How To Offset The Carbon Footprint Of Your Flights
Humans have an insatiable curiosity — that’s one of many things that makes our species so special. However, the advent of highly-accessible air travel, where it often takes less than a day and $1,000 to place your body on the literal opposite side of the world, has quickly become the largest—by a vast margin—contribution individuals have on climate change. If you’re interested in offsetting the carbon from your flights, you’ve come to the right place.
It’s been calculated that in order to curtail global warming, each human can emit up to 3 metric tonnes of carbon each year—an annual “allowance” of sorts. That’s 3,000 kilograms or 6,600 pounds—of a gas that’s not much heavier than air…to put that into perspective, and assuming an endless gas tank, you could turn your combustion engine car on right now, walk away, and return 68 days later and just be using up the last drop of your allowance. Seems like a lot, right? Unfortunately, when it comes to air travel, it’s not. One roundtrip ticket from LAX to JFK, sitting in coach class, eats up a whopping 43% of this annual allowance. And if you decided to treat yourself and fly business class, your annual allowance is entirely spent (2.5 coach seats can be put in the same space as one business class seat, multiplying the impact of flying business).
Even if flying coach, you likely drive to and from work, your kid’s school, grocery store, hardware store, out for dinner, etc., and presumably, like any reasonable human, you like to take hot showers, heat your house in the winter, cool it in the summer, and store food in your refrigerator and freezer. These essential activities consume every last molecule of your annual allowance. Even if you’re already driving an EV, there’s a carbon footprint attached to your electricity, which is still predominantly generated by burning coal and natural gas. So unless you’re living off your own solar panels and wind turbine, you’ll have to wait another 365 days to fly again. How likely is that? It’s not. So what do you do?
Before moving on, let’s address the elephant in the room. Ceasing air travel altogether. Would this help? absolutely. Is it realistic? Not really. Remember how humans have an insatiable curiosity? When any desire is stifled, a slew of mental health issues can arise, like irritability, melancholy, and lethargy. Basically, you are grumpy, which brings up a greater question about living life in the first place. It’s clear air travel isn’t going anywhere, so we’re best off finding ways to do it sustainably, which will allow us to feed our desire to see and experience the world and all of its majesty, without destroying it in the process.
Reduce What Needs to Be Offset in the First Place
Reducing the average annual miles flown per person will significantly move the needle, but this doesn’t mean we need to reduce our vacation days. One great option is to take fewer, longer trips, as the travel to and from the destination is typically 90+% of the entire footprint for a trip. Said differently, taking two (2) week-long trips is almost twice as impactful as taking one (1) two-week trip. So with just one adjustment, we can still take the same amount of vacation, but have half the impact. This type of travel, now being labeled as “slow travel”, is a large-dial change. Yes, you need to plan to be away from work for longer, but having additional motivation to wrap up loose ends and better prepare those around you to step up in your absence is often a good exercise to practice anyway.
What’s wonderful about longer trips is that they afford a much greater opportunity to experience your location deeply, fully savoring the culture, food, and people. Lately, we have been calling this type of travel “mindful travel”, and have been designing more experiences like this for our community. Slowing down, being present, and immersing in the region or experience you’ve made such an effort to get to will satiate your need for travel more deeply than quickly bouncing from place to place mindlessly ticking off checkboxes. This “travel satiety” will quench your inner desires and needs such that upon returning home, you won’t immediately feel the urge to start planning the next adventure. Therefore, even if your next big air-travel-based vacation isn’t slated until next year, it won’t seem so painfully far away.
Taking more local weekend getaways and fewer air-travel trips is another big step in the right direction, and can keep your lust for bigger flight-based travel at bay. For the ultimate low-footprint excursion, consider renting an EV and exploring within the 300-mile radius it affords (again, note that not all electricity is created equally. For instance, Colorado still generates more than half of its electricity from coal, with another quarter coming from natural gas). Or, hop on a train, ideally electric, which has one of the lowest emission footprints per traveler. You will likely be surprised by how much there is to explore right in your own backyard!
Calculate Your Emissions
Once you know your itinerary, it’s actually quite easy to calculate your emissions. Lots of online calculators, like this one from carbonfootprint.com, have sprung up that can help you understand your share of emissions for the flights, car trips, buses, and even trains you take throughout your vacation. Simply input your travel details and it will spit out an estimated amount of metric tons of CO2 for your trip, aka your “footprint”.
Often, time is our most precious, and limited resource, so calculating the carbon of your travel each and every time could be the hurdle that prevents you from doing so. If doing this each and every trip seems overwhelming, do one year-end review where you sum up all of your miles flown, and if possible, miles driven. If you travel a lot, just these two numbers will be 90+% of your individual footprint, which if offset, will make a massive difference.
Offset The Carbon Emissions of Your Flights
Once you’ve decided to travel, especially by air, and have calculated your footprint, consider offsetting your share of the emissions. If you’re reading this article, you’ve likely explored this in the past, and have equally as likely found that there are wildly varying and confusing methods for doing so. A lot of airlines are now offering the ability to add offsets to the purchase of your ticket, but don’t be fooled by the seemingly reasonable dollar amounts (i.e. $27 for that roundtrip LAX -> JFK ticket). In the nascent world of offsetting carbon, airlines are taking one extreme end of the spectrum, often simply purchasing carbon credits, which is fuzzy math at best, or passing funds onto what are called “low durability” solutions such as tree planting. Don’t get us wrong, planting trees is wonderful, and we absolutely need to regenerate our forests to curtail climate change. Unfortunately, however, natural solutions like tree planting are low “durability” because as soon as a planted or protected tree is ignited in a forest fire (which the likelihood of happening is increasing every year with global warming), all of the carbon that tree sucked up, or “sequestered”, (i.e. the emissions from your flight) is immediately released back to the atmosphere… And at the end of a tree’s life, during the decomposition process, most of the carbon stored will be released back into the atmosphere anyway (1/3 of all global carbon emissions come from the “deadwood” in forests!). Again, trees are 100% a part of the solution, they just can’t be 100% the solution.
On the other end of the spectrum, you could pay for “high durability” offsets, such as Direct Air Capture, which literally sucks carbon dioxide directly out of the air and places it deep underground where it once came from, and will stay for thousands of years. However, at today’s rates, you would need to spend at least $1,500 to offset your roundtrip LAX->JFK ticket, which is likely much more than the ticket cost itself. That’s unfeasible to most, meaning it’s not a sustainable solution either.
With as much air travel as our retreat requires to get to, and with our mission to heal both people and planet, we think about striking a sustainable balance quite often. We also think about what might actually get adopted. After months of research, we’ve landed on a formula that we feel is both impactful, approachable, and reasonable for most individuals, giving it a chance of actually doing some good. Note: we fully expect this formula to evolve as new technologies emerge and offset costs decrease (so stay tuned!).
The 747 Formula
We’ve created the “7-4-7” formula (yes, a pun on the Boeing 747), which breaks your carbon offset into three categories, all of which have their pros and cons, but combined, strike a balance that is effective and approachable, increasing the likelihood of adoption. The first two categories are based on the “durability” of the solution as defined by Microsoft’s Corporate Sustainability Group, whose effort to not only fundamentally understand and report on their impact on climate change, but take a strong stance in reversing it, has been a cornucopia of knowledge, while the final category focuses on awareness and education, vital components in solving this little conundrum we’ve gotten ourselves into.
Immediately remove 7% of your emissions with Direct Air Capture
Direct Air Capture can sequester carbon for thousands of years, literally sucking carbon dioxide out of the air and putting it deep in the ground where it originally came from. This “engineered” technology is as close to a permanent solution as possible, making it extremely resilient and earning the label of “high durability”. Pulling air via massive industrial fans through filters to capture and process carbon dioxide and then placing it thousands of feet underground is expensive to operate, but it’s the most effective solution available to immediately reverse the emissions we cause and needs to be a part of any offset strategy. This component kickstarts your offset nicely and immediately removes 7% of your emissions.
Climeworks—$1.30 per kg of CO2 removed. Founded in 2009 in Switzerland, Climeworks has developed state-of-the-art technology for directly removing carbon from the atmosphere at scale. Climeworks provide a calculator on their website, making the calculation of this contribution straightforward.
Example: Our economy seat going from LAX to JFK and back is responsible for 1300 kg of emissions. 7% of this is 91kg, meaning $120 USD needs to be paid to immediately pull those 91 kgs of carbon out of the atmosphere.
Plant 4 trees for every hour you travel
Tree planting is defined as a “low durability” solution—an initiative that sequesters carbon for less than 100 years and has inherent reversal risks (such as trees burning prematurely). The math of offsetting carbon emissions with tree planting is extremely difficult to nail down. One mature tree will absorb roughly 50 lbs or 22 kg of carbon dioxide each year, but how long that tree lives before it burns or begins to decay and emit sequestered carbon right back into the atmosphere is a complete unknown. It also takes 20-30 years for a tree to mature, so this solution kicks the can down the road quite a bit. Fortunately, planting trees is the cheapest carbon offset option available, so we feel it’s best to just vastly overshoot this component of your contribution, and calculate based on how many mature trees it would take to sequester your emissions in one year, aiming to offset 63% of your travel’s emissions over time.
One Tree Planted—$1 USD per tree.
The Nature Conservancy—$1.50-$3 USD per tree.
Example: Our economy seat going from LAX to JFK and back would take 12 hours of air travel and is responsible for 1300 kg of emissions. 63% of this is 819kg, which would take 48 mature trees to sequester over the course of one year, or 4 trees for each of the 12 hours flown. This would cost $48 through One Tree Planted.
Donate $7 for every hour you travel to awareness & education initiatives
The amount of information and misinformation flying around us at all times is dizzying and causes serious climate change confusion. Knowledge is the ultimate power, so it must be a part of the solution. While awareness and education don’t pull carbon out of the air directly, they certainly help reduce how much is emitted in the first place, which is actually the quickest solution to our problem. This element is extremely hard to quantify, but this donation needs to eventually offset 30% of your emissions. We have interpolated between the other two solutions to arrive at our recommended donation amount of $7 per every hour you travel.
Example: Our economy seat going from LAX to JFK and back would take 12 hours of air travel. We should donate $84 to climate change awareness and education to aid in offsetting future emissions.
Should we pay now or make our children pay later?
In total, our roundtrip LAX-JFK economy ticket costs $252 USD to offset (as of 2023), over 10x what the airlines suggest. This may seem like a hefty sum to add on top of the ticket cost, but that’s kind of the point. Flying is costly to the environment, so either we pay now, or our kids and grandchildren pay dearly in the future. It’s our choice. Remember, if you choose to travel above and beyond your allowance, offset your emissions with the 747 formula, immediately pulling 7% of your emissions back out of the air via direct air capture, planting 4 trees for each hour traveled, and donating $7 for each hour you travel to awareness and education non-profits.
What is Mountain Trek?
Mountain Trek is an award-winning health retreat located in the lush forests of British Columbia, Canada. Founded in 1991, our health reset program helps 16 guests at a time unplug, recharge, reconnect with nature, and roll back years of stress and unhealthy habits. To learn more about Mountain Trek, and how we can help reset your health, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out below: