A Carbon Confession

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Carbon Footprint

From Wikimedia Commons; Notnarayan

Here’s the dirty secret behind my attendance at the World Resources Forum 2011: I caused 1.12 metric tons of CO2 emissions to come here from the US. (Roundtrip, all calculations from Carbonfootprint.com) Four hundred people have flown in from around the world for WRF2011; can we do enough good to outweigh our collective and individual carbon harms?

From a personal carbon standpoint, flying is by far the worst thing I do to the atmosphere, followed by a distant 2nd of occasional driving.  My estimated 2011 flying carbon footprint alone adds up to more than 6 metric tons.   For comparison’s sake, the average U.K. citizen emits fewer than 10 metric tons of CO2 per year, and on average, each person in the world produces around 4 tons/year. How guilty am I of climate harm right now?  Pretty guilty, I’d say.

I assuage my guilt by commuting by bike, avoiding meat most of the time, and buying second-hand clothes.  Heck, I’m even contemplating eating insects. I rationalize by thinking that aviation, as of 2007, contributed only 3 percent of global carbon emissions. I also posit that I am a better and more educated person, thanks to my travels. I might even, in my more judgmental moments, think, well, my carbon footprint is much lower than the US’ average person’s (~20 .40 metric tons).  Sympathizers to my guilty conscience might might try to help by arguing that much of carbon footprinting is nuanced.  For example, grass-fed beef is better than industrial beef, and Brazilian beef has a higher footprint due to rainforest clearing for grazing. Some others might point out that airlines are switching to biofuels, using recycled materials for carpeting and seats and becoming more fuel efficient.

Accusers will say pooh, flying is yet another luxury contributing to climate change, which disproportionately affects the global poor.  Plane emissions of CO2, water vapor, and particulates go right into the high atmosphere, where they increase cloud formation and contribute to greenhousing the planet.  While fuel efficiency is a great goal, using biofuels can cause environmental, social and climate issues. If we are to avert or reduce global climate change, it’s the rich countries and people who will need to reduce unsustainable consumption –  we need to meet our own Millennium Consumption Goals.

As Professor Mohan Munasinghe from Sri Lanka said in his speech today, efficient and equitable sharing of resources will require sacrifice of all of us. Ultimately, global change will require an ethical response from all of us, including me.  Does that mean I should give up my beloved flying habit? When is travel worth the carbon price?

I take heart that I’m not the only environmentalist to struggle with the flying (or luxuries in general) paradox.  Bill McKibben of global climate organization 350.org, for example, wrote in an honest editorial on HuffPo that he does fly, but tries to limit it by speaking via video.  I also note that many premier scientists and political leaders are here – they apparently also felt WRF2011 was worth the carbon.  There are travel offset sites now, which accept donations to plant trees and other projects, though there are also issues with this concept.

What do you think about your own personal flying habits? How do you decide when it’s okay to fly?


World: CO2 emissions per capita, per annum starting date from Timetric


5 thoughts on “A Carbon Confession

  1. Pingback: Resource Efficiency: IGEL @ World Resources Forum 2011 | IGEL @ Wharton

  2. Something I have a lot of trouble with… especially when I’m travelling for an organisation. Is it fair to take the train when it takes much longer than flying, if you miss a substantial chunk of the work day? When it comes to sustainability organisations, people are fairly lenient about taking train during work times, but for other organisations I imagine not.

    I do both: take the train to ‘lead by example’ and earn green points from time to time, but if it’s a big stress and too expensive then I do fly: it’s not worth huge amounts of stress when some people regularly fly 3 times a week. Your sanity is worth protecting too!

  3. Personally I believe guilt is not the right word. I fly around the world because that is still the best way to do my work, but I try to cluster my meetings in a smart way, and use conference calling and videoconferencing more and more. Two years ago WRF experimented with the Twin Conference: organising WRF simultaneously in Davos and in Tokyo. See our website for details. Wonderful experience, we wanted to repeat but could this year not find a sponsor. I believe that we have to be aware and alert on our own travel behaviour, and cut back where we can. And after we arrived eat local, take the bus or walk (even in the snow …), contribute to recycling efforts, and do our bit where we can. We will ask our participants how they want us to bring back the footprint of our Conference next time. Thanks for pointing all of this out!

  4. Also, to help you with your decision-making about what is worth doing and what is not for sustainability, read Sustainability Without the Hot Air, available free online at http://www.withouthotair.com.
    It’s a no-nonsense guide to what actually makes a difference.

    Just avoiding one 3hr flight during your life means that in carbon terms you can use as many plastic bags for supermarket shopping as you like for 100 yrs- this obviously doesn’t include the natural resource cost though. http://www.carbondetox.org/ is where I heard that figure.

  5. Thanks for your comments @Harriet and @Bas. The http://www.withoutthehotair.com website looks really interesting, I’ll have to peruse it further. I suppose the real cause of my carbon guilt is the idea of luxury vs. necessity, when so many have so little and luxury is contributing to climate change. @Bas, what a wonderful idea of dual conferences. I do think videoconferencing is great, but you do lose the human connection… ah the conundrums of conferences! 🙂

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