Ever wonder if it’s better to fly or drive to your destination? The plane certainly wins on speed, and often cost, but what about planetary impact? Turns out those wispy white contrails are looking increasingly dirty, bad news for lovers of in-flight movies and mile-high mischef. While planes, trains and automobiles all spew out carbon dioxide emissions (that contribute to climate change), planes tend to be the least efficient of the bunch (due to higher speeds and energy it takes to get to altitude). But recent research is showing that CO2 is only part of the story. Planes also emit high altitude NOx, water vapor, and particulate matter, all of which also contribute to global warming. So jet-setting to far off places may be anywhere from twice to more than quadruple the impact of driving the same distance, based on the latest science.
Depending on which numbers you believe, air transport makes up anywhere from 4% to 9% of current climate forcing. But these figures are likely to increase, as air traffic has been growing at over 5% per year for much of the past decade, with some projecting aviation’s impact to more than triple by 2050. There are certainly some very cool electric-, solar-, and human-powered aircraft out there, as well as hypermiling conventional planes, but substantial efficiency improvements in commercial aviation aren’t likely anytime soon, due to limits in conventional technology.
So what’s a globe trotting adventurer to do? As we’ve blogged before, cutting back on air travel through telecommuting, teleconferencing and staycations can help. But it’s a wonderful world out there, and we know that the only efficient way to get to much of it starts on a runway! There are plenty of creative solutions out there that need not leave you entirely grounded. If you’re flying to an exotic locale for work, try to get in your annual vacation fix in the same trip. In general, take fewer trips that last longer (to compensate), and choose closer destinations when you can. If you’re in need of tropical paradise, Mexico or the Virgin Islands probably require a lot less carbon to get to than Bali. Flying coach also emits less than business or first class (because you’re taking up less space), so saving money also equates to saving carbon. Check out Careplane to see how your flight emissions options stack up on your travel site of choice (Kayak, Hipmunk, Orbitz and Bing are all supported).