We depart in a few days for a long-anticipated two-week trip to the British Isles, an adventure my husband, daughter, and son-in-law planned with relish, and occasional kibitzing from the sidelines on my part. Recently, I stumbled on a couple of New York Times articles on how to manage “packing anxiety,” a malady for which I was surprised to discover there now exist “dozens of apps and services … thriving on users’ willingness to download checklists to avoid forgetting their socks and phone chargers.” It’s usually my hairbrush or a belt that I forget, leaving me with an exotic foreign collection of those two items, bought in desperation as their absence became intolerable. Nevertheless I remain happily free of packing anxiety. I do suffer, however, from … well, you guessed it, carbon footprint guilt.
The cure is obvious. Stay home. Maybe I should. But I won’t. Because life is short and we’re getting older, my husband and I, and our kids, to our immense delight, like to travel with us. They have crazy, demanding careers, doing their part to improve the world, and they need some renewal time away. Their son, our beloved 8 1/2-year-old grandson, is a bright, curious, funny, and appreciative traveling companion who will long remember every detail of this trip we take together, as he has of earlier ones. We are going and we are not going to pack the guilt. The last thing I want to do is turn this into a guilt trip. I’ll not be the skunk at the garden party, a role climate-change realists negotiate as best they can. What’s that mephitic odor wafting toward the dessert table?
One antidote to guilt, as to anxiety, is to do something constructive. So I’ve been researching the idea of carbon offsets. Turns out to be complicated … like health care? Surprising? Hardly. You can buy offsets from an airline, a direct option, but one in which poking around the Internet quickly reveals various flaws. So does speaking to an economist, as I did at a dinner party the other night. Not any economist. An MIT economist, and not even just any MIT economist, but one with a Nobel Prize.
How should I think about carbon offsets for our flights to Edinburgh and back? I ask. As perverse incentives of little or no value was essentially his reply, albeit with greater nuance and grace, suggesting the negligible impact I as an individual could hope to have on a problem needing redress at the collective level of the airline industry. Paul Hawken’s book, Drawdown, puts the industry in context:
“Mobility is an undeniable social good and integral to the global economy.The greenhouse gases that trail movement by flight — carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, water vapor in contrails, black carbon — are not. … More than 3 billion plane tickets were sold in 2013, and air travel is growing faster than any other transport mode. … Some 20,000 airplanes are in service around the world, producing at minimum 2.5 percent of annual emissions. With upwards of 50,000 planes expected to take to the skies by 2040 — and take to them more often — fuel efficiency will have to rise dramatically if emissions are to be reduced.” (p. 150).
Innovative design and engineering of airplanes holds some promise for improving efficiency, the Drawdown discussion continues, as do “behavioral economics approaches,” such as providing personalized feedback to pilots on how well they are conserving fuel. Using less — or different — fuel confers economic benefits to an airline, and so the market incentives should, in theory, be aligned. But like many an economic theory, this one bumps up against real-world data. “The most profitable American airline in 2010 was its least fuel efficient,” Drawdown observes (p. 151). An organization called the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) documents air travel fuel efficiency, ranks the world’s airlines (Alaska and Spirit Airlines come out best; American and Allegiant worst). ICCT argues the need for regulation.
Good luck with that, as we watch the current Republican party roll back protective regulations with reckless abandon. This is the organization Noam Chomsky has recently been calling “the most dangerous organization on Earth.” If I as an individual make a gesture to reduce my footprint, do I become an unwitting smokescreen for the industry? Turns out that’s complicated too. Maybe so, but then again, I, and every one of us, is somewhere in a process of coming to terms with what the climate crisis asks of us. Any gesture that solidifies our commitment to act is a step toward building the muscle memory we will need to encode more sustainable habits into our unconscious minds and our normal daily routines.
Eventually, we may find ourselves joining the ranks of Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist and well-known climate writer, who announced a decision to give up air travel. “Why I’m never flying again,” he wrote on October 1, 2013, after having been shaken earlier in the day by a frightening scientific report, then calling his wife from an airport lounge and finding himself moved to tears as he conveyed to her the gravity of what he had seen in the new study. “Together, we can reverse the damage that we have already caused,” he wrote hopefully, as he swore off flying. “We can all do something. My first big step is staying on the ground.” His declaration garnered international attention, which he wrote about a year later in a Slate article entitled “My year without flying.” No more “never,” but many insights on the virtues of slow travel:
“My world has shrunk and become richer. … Slower travel makes me appreciate where I am because I know how long it took to get there, I can feel it. And it makes me even more happy to get back home. … Don’t get me wrong, I loved flying. I even, at one time, had a pilot’s license. But there’s something very unnatural about it. It warps your sense of time and place. Jet-lag didn’t exist a hundred years ago. … Before I gave up flying, I’d been trying myself to ignore this dirty secret: For someone so concerned about global warming, each year I was pumping a dozen times the CO2 as the average world citizen into the atmosphere. … more carbon per person than almost every other country on Earth. As a country with only 5 percent of the world’s population, our lifestyle has been so outsized for so long that no other nation on Earth is more to blame historically than us.”
Holthaus went on in that 2014 piece to cite the work of a scientific colleague, Kevin Anderson, who hadn’t flown for 11 years and had written a commentary called, “Hypocrites in the Air,” arguing that academics who study climate should lead by example and give up flying as he had done. This poking around in the Internet was taking me down a rabbit hole, but also was unearthing stories as interesting as travel books might have offered.
But “hypocrites in the air?” I was conscious of the position of privilege that was affording me the luxuries both of time, to be doing my poking around, and of money, to add extra costs to an already-expensive trip. I’d been delving deeply into the threat of global warming for years, long enough that the extra digging now was more than worth it to me in peace of mind. At the same time, I had — and have — no desire to judge anyone else, or to invite guilt, the least useful of emotions in my experience.
And then, mirable dictu, as if on cue to coax me out of my rabbit’s hole, appeared a short pragmatic piece — a primer on carbon offsets — yesterday morning in the New York Times. “If you’re flying, you’re adding a significant amount of planet-warming gases to the atmosphere — there’s no way around it,” the reporter, Tatiana Schlossberg, began. “But there are some ways to make your airplane travel a little bit greener.” She then referenced a recent update of Justin Gillis’s helpful “Short Answers to Hard Questions About Climate Change.” Questions 1 and 2, How much is the planet warming? How much trouble are we in?, and then question 3: “Is there anything I can do about climate change?” His answer in six words: “Fly less, drive less, waste less:”
“You can reduce your own carbon footprint in lots of simple ways, and most of them will save you money. You can plug leaks in your home insulation to save power, install a smart thermostat, switch to more efficient light bulbs, turn off the lights in any room where you are not using them, drive fewer miles by consolidating trips or taking public transit, waste less food and eat less meat.
“Perhaps the biggest single thing individuals can do on their own is to take fewer airplane trips; just one or two fewer plane rides per year can save as much in emissions as all the other actions combined. If you want to be at the cutting edge, you can look at buying an electric or hybrid car, putting solar panels on your roof, or both.
“If you want to offset your emissions, you can buy certificates, with the money going to projects that protect forests, capture greenhouse gases and so forth. Some airlines sell these to offset emissions from their flights. You can also buy offset certificates in a private marketplace, from companies such as TerraPass; some people even give these as holiday gifts. In states that allow you to choose your own electricity supplier, you can often elect to buy green electricity; you pay slightly more, and the money goes into a fund that helps finance projects like wind farms.
“Leading companies are also starting to demand clean energy for their operations. You can pay attention to company policies, patronize the leaders, and let the others know you expect them to do better.
“In the end, though, experts do not believe the needed transformation in the energy system can happen without strong state and national policies. So speaking up and exercising your rights as a citizen matters as much as anything else you can do.”
I’ve gone on the TerraPass website this morning and bought an “eco tourist bundle” covering 10,000 miles of air travel each, for my husband and me, more than enough to cover this trip. The funds will go toward four projects designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: (1) landfill gas capture that “turns garbage into power”; (2) creating “farm power” from animal waste; (3) producing clean energy from wind farms; and (4) capturing methane at abandoned coal mines. The total price was under $100. A good deal for now.
A bonus, the website includes an upbeat section on ways to talk to kids, without scaring them, about why and how to be living greener. Maybe we’ll find openings to wonder about that on our trip — which includes the Emerald Isle — as we take in the sights, sounds, and smells of landscapes and cityscapes far from home. Or maybe not. Mainly, we’ll have a great time, and no mercaptan spray.