Chart of the Day: One Man’s Carbon Footprint

A friend of mine was recently discussing her problem with air travel, and how impactful emissions from flight can be in ways that people seem to ignore. In other words, even people that care a great deal about the environment and reducing climate change emissions seem to fly around an awful lot.

Here’s a chart showing the “carbon footprint” of a man named Dan Rutherford, who travels a lot to speak about clean transportation as part of his job:

CO2 emissions by mode

In his blog post, he admits some of his guilt:

 As a technical observer to UN agencies that regulate international transportation – the International Civil Aviation Organization for planes, and the International Maritime Organization for ships — I fly regularly to attend meetings to help set emission standards for planes and ships. Last year I flew 77,000 miles on 30 flights over 9 work trips, releasing an additional 11 tons of CO2. This means that flying for work quadrupled my emissions last year. And this doesn’t take into account emissions of nitrogen oxides, black carbon, and water vapor that likely make a gallon of fuel burned in a plane worse for the global climate than if it were used in a car or truck.

So what can be done about this? If we’re going to be bluntly honest, in the short term, and on the individual level, not always very much; I can’t take a bus to London, and I can’t not go if I want to do my job. This is a systemic problem, not an individual one. To be sure, individual travelers can vote with their dollars and choose to fly on less polluting airlines, and we should. ICCT research has shown that in 2013 the least fuel-efficient airline in the US released 27% more CO2 than the most efficient carriers to provide a comparable level of transport service, a gap that can be even larger on individual routes (see the appendix of this study). If more travelers let that fact influence their planning, the industry will have to take notice. For shorter trips where planes, trains, and automobiles really do compete, getting there and back again by a more efficient mode of travel may be part of the solution, too.


I’m not sure what can be done about air travel, because as Rutherford points out, there aren’t a lot of alternatives in this day and age. (A few years ago two of my friends from college traveled all the way around the world without taking an airplane; they used trains to cross the land, and ships to cross the sea.)

Or you can just stay home.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.