air travel


On a challenge from the blog 400 Days ’til 40 I did a quick-and-dirty calculation of our carbon footprint for a year here in California. I just used the top hit on Google for “carbon footprint calculator” and made my best estimates for all the values they asked for:

1. I live in California, USA, in a household of two.

2. I use no natural gas, heating oil, coal, LPG, and no net electricity by virtue of a solar array, thanks to an investment by my father. Reanna and I cook with propane, and a little research is leading me to believe we will go through approximately 50 gallons in a year, maybe less. Our share of the firewood that my parents burn for heat in the evenings is about .4 of a cord. My share of all this contributes .08 metric tons of CO2 per year.

3. I fly to Portland and to Albany every year to work at Not Back to School Camp. That contributes .95 metric tons of CO2. Something like a quarter of a ton for each leg. Pricey!

4. Car travel is the biggest polluter at 5.05 metric tons of CO2. This amount probably varies quite a bit each year and is way up from my Eugene, OR lifestyle. This estimate includes a few trips to town each week, a dozen trips to the LA area, and one long road trip to Canada. That’s a bit less than 2 tons for each of those kinds of commutes.

5. I use a significant amount of bus and train travel on my business (and some other) trips as well, adding about .12 metric tons of CO2.

6. The second biggest polluter is a group of “lifestyle” choices. 1.21 tons for eating animal products, 1 ton for owning one car, .5 tons for eating only “mostly” local produce, .61 tons for buying stuff with packaging, .17 tons for buying “some” new equipment, .41 for throwing some stuff away, 1 ton for sometimes going out to movies and restaurants, and .4 tons for having a bank account. Total = 4.21 metric tons of CO2. (The highest value possible here was 24.53 tons.)

Here is the summary they gave me:

  • Your footprint is 10.41 metric tons per year
  • The average footprint for people in United States is 20.40 metric tons
  • The average for the industrial nations is about 11 metric tons
  • The average worldwide carbon footprint is about 4 metric tons
  • The worldwide target to combat climate change is 2 metric tons

I have plenty of questions about and criticisms of the way this calculator works. They ask my household size first but do not indicate if they are calculating my individual footprint or my household’s. That could change my score quite a bit if I’m taking the blame for Reanna’s share.

I’d like find a calculator which takes into account more specifics, too. I have owned the same car for 20 years, for example, but the way they asked the question gave me the same carbon footprint as someone who has a brand new SUV every year. Miles driven, too, is not as important as number of gallons of gasoline burned (see my mileage/fuel tracking project here). I buy some things with packaging and I throw some stuff in the landfill (see my landfill tracking project here), but “some” is a vague category to hang such a precise 1.02 metric tons of carbon on! What about grass-fed versus industrially produced meat?

On the other hand, two metric tons is a pretty tight carbon budget, and finding a more accurate calculator will not likely shift my score dramatically. And with this calculator, I am at 520% of my two metric tons, this with a relatively low-profile lifestyle for an American. I could come down to 222% if I did not own a car and never drove one. If I also stopped eating animal products and stopped going to movies and restaurants, I would be close, at 112%. If I also stopped flying, I could actually come in under budget, at 64%, leaving some slack for others.

That’s a pretty discouraging proposition! The biggest barrier is the isolation. No travel means never seeing a large part of my family and community. And the idea is that kinds of lifestyle choices would have to become the norm, not just the domain of eccentrics….

I’m going to have to do some more thinking about this.

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Actually, you can’t. Sorry. There is no way to do that, according to the moderately nice woman I just asked at the United Airlines gate in Denver, when I once again saw that I was on the wait-and-see list. It would have improved my chances if I had paid extra for an “economy plus” seat, but even then there is no guarantee.

When I didn’t get a seat last week, on my US Airways flight, the woman at the gate (who became very nice after I didn’t get on the plane) said I didn’t get a seat because I was the last person to check in. My on-time-but-last check in, for complicated reasons, was their fault, and they were very, very sorry about all this. Would I accept a check for $127 for my inconvenience? Even better, would I rather have $200 toward my next US Airways flight? I took the money, hoping never to have to deal with this company again. Aside from the great sympathy after I didn’t get a seat, every interaction I’ve had with US Airways has been abysmal. My experience may just be a fluke–the guy I sat next to on the flight they (barely) got me on several hours later, who had had a much worse time on US Airways than I had that day, said he’d been flying US for years with never a hitch. Based on my experience, though, I’m surprised that US Airways is still a viable company.

So of course I tried to check in online last night–as soon as allowable–for my flight this evening. It didn’t work. After an hour of being on hold and talking to a couple people, the very nice United Airlines customer service representative fixed whatever the mistake was and I could print my boarding passes. I noticed I had no seat assignment for the third leg and told him I felt nervous about that. “I cannot give you a seat assignment right now, but I guarantee that you’ll get a seat,” he said, and even asked me if I preferred a window or aisle seat. I preferred an aisle seat.

Well, I’m writing this while sitting on the United Airlines flight (a window seat) that I was hassling over last night, but just barely. When I asked the moderately nice woman at the gate how it was that I had come to be on their wait-and-see list, she said it was because I was the last person to check in for coach class. Apparently, every one of the 60-or-so coach passengers sitting around me checked in during the hour and some I was hassling with the United Airlines website and then hassling with the United Airlines customer service. Incredible.