According to former U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres, we have only three years left in which to “bend the emissions curve downward” and forestall a terrifying cascade of climate-related catastrophes, much worse than what we’re already experiencing. Realistically, is there anything that you or I can do as individuals to make a significant difference in the short time remaining?
The answer is yes, and the good news is it won’t cost us a penny. It will actually save us money, and we won’t have to leave home to do it. Staying home, in fact, is the essence of making a big difference in a big hurry. That’s because nothing that we do pumps carbon dioxide into the atmosphere faster than air travel. Cancel a couple long flights, and you can halve your carbon footprint. Schedule a couple, and you can double or triple it.
Atmosfair is a German public interest group that recommends limiting your air travel to about 3,100 miles per year — if you live in Los Angeles, that’s one round-trip flight to Mexico City. If you must exceed that limit, Atmosfair invites you to compensate by sending conscience money on a prorated basis to support climate stabilization efforts around the world. Last fall, having accepted an invitation to speak in Morocco, I used this online calculator to determine the carbon cost of my trip. My seats alone on the round-trip flights from Los Angeles to Casablanca (with a layover in Paris) helped emit about 8,400 pounds of carbon dioxide, prorated, into the atmosphere. Double that because my wife accompanied me. In sum, our seats alone on the planes to and from Morocco helped unload about 16,800 pounds of carbon dioxide. And this, of course, was just a small fraction of the emissions cost of the flight as a whole.
To put this into perspective, my wife’s and my annual carbon footprint in Orange County, California — counting gas, electricity, transportation and waste disposal — is about 33,000 pounds, according to the carbon footprint calculator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (To put that total into further perspective, the average Indian’s annual carbon footprint is just 3,000 pounds.) By taking one optional international trip that helped emit about 16,800 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, my wife and I increased our 2016 carbon footprint by more than a third. The harm we did with one international trip surely neutralized any good that we did all year as recyclers, eco-consumers and financial contributors to environmental organizations.
To put our flights’ 16,800 pounds of carbon dioxide further into perspective, the average American generates about 1,300 pounds of carbon dioxide a year through beef consumption. Minute by minute, mile by mile, nothing that we do causes greater or more easily avoidable harm to the environment than flying, which more often than not is optional or merely recreational.
The delegates meeting in Bonn, Germany next week for the U.N. climate conference recognize this. “The lion’s share of greenhouse gas emissions” from the COP23 conference, the organizers note, “is from long-distance air travel.” After the conference, a COP23 sustainability task force will tally up the overall carbon footprint and seek to offset as much as possible by buying certified emission reduction credits, many of which will go to green development projects in small island states in recognition of Fiji holding the presidency of this conference.
There are 7 billion people on our planet, but the billion with the largest carbon footprint includes the most frequent fliers. I belong to the top billion. So do many of you. If all 7 billion had a carbon footprint as large as ours, global carbon dioxide emissions would increase from the current 38 billion tons per year to 150 billion tons — a trillion tons every seven years, according to “Bending the Curve,” a 2015 University of California report. That trillion would translate into a catastrophic spike in global warming — an increase of 33 degrees Fahrenheit every seven years.
So for the love of the Earth, our common home, our only home, start conducting more remote work meetings and training sessions virtually. Inform those jet-setting friends that you won’t attend their destination wedding in the tropics — you’ll send a gift in the mail. Tell that conference organizer that while you’re honored to be invited, you would prefer to participate in live online sessions instead. Start taking vacations by train or car, rather than flying to Paris or beyond. Explain to your ecological public interest group that the Galápagos will be much better off without you. And please, all you professionals bouncing between New York City and Washington D.C., take a train, not a plane.
The 17th-century poet Andrew Marvell warned his “coy mistress” and himself that life was brief and youth briefer. They could wish it otherwise, but:
…at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
In our day, the winged chariot that is hurrying near is species extinction. The deserts of vast eternity that lie before us are the wastelands of the planet itself as we send it to its death. But there is something you can do about all that — something big, something easily within reach, something that won’t cost you time or money.
Take a deep, slow breath, and throw away that bucket list for good. You are needed at home, my friend, urgently needed. For the love of the Earth and of those who will inherit it when you are gone, stay right where you are.
Correction: This op-ed has been updated with revised emissions calculations for the author’s flight to Casablanca.