This month, which wasn’t really unusual, I flew several thousand miles to give presentations and attend deliberative meetings where my presence was required as a member. Now, several days after I staggered off the last flight, I still feel drained and disoriented. Airport food, cramped seats, noisy hotel rooms, and the every-waking-moment nature of a travel work schedule leave a frequent traveler unable to focus on anything more important than the next cup of coffee, let alone the shocking carbon footprint of all that commercial air travel. When I counted up my commercial flights in the last year, they added up to more than 30, and that includes a maternity leave when I didn’t fly at all.
My even darker secret is that I have a pilot’s license. On my own, I fly for fun – for the light on the distant Beartooths and the geography of my beloved valley offered to me like an open palm. I love to fly – in a single engine plane that averages maybe 11 or 12 miles per gallon of leaded fuel (yes, that’s right, general aviation still uses 100 low lead fuel, and fights hard to keep it for safety and performance reasons).
According to the Nature Conservancy’s carbon calculator, my personal carbon footprint of 66 tons CO2 equivalent per year is far above the U.S. national average per capita carbon footprint of about 27 tons, and even farther from the global average of 5.5 tons (estimates of exact emissions vary, but the comparative footprints seem to stay fairly constant from one carbon calculator to the next). All my efforts at reducing my carbon footprint at home are dwarfed by the impact of my air travel, which is pretty indefensible in my line of work.
Dropping the flying would bring my carbon footprint down around 21 tons CO2 equivalent per year – still more than my global share, but less embarrassing. There are other things I’m already doing, like biking and walking as much as possible, living air conditioning-free (this is perfectly comfortable on a shady lot in Montana), recycling, composting, gardening, using energy efficient lighting and appliances – lots of things that don’t detract from enjoying life but let me walk a little lighter on the earth.
But there are tougher challenges. Electricity in Billings is generated at a big, nasty old coal plant, and all my home power (including heat and hot water) comes from it. I’m cutting down my consumption as much as possible, but the next big step is investing in solar hot water (estimated price tag: $16,000) or a geothermal heat pump (still waiting on that estimate). My other big carbon splurge is the family car, a Subaru Outback that we need even to get out of the driveway on snowy winter days. And intercity travel in this region is a big challenge without a car. Greyhound and Amtrak are slow, inconvenient, and more expensive than driving.
Faced with these challenges, flying looks like the easiest thing to put on the chopping block. I can’t say I’d miss TSA, but a quiet morning flight over my mountains? Only the desire for my grandchildren to see the same glaciers I have could keep me from it.