As an event professional, I have a love-hate relationship with travel. I get a lot of joy out of the opportunity my job provides me to visit other places. At the same time, I feel significant guilt about the carbon impact of the flights I take.
For a long time I rationalized these trips. They’re “only” 2 per cent of carbon emissions, I’d say (a figure that doesn’t include the full warming potential of all emissions from aviation). And the work I do as an event sustainability consultant helps to reduce emissions overall, right?
But two tonnes of emissions saved through an event zero waste program against the backdrop of a two tonne flight to get to the event to supervise the program just doesn’t quite add up to a net gain, does it?
Globally, aviation’s contribution to climate change is notable. Milan Klöwer, a postdoctoral researcher in weather and climate modeling at the University of Oxford summarizes:
“Aviation is responsible for 4% of the 1.2°C rise in the global mean temperature we have already experienced since the industrial revolution. Without action to reduce flights, the sector will account for 17% of the remaining 0.3°C left in the 1.5°C temperature target, and 6% of the 0.8°C left to stay within 2°C. Airlines effectively add more to global warming than most countries.”
According to Canada’s recently released Aviation Climate Action Plan, Canadian air operators caused approximately 22 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions in 2019. That’s a 75 per cent increase since 2005, and roughly equal to driving 4.8 million cars for a year.
Even though plane efficiency has improved since 2008, these gains have been outpaced by growth. And while commitments to scale-up sustainable aviation fuels are noted in Canada’s plan, this is a long-term solution.
In fact, the federal government’s own plan states that one-third of progress toward net zero aviation will have to be achieved through offsets. That’s 12 megatons of emissions, without accounting for non-CO2 warming. For comparison, it would take a forest over 10 times the size of Prince Edward Island to absorb that amount of emissions (at some point in the future, assuming the trees stay standing).
Needless to say, with travel bouncing back, I’m experiencing a massive amount of dissonance about getting on a plane again. So, what can I do about it?
First: I want to talk about it. Something that might seem obvious, but in my experience is incredibly hard to do in the event sector, where proposals to fly less can be met with resistance and dismissal. So if anyone is experiencing climate angst related to your air travel (and lives in a rail-restricted country like Canada) I feel you, am interested to hear about your experience, learn from you and support you.
Secondly, I’d like to propose some steps to take.
Measure your travel footprint. Myclimate provides a free online calculator that can help. Measuring my travel footprint annually has taught me just how much flying contributes to my personal footprint. In fact, in peak travel years my impact was nearly double that of the average Canadian, and 11 times what it should be to live within 1.5°C. Just like stepping on the scales to start a New Year’s weight loss resolution, confronting my flight footprint has helped me set goals to reduce, and make progress.
Make a few small, practical changes. I began reducing the climate impact of my travel by booking direct flights instead of connections. This has the upshot of reducing emissions and saving time, but can also present higher costs (which in my experience have been bearable). I have also tried to pick more efficient airlines where I can find such information (this study ranks a few trans-Atlantic airlines).
I also reduced short-haul flights, opting for ferries or trains where possible. These options aren’t always available and are rarely as quick as flights, but in my case, they are typically less costly while also providing an opportunity to work in transit.
I’m also prioritizing virtual attendance at conferences, and trying to plan projects in new ways that reduce the need to fly long distances as frequently. For example, in previous years I wouldn’t have given a second thought to hopping on a plane to attend multiple site visits. However, recently I’ve been scoping projects to train client staff or local agencies to do their own sustainability reconnaissance during these visits. This step has been instrumental in avoiding highest emitting, long haul flights, reducing client travel costs and often helping staff and agencies take more ownership over sustainability projects.
Reward yourself. If I’m being honest, this has very little to do with reducing emissions, and everything to do with motivating myself through those times when I’d really rather just take a flight. For example, every time I don’t get on a plane, I reward myself with “infrequent flier miles”. 1,000 infrequent flier miles earned by avoiding a short flight? Perhaps it’s time to book a massage at my neighbourhood spa. 50,000 miles saved in my bank? Maybe it’s time for a local getaway with my family.
The truth is, flying less might reduce climate guilt, but can sometimes feel like missing out. So thinking about how climate-friendly choices provide their own perks goes a long way to find joy in flying less.