The author, right, with his brother Pete

I just got off an airplane from a trip back east to visit family.  I’ve made this trip nearly every summer of my life, which pretty much defines it as a tradition. It’s a wonderful recurrence of love, connection and the rich relationships that we’re lucky to have.  We gather at a rustic little cabin that has been in our family for five generations now.

Until the past couple years, I never questioned this annual trip.  There have been years when it was tough to afford the airfare, and other years when my schedule made it difficult or impossible to get away.  It can be tricky, too, to coordinate everyone’s calendar to gather at the same place and time, across all the miles that separate us.

But only recently have I thought of the trip in terms of carbon pollution.  As our society – American society especially, due to the immense affluence and appetite of Americans – continues damaging the atmosphere, we have to shift our patterns.  Significantly.  And without delay.

Gee, they always look pretty clean on the inside…

Air travel is particularly damaging when it comes to our atmosphere.  The four key drivers of carbon pollution – industry, buildings, agriculture, and transportation – each play characteristic roles in the problem.  We can influence each through our choices: industry by buying less stuff, buildings by insulating and solarizing our homes; agriculture by giving up meat and reducing food miles; and transportation by bicycling more and driving less.  

Reducing or eliminating our air travel is another critical intervention.

The fable of Icarus famously tells how the son of Daedalus, exuberant and careless with his newfound power of flight, disregarded his father’s warnings and flew too close to the sun.  As he encountered higher temperatures, his waxen wings melted and he fell to his death.  Icarus has become emblematic of the risks of hubris. His story exemplifies the use of power beyond its intended scope — with disastrous consequences. 

As I celebrated my annual family trip across the continent, I couldn’t help thinking of Icarus.  I looked down at the metaphorical wax holding my wings together, and saw it softening as the balance of our planetary climate unravels.

The core issue is this: One cross-country (or cross-ocean) flight creates a warming effect equivalent to 2 or 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person. Since the average American generates about 19 tons of carbon dioxide a year, even one trip by air represents a big chunk of one’s overall carbon footprint.  Those of us who fly more than once per year generate carbon footprints far larger than the US average. And – no surprise– Americans are vastly more carbon-intensive than citizens of most other countries. We need to take responsibility for the impact of our flights.

Yet it gets worse.  While efficiencies in the fields of housing, industry, and energy production are increasing, air travel is expanding far faster than improvements in its efficiency.  For example, innovations like LED light bulbs and electric cars are transforming carbon output in their respective sectors, yet there is no corresponding strategy for cleaning up air travel.

And regulation is tricky at best.  Even if the US government was truly serving the needs of citizens over its corporate manipulators, there are barriers to reducing aircraft emissions.  A little-known 1944 treaty known as the Chicago Convention restricts the imposition of taxes on air travel.  More recently, air travel was expressly exempted from the Paris climate accords — accords from which the USA has, appallingly, withdrawn.

So as we fly closer to disaster, as did Icarus, what can we do?  Most obviously:  Commit to stop flying.  I know that growing numbers of people are taking this step, and I admire them.  I’m working to reduce my air travel, but I’m not quite ready to quit.  Until I do, I feel hyper-motivated to take other steps.

For now, I have committed to spending money on carbon offsets.  This is not a solution to the problematic carbon footprint of air travel… but it is better than doing nothing.  I think of offsets as a customized, self-imposed carbon tax on flying.  I’ve done a little research on the subject, and found four credible organizations that offer carbon offsetting services:  Gold Standard; Verified Carbon Standard; Climate Action Reserve, and American Carbon Registry.

Of these, I personally have only used the Gold Standard.  But all these programs have been third-party endorsed by a program called Green-e. Endorsement helps insure that carbon offsets purchased are verified, permanent, and “additional” – meaning that the offset results from directly from your purchase, and isn’t something that would have simply happened otherwise.

Your carbon offsets might end up providing solar stoves to refugees in Chad

And while buying carbon offsets is not a solution to the Icarus problem, it does offer other benefits.  Learning about and supporting carbon-reduction programs around the world is a worthy activity for air travelers.  Many of these programs are multidisciplinary, meaning that they address poverty, health care, women’s rights, and ecosystemic integrity as well as carbon, making them hugely valuable for their host communities.

Choosing an airline is another small way to influence the carbon output of air travel.  Alaska Airlines is the leader here, at 10% better than the industry average achieved by United Airlines, and 20% better than American Airlines. It must be repeated, though, that this is a small difference: worth considering, but not making significant change. When the day comes when we can choose an airline that uses only clean electricity, THAT will make a difference!

Since the technology to make flying carbon-neutral is a good ways off, we must either cease or at least dramatically reduce flying.   It doesn’t help to simply fly and feel guilty about it.  Recently, the German word flugscham, meaning the shame associated with traveling by air, has started appearing in the media. Guilt over flying is growing across the world.  

Yet as an educator, I don’t recommend guilt as a motivator.  What I do recommend is that we make every possible reduction in air travel, coupled with buying carbon offsets. (The biggest motivator for me is a desire to limit the extinction of vulnerable species.)

Because I want to make a real difference, my practice is to purchase twice the carbon offsets needed to balance out the impact of my flights. It’s not actually all that expensive, relative to the cost of airfare.

And the wax is dripping off our wings.

Have you quit, or found ways to reduce your air travel? Please share your comments below!