Airplanes are not the world's biggest polluter. Estimates put aviation’s contribution to greenhouse gases somewhere between 1.5 and 2 percent. That's a fraction of the carbon dioxide emitted by vehicle traffic around the world. Keep in mind, however, that fewer people fly than drive. For one round-trip flight between New York and Los Angeles, you will have created for the same amount of greenhouses gases as 2.5 months of driving in your car. If you fly a few times per year, air travel will be a significant part of your individual carbon footprint.
What can individual fliers do? In an increasingly airplane-reliant world, staying on the ground isn't an option for many. Luckily, new methods for reducing your carbon footprint from flying are available from a variety of different sources including — perhaps surprisingly — commercial airlines.
The problem is bigger than just you
Globally, organizations such as the United Nations are concerned about the rapid growth of commercial air travel. Everyone flies, and, in the future, everyone will fly even more. The International Air Transport Association projected last year that the number of fliers will double over the next two decades. By 2036, fliers will take 7.8 billion trips annually.
These projections don't seem like wishful thinking by an airline-focused organization. Countries are liberalizing airline regulations, the low-cost-carrier trend is making flying affordable for more people, and, in many parts of the world, a growing middle class means more people can afford to fly.
It's not a question of stopping carbon emissions from airlines, but controlling them.
Airplanes burn the most fuel when taking off and climbing to cruising altitude. On shorter flights, planes consume as much as 25 percent of the trip’s fuel reserve on takeoff. Green-minded travelers may be able to take alternative forms of transport instead of opting for shorter, commuter flights. For longer flights and international flights, you can reduce your carbon footprint by flying as directly as possible. Connecting flights are often cheaper money-wise, but they're more expensive in terms of carbon count because of the multiple takeoffs.
Airlines are actually on your side when it comes to non-stop flying. More carriers are adding direct flights to and from smaller destinations. This is especially true of international service.
Efficiency and biofuels
Cynics will say airlines don’t care about their carbon footprint as much as they care about their bottom line (or their shareholders’ bottom line). That's up for debate, but carriers' profits are certainly affected by fuel usage. This is why airlines like United and Lufthansa are experimenting with biofuel mixtures and also ordering smaller, more-efficient airplanes from manufacturers like Airbus and Boeing.
The U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization targeted larger planes in a 2016 proposal for reducing airline CO2 emissions. The Airbus A350 and Boeing's 787 Dreamliner and upcoming 777X are long-haul planes that are smaller and more efficient than their "jumbo jet" predecessors, the double-deck Airbus A380 and four-engine Boeing 747. On shorter flights, the Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus A320neo are the newest fuel sippers. When you purchase your tickets, you should be able to see flight information that includes airplane type.
If you really want to compare the options, you can use Google’s Matrix software. Travelers usually use this software, which is freely available, to compare fares, but it also includes emissions data for each flight, so you can do a little math and figure out your carbon footprint.
What about carbon offsets?
Carbon offset programs are becoming more accessible, and many are specifically designed for people who want to negate the carbon footprint from flying. Actually, most major airlines operate their own offset programs. Delta Airlines started this trend more than a decade ago. Its offset program funnels money to forest conservation efforts run by the Nature Conservancy.
How much does offsetting your flight cost? According to Travel and Leisure, the aforementioned Delta program is quite reasonable. An $8 contribution offsets a cross-country flight, and $14 negates your carbon footprint for a transatlantic flight. The contributions are tax deductible.
Other airlines also have offset programs. These vary in terms of costs and the type of organizations that they support. You can do your due diligence and decide if the airline program is worth your money or if you want to seek out a third-party alternative (which, of course, will require the same type of research).
The drawback of carbon offset programs is that they're voluntary. You can feel good about offsetting your trip, but overall participation is quite low. These programs put the responsibility on individual passengers rather than on the airline.
As economic activity becomes more global and world travel becomes easier, it becomes more difficult to avoid air travel. Luckily, reducing or eliminating your carbon footprint is becoming easier.