A person’s air travel has an outsized environmental cost relative to his or her other activities. Here is a rule of thumb: The environmental impact per passenger on a commercial airplane flight is about the same as that of one person’s driving the same distance solo in a moderately efficient car.
So a passenger jet equipped to carry 200 people 2000 miles has roughly the same environmental impact as 200 moderately efficient cars driving 2000 miles. To put it another way, making one round trip to Europe from San Francisco in a year has about the same environmental impact as a year of typical car commuting to and from your workplace.
Roughly speaking, one to two round-trip, cross-country flights have about the same environmental impact as a typical omnivore’s meat consumption in a year or as a typical Bay Area resident’s portion of the area’s residential electric and gas usage in a year.
The rule of thumb is supported by documents produced by, among others, the Federal Aviation Administration, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Union of Concerned Scientists. This rule also accounts for how airlines respond to demand.
Globally, aviation contributes approximately three to five percent of warming effects, depending on details of assessment. But this is a small number only because relatively few people fly at present.
What can we do? Increasing the efficiency of air travel is important, of course. But experts agree that for the next few decades, there will be no major changes in the basic mechanisms of passenger airplanes. That is not to say invention in this area is not welcome; it is just not nearly enough.
The most important thing to do is to reduce consumption, as measured by the product of passengers and miles. Perhaps the most promising way to reduce our passenger miles is to change the way we collaborate and do business as academics and professionals.
Already, some of us regularly have video conferences with colleagues elsewhere in the world. In the coming years, we can develop virtual conference rooms in which real-time discussion and collaboration will be as rich of experiences as they are in person.
Similarly, by improving technology and information delivery, we can make tomorrow’s virtual conferences feel not just as natural as, but also more useful than, today’s in-person conferences. Of course, in-person collaboration is occasionally irreplaceable. But if we invest our resources and effort into this project, we can make the majority of in-person professional trips not only unnecessary but also undesirable relative to virtual options.
Here in academia, we apply for travel grants for purposes of collaboration. We could broaden travel grants to be collaboration grants. These would allow funds to be used to improve collaborators’ communications infrastructure: cameras, writing tablets, collaboration software and eventually virtual reality equipment. Additionally, we could arrange in-person conference locations to minimize the sum of participants’ travel miles and hold multiple small conferences in similar subject areas simultaneously in one location.
Invention and entrepreneurship will be essential components of this project. Substantially increased interest in high-quality remote collaboration would open and broaden market opportunities in communications, networking, computer hardware, human-computer interaction, IT security, local infrastructure management, big data and more.
Additionally, many of us travel by air to see family and friends and to see the world. We can make reasonable changes to our personal travel without sacrificing its key benefits. For example, with better planning, we can make family visits more efficient in terms of everyone’s travel, and we can take longer but fewer overseas trips.
Still, in this piece I’m really focused on air travel for professional activities, which is where our technology can have the greatest impact. Any time you get on a plane for job-related travel and think to yourself, “Ugh, I’d rather not go on this trip,” your feeling is a clear opportunity for positive change.
We live in an exciting time to be inventors and thinkers. What we create, we create forever, for good or for ill. It’s our choice.
Andrew M. Bradley, B.S., M.S., 2002, Ph.D., 2010
I want to thank several of my friends for contributing ideas to this piece. Any error is mine. Thoughts on this topic? Contact me at email@example.com.