán, sexy sales offers to the Seychelles. It’s not that I don’t want to travel. It’s that I’ve learned what flying is doing to the planet.

Around the same time that I took that NYC flight, a colleague published a piece about frequent fliers in the United States. In the story, she stated that, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation, anyone who takes more than six round-trip flights annually is considered a frequent flier. This rarefied group of people—just 12 percent of them Americans—are responsible for two-thirds of all flights and more than three times the emissions of a nonfrequent flier. After laughing at these fliers’ excess, I tallied the flights I’d taken that year. I stopped laughing when the figure hit double digits. I was the problem. And I vowed to do something about it.

Picture of a globe-shaped balloon outside of an airplane window.

There were 100 million air passengers in 1960. In 2019, there were 4.56 billion.

Photo by Margeaux Walter

Worldwide, aviation is responsible for 2 percent of human-generated carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gas emissions that warm the planet, causing climate change. Due to the specifics of that pollution—including that planes release those particles higher up in the atmosphere—flying punches up its harm to the climate. Airplanes are responsible for 4 percent of what scientists call “radiative forcing,” which measures how much heat a given activity (say, flying) is responsible for trapping in the atmosphere. And that heat from human activities is what scientists are referring to when they talk about global warming and climate change.

This percentage isn’t huge—in the United States, electricity, combustion-engine cars, or heating our homes each releases more greenhouse gas emissions—but flying is the most difficult to decarbonize. Put simply, engineers don’t yet know how to make commercial planes fly without also cooking the planet. It’s why, in 2021, the Biden administration put forward up to $4.3 billion to help such companies as Neste and World Energy develop and expand the production and use of sustainable aviation fuels. And we’re at the point where every carbon emission we slash now matters.

The wonky term for what our world is facing is “representative concentration pathways,” but I find myself mostly using the analogy of the planet as a speeding car heading toward a brick wall. Currently, we’re going to hit the wall, but our choices determine whether we’re going to hit the wall at 300 miles per hour or 30 miles per hour. One will be catastrophic; one will be horrible but survivable. Emitting greenhouse gases at current or even higher levels is like looking at that oncoming wall and continuing to step on the gas. Cutting emissions is like putting on the brakes. To hit the wall at speeds closer to 30 miles per hour, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we must cut global emissions nearly in half by 2030 and effectively to zero by 2050. (This is also the goal of the 2016 Paris Agreement.)

To do that we have to continue cutting emissions now, because there’s a lag between putting on the brakes and the car coming to a halt. It takes time to slow an engine this big. And as an American, I have a greater responsibility than most. The United States is the highest historical emitter of greenhouse gases, and, person for person, we remain among the highest emitters today (joined by Canada, Australia, and many Persian Gulf states). More than half of global carbon pollution has been spewed since 1990, the year the IPCC released its first report sounding the alarm.

Knowing all this made me want to take a long look, not just at my flying but also at how travel fits into my life. This was one upside to the pandemic: It was easy to take a vow to not fly and simultaneously reflect on my own relationship with air travel. I realized that, while I had taken a couple of trips for pleasure, it was my job as a climate reporter—visiting locales as disparate as Iceland’s Westfjords and Georgia’s Brawley Mountain—that had sent the number of my annual flights soaring. As I started to wrestle with these issues, I reached out to Lenore Fahrig, a Chancellor’s Professor of biology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. I had followed Dr. Fahrig since 2015, the year she chose to quit flying—ironically, on a flight, coming home from a workshop in Spain. She’d been reading articles and calculated that air travel was the biggest part of her carbon footprint, in her case producing four times the emissions she created from heating her house with gas and 10 times the amount she generated with her minimal driving.

“The biggest thing that I had control over was my flying,” Dr. Fahrig said. “If I wanted to reduce my carbon footprint, that’s where I had to start.”

At first, she tried to take fewer flights. “I found that I was constantly trying to decide whether a particular meeting or a particular trip was somehow worth the carbon emissions associated with it,” she said.

So she ceased flying, but she didn’t stop traveling. For Dr. Fahrig, the solution came in the form of trains (which are 34 percent more energy efficient than flying, according to U.S. Department of Energy data) and cargo ships. There’s a whole world of people who travel via cargo ship, vessels that would be going to a destination with or without passengers. Typically, a cargo ship is a no-frills experience: Meals are simple, there’s little to no Wi-Fi or cell service, and staffers are there primarily for the safety of the cargo, not passengers. But they, along with trains, can be a climate-watcher’s solution: By not flying, Dr. Fahrig estimates she’s saved nearly 40,000 pounds of carbon dioxide over the last five and a half years.

This rarefied group of people—just 12 percent of them Americans—are responsible for two-thirds of all flights and more than three times the emissions of a nonfrequent flier.

And yet a plane’s greatest virtue is that it is fast. I can fly from New York City to Los Angeles, 2,451 dizzying miles, in six hours. But to get there, the plane must burn fuel, and it must burn a lot of it. To get into the air and stay there, a Boeing 737-800, one of the most popular commercial airplanes, burns an average of 850 gallons of jet fuel per hour. (About a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions from a plane come from take-off and landing, which makes short-haul flights—those that cover fewer than 500 miles—especially emissions intensive.) To get me, or you, from New York to L.A., a plane will burn more than 5,000 gallons of fuel, emitting more than 110,000 pounds of climate-altering emissions. If the flight holds 200 people, roughly 550 pounds of those emissions will be mine.

Covering the same stretch by train, however, would take at least 67 hours and 20 minutes. I could fly to Los Angeles, spend the weekend, and be home before the train had even reached its destination. As I talked with Dr. Fahrig, I started to think that slower travel has its benefits. She noted that cutting out flying made her more likely to attend small, lesser-known conferences closer to home. Quitting flying didn’t narrow her perspective—it shifted it.

That’s something echoed by Torbjørn C. Pedersen, a 43-year-old Dane who has nearly reached his goal to visit every country in the world without flying. I first met him in Reykjavík, Iceland, in January 2014, three months into his journey. At that time, he thought the trip would end in 2018. When I checked in on him in early 2022, Pedersen had nine countries left to visit and thought he would be done in 2023.

During our call, he told me there are at least two benefits to eschewing flying. The first: no jet lag. “You’re traveling too slowly, so you just sort of adjust with the daylight as it gradually changes,” he said.

The second was a little more poetic: You get to see the world unfurl before you. He described a moment in Mauritania. “You see one or two rocks, and the rocks, they start building up and then you see a small bush and eventually maybe you see a tree, and you keep going and keep going, and these rocks, they start building up to a hill. The hill turns into a mountain and suddenly you’re in a forest,” he said. “You see how the landscape gradually changes, versus flying in and suddenly being somewhere else, like walking through the closet [and ending up in] Narnia.”

And yet, despite all these years not flying, Pedersen said that when his trip is over, he’ll probably start again, because, well, it’s really hard not to. “I think people are not willing to give up what’s convenient to them,” he told me. “I think society needs to restructure.”

Photo of an airplane meal with a globe-shaped pancake

One percent of the world’s travelers are defined as frequent fliers.

Photo by Margeaux Walter

Pedersen’s argument reminded me of something that Nick Pidgeon, professor of environmental psychology and risk at Cardiff University in Wales, had shared with me. Environmental psychologists examine the relationship between people and their environment—their field of study suggests that behaviors are locked into systems we can’t change, at least individually. People are unwilling to bicycle, for example, if they live somewhere without bike paths and a bike-sharing program, and they’re unwilling to take the train if the train doesn’t take them where they actually need to go. Dr. Pidgeon says this is why policies such as the push to ban short-haul flights when alternatives (such as trains and buses) exist or efforts to expand train infrastructure—and speed up those trains—matter. But his research goes even further, suggesting that our behaviors are locked into our social networks and commitments.

“If my mom is sick and lives in Arizona, of course, I will need to fly regularly to help her—however guilty I might feel about [my impact on] the environment,” he explained.

A solution, many argue, is to incentivize ways to fly less. Some countries are already beginning to eliminate those carbon-intensive short-haul flights. In many places, those distances can reasonably be covered by trains and buses. In the United States, investments in high-speed rail could pay off in climate dividends: High-speed rail is fast and produces less carbon dioxide than flying. More generous leave time and work-from-home policies could also allow us to take fewer flights by virtue of allowing us to take longer trips.

There’s also something to be said for exploring closer to home. Like many people, I realized during the pandemic that I’ve seen more of some other countries than I have of my own region. For the first time in years, I started to look at places closer to me with the same wide-eyed curiosity I’d reserved for places farther away. I spent a lot of 2021 in a small coastal town in New England. With nowhere to go and hour-by-hour glimpses of the same piece of ocean every day, I found that I could tell at a glance whether the sea was at high or low tide, and whether that tide was a spring tide, when high tide is very high and low tide very low, or a neap tide when there’s almost no difference between the two. It was the first time since I was a kid that I was forced to slow down, to walk the same stretches of land over and over again, to experience intense familiarity with a place and not be bored by it.

My goal when I set out on this exploration was to avoid that six-times-a-year “frequent flier” status. And because of the pandemic, I was able to achieve that in 2020: I flew only once before COVID shut everything down, and not at all in 2021. However, 2022 presented challenges. I flew once for work—on a military flight that would have taken off even if I hadn’t been on board. And later in the year, I booked a last-minute plane trip to Florida. A close family member had died, and, worried as I am about the climate, I needed to attend the funeral. It’s as Dr. Pidgeon pointed out: Our social networks impact how we move through the world.

But around the same time as the funeral, I was invited to an all-expenses-paid weekend trip to Puerto Rico, a place I’ve never been. According to one carbon calculator I consulted, the emissions from the flight alone would have been roughly equivalent to the total emissions a person in Pakistan generates in a year. In 2022, a third of Pakistan was submerged in floods strongly linked to climate change caused by emissions released by people like me. I said no to the trip—skipping it seemed like the right thing to do.

Though it’s easy to think of climate in black-and-white terms, with our choices either saving the planet or destroying it, climate change isn’t binary: It’s a gradient. Most of us won’t be able to live like Torbjørn Pedersen and Dr. Fahrig and eschew air travel altogether. But all of us, each one of us, can certainly be more thoughtful about how, when, and most importantly, why we travel.

Queens, New York–based journalist Kendra Pierre-Louis has covered climate change in a solutions-oriented way for more than a decade, most recently on the podcast How to Save a Planet. She is also the author of Green Washed: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet.
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