Should We Still Fly?

December 19th, 2019
carbon, climate, transit
I've seen a lot of discussion about plane travel from a climate perspective lately, with people arguing that we should try to restructure our lives to fly much less. Avoid business travel, vacation closer to home, visit relatives less, etc. After looking at the numbers, though, I think this mostly doesn't make sense.

Let's take an example round trip flight from Boston to LA. I've flown this many times for work and to visit relatives, and it's maybe on the long end for a vacation flight. Taking into account that emissions at high altitude are worse than at ground level, that's about 1.3T CO2e [1].

The thing is, 1.3T isn't that much! For example, carbon offsets are about $10/T, so this would add just ~$13 to your ~$500 round-trip flight. Or, if you don't trust offsets and would rather use the full social cost of carbon, that's ~$55/T (Wang et. al. 2019) or ~$72. Or, if you want to go all the way to direct air capture, that's ~$160/T (Keith et. al. 2018) or ~$210.

If you consider a typical BOS-LAX business trip, with, say, $500 for flights, $500 for lodging, $100 for food, and 14hr time lost to travel, a carbon cost of even $210 is rarely going to make the difference on whether the travel is worth it. Even for a vacation, where people tend to be more price sensitive, it's a factor but not nearly the biggest factor.

Climate change is a real problem, and I'm not saying we shouldn't change anything. I favor a stiff carbon tax, high enough to cover the full social cost of emissions. But even under a high tax, most of the things people fly for today would still be worth flying for.


[1] I tried three different calculators and got 1.16T, 1.4T, and 1.36T.

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