How Heavy Is Your Flight - The Carbon Footprint of Air Travel

A world with a sudden limit on air travel would be tremendously different from the one we live in now
— Charles C. Mann

Few things seem to irritate us quite like air travel.  At times it is hard to think of air travel as luxury.  But it is.  Every day 8.3 million people benefit from being able to blast themselves across the sky.  We are capable of covering distances in the matter of hours that most of humanity could not even imagine crossing in a lifetime.

While you read this, there are likely 5,000 commercial flights in US air space.  Our national air traffic currently exceeds 24,000 flights a day.  The relative expense of air travel continues to go down .  More of us are able to travel and are choosing to travel by air because of the benefits of such quick transportation at relatively low cost.


While you read this, there are 5,000 commercial flights in US air space.


The challenge, though, is that our economic systems do not yet include the full cost of our transportation systems.  A typical commercial flight produces 10 ounces of CO2 emissions per passenger.  That does not sound like too much – until you consider how those numbers add up. 

 Photo by Thisisbossi via Flickr

Photo by Thisisbossi via Flickr

Over a two hour one-way trip, an airliner with a 175 passenger capacity will produce 131,250 pounds of CO2 emissions.  Those emissions will occupy a volume of atmosphere roughly the size of the dome of the US Capitol building.

 Those 24,000 daily flights are cranking out 16.6 billion cubic feet of CO2.  That is an emission rate of atmospheric volume just shy of 19 Empire State buildings…hourly.  Those emissions will stay in our atmosphere for at least a century, accumulating and increasing the greenhouse gas concentrations geometrically. 

A quick review of the atmospheric concentrations over the last century reveals pretty quickly the relationship between our man-made greenhouse gas emissions, the atmospheric concentrations, and the increasing global temperatures

We are lucky to live at a level of luxury unimagined by the vast majority of humanity that has ever lived.  That luxury also comes at an environmental impact greater than the impact most other humans have had on the Earth.

To be certain – people are working on finding alternatives to the carbon rich fossil fuels our flights rely upon.  That research has been going on for some time and I am certain that we will ultimately find alternatives which finally eliminate our impact on our atmosphere.  Until that time, though, we should do everything we can to take responsibility for our impacts: Consolidate your travel as much as possible to eliminate flights wherever possible and consider train travel. 

And for the impact you cannot avoid – consider offsets.  Not only do they invest in expanding our renewable energy infrastructure, they will reduce man made greenhouse gas emissions equal to your impact.  Reductions you make happen equal to the impact you’ve had.