It’s Wednesday. My social media algorithms won’t let me escape the news headlines. Greta Thunberg has set sail for New York on a zero-carbon yacht. While she leaves Plymouth, in the UK, “on white-crested swells under leaden skies”, I sit in a plane on an airport runway waiting for take-off. Greta is crossing the Atlantic to meet the UN secretary general and attend the UN climate summit in Santiago. I am in Johannesburg where I attended two meetings. At least one of them could have been a Skype call. This will be my second domestic return flight this year. I have already made three international trips since 1 January.

“A single return trip between Cape Town and Johannesburg emits about 500kg of CO2 per seat for a full airplane,” says WWF South Africa’s bioenergy programme manager Tjasa Bole-Rentel. “Consider that the average carbon footprint of a South African household is about 9000 kg per year. Two such flights per year, and that’s a 10% increase on your annual carbon emissions. Take a single family trip, and it’s 20%. Take a flight overseas, you almost double your total annual emissions.”

Using this calculator I work out that I’ve generated 7211 kg CO2 by flying this year, of which I’ve only offset 2800 kg CO2 through the Climate Neutral Group. The carbon credits purchased were invested in the emission reduction project, The Wonderbag Project.

Johannesburg makes me happy. Two of my three international flights were to see family and included a sister’s wedding, the third was an invaluable work trip. In countries with alternative, efficient travel options, giving up domestic flights is an option. But trips to Johannesburg, the economic hub of South Africa are sometimes inevitable and now that Greta is sailing, flying is causing me flight shame or let’s use the original Swedish word, flygskam.

Alexandre de Juniac, director general and CEO of the global airline trade association IATA, has a point. He wrote in a blog post: “Confining people’s horizons to train distances or boat speeds back-steps on a century of worldwide progress. Relying on virtual meetings to make global connections ignores the feelings and sensations that make us human.”

But if we’re going to follow the advice of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report 2018 and limit warming to 1.5C, we have to drastically cut our carbon emissions. Kimberley Nicholas an associate professor of sustainability science writes in the Guardian that, “… Our generation must stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. The next decade is critical; emissions need to start plummeting towards zero today. We can get started by very quickly cutting today’s emissions in half.”

The general rule for the WWF network is to reduce or avoid air travel as far as possible. Where business air travel is necessary it is tracked and offset through the purchase of Gold Standard Offset Credits. The network encourages the use of alternative technologies for meetings and the running of more effective meetings. As an organisation it also calculates and reports on annual CO2 emissions due to business travel.

Bole-Rentel says, “Aviation has by far the greatest climate impact of all transport options. Currently, it accounts for about 2-3% of global CO2 emissions. Compared to major emitting sectors, these figures may not seem very high. However, the fast growth in air traffic means that by 2050 global aviation could account for over 22% of all CO2 emissions. With the sector projected to continue its fast growth, how do we reduce emissions from air travel?”

Bole-Rentel says there are a couple of solutions: Some emissions can be reduced by optimizing air traffic, some by more efficient plane engines and some by better aircraft design. But, she says, these solutions won’t keep pace with the fast growth of the sector. “The only way to lower emissions from flying until electric or hydrogen-based propulsion becomes a reality, is by replacing fossil-based jet fuel, with a low-emission alternative. We refer to these as ‘sustainable aviation fuels’ (SAF) and WWF has a programme working to making SAF a reality in South Africa,” says Bole-Rentel.

Until then, she says, “critically evaluating the necessity of flying and offsetting the emissions of our flights are important steps towards managing the environmental impacts of air travel”.

The Climate Neutral Group, a carbon management company based in Cape Town and the Netherlands which helped me offset my emissions specialises in offsetting business travel but they also offer a personal carbon calculator and online payment gateway. You can offset individual flights through their GreenSeat programme.

What you can do

  • Travelers can avoid business class or first class, because those seats take up more room on a plane
  • Pack lighter to reduce weight on plane
  • Choose carriers that get more passengers on planes
  • Travel by train when possible
  • Buy carbon offsets for any required travel
  • Use Skype instead of in-person meetings
  • Plant a spekboom

Image: Leio McLaren / Unsplash