top of page

The Carbon Cost of Going Home for the Holidays

By Dawn Bickett

DC EcoWomen are making changes in their lives to reduce their impact on the environment every day. Recycling, composting, taking public transit, watching electric bills for energy inefficiencies, buying local, reducing meat consumption… the list goes on and on.

But this holiday season, many of us have a problem that vermiculture or an LED lightbulb can’t fix: air travel. The aviation industry is responsible for 2% of total carbon emissions worldwide, which doesn’t sound like a lot. But if you take several long flights a year — to visit family over the holidays, for example — planes are likely to take up a much bigger part of your individual carbon footprint. See for yourself; calculate your emissions here.

As you make your holiday travel plans, here are some things to keep in mind.

Planes, Trains, or Automobiles?

All modes of long-distance transportation produce some form of carbon pollution or greenhouse gases, but plane emissions are definitely the highest. And it’s not just that they consume lots of fuel (although that is true). They also emit nitrous oxide, soot, and water vapor at high altitudes, which can have additional adverse effects on the climate.

Buses, trains, and carpooling are all much more efficient than flight. Even driving alone can be better for the climate than flying. But if you need to go thousands of miles, these aren’t realistic options.


One popular way to tackle this carbon conundrum that airlines themselves often tout, is to offset the carbon pollution of a plane trip. The idea behind carbon offsets is that you can make up for carbon pollution you are causing by funding a project that reduces carbon emissions somewhere else. Sounds great, right?

In theory, carbon offsets provide an excellent way to mitigate your environmental impact with little effort on your end. In practice, the situation is a bit more complicated. Many carbon offset programs either don’t offset as much carbon as they promise or have negative impacts, like displacing indigenous peoples. And a few are actually just scams.

Still, some carbon offset programs are successful ventures that do truly facilitate climate-saving projects, like this methane capture at a dairy farm in Wisconsin. If you are interested in purchasing offsets to balance out the carbon cost of a flight this season, be ready to sift through a lot of low quality programs in order to find a trustworthy one.

The Future of Flying

The aviation world faces some serious challenges in bringing down its emissions, but there is good news: In the long run, exciting innovations may make more climate-considerate air travel a reality. The world’s first solar plane just made a cross-country flight, the Center for Process Innovation just released a jaw-dropping re-design of a more efficient fossil fuel-powered plane, and Boeing is even making large investments in developing jet biofuel. It’s a start!

But we aren’t there yet. Unfortunately, the best way to reduce your transportation footprint this holiday season is simply not to travel. But don’t despair. Here’s a piece of good news to hold on to just in case you are reading this blog while crammed into a 747: the most efficient way to fly — if you have to — is on very full flights, in economy.

Happy holidays, however you are traveling!


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page