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.

12 thoughts on “Chart of the Day: One Man’s Carbon Footprint

  1. Jeff

    Apart from video-conferencing and encouraging investment in more sustainable air transportation (although I just searched for non-fossil-fueld air travel and it appears it’s impossible), the only thing that comes to my mind is that this guy is flying on commercial jets and as such isn’t really adding any carbon footprint, since the flight would have left the terminal regardless of whether he was on it.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      That last argument doesn’t work. It’s true for any given flight, yes, but if people don’t buy tickets on planes, they’ll lose money and cut routes.

    1. Mike Hicks

      Electric airliners are one area where it miiiight work to use hydrogen instead of batteries. Hydrogen has the benefit of being lightweight compared to batteries and conventional fuel — it does take up a lot of space, but that could be less of an issue for airliners than it is for cars. But as I alluded in a comment below, I’m not sure the efficiencies will work out. Hydrogen cars are probably about 2x the efficiency of gasoline models, but still only half that of battery electrics. Does the same hold true for aircraft?

      Well, wherever technology leads, it’ll probably take decades of refinement before either system would work for planes — particularly ones making transoceanic crossings like Rutherford’s did.

  2. Mike Hicks

    The sheer distance of travel is a major factor here. However, examples like this sometimes make me feel that we’re actually focusing too much on eking out efficiencies in one mode of transportation over another.

    On today’s market, I think those 11 extra tons of CO2 probably only add up to about $150, which isn’t too bad for that amount of travel (I’m not sure if individuals can easily get that price, but the airline as a whole might be able to). But jets also produce a lot of NOx, which could be even more expensive if it was priced, and it’s entirely possible that CO2 prices will go up someday in the future.

    Lightweight, high-speed, electrified rail like we see in Europe and Japan could help a lot when it comes to traveling within an individual country or continent, but there aren’t many good options for trans-oceanic travel. Maybe we’ll see a resurgence in fast ocean vessels? They’d still take a couple days to cross the Atlantic, though.

  3. Julia

    There are so many barriers to easy pleasure-flight for the vast majority of the 7 billion of us (sufficient time and/or money, lack of responsibilities tethering someone to a location, easy access to an airport, the right forms of ID, citizenship from the “right” country, ability to travel safely etc.).

    Most people on this planet (including millions in the U.S.) don’t HAVE a real choice beyond “just staying home” and yet they too pay the price for the heavy fossil fuel use and cumulative contributions to catastrophic climate change of a relatively few very privileged people choosing their own pleasure or another tick on their “bucket list.”

    And there are SO many alternatives to air travel for pleasure, particularly “in this day and age” and particularly for those lucky enough to be able to choose to fly for fun. This isn’t the 1910s, when my grandparents immigrated to the U.S. knowing that they’d likely only never again hear their families’ voices. We have so many tools available to us both to stay connected with loved ones and (particularly) to sate our curiosity without exploiting those who don’t have the same power or resources that we do.

    Personally, I love travel immensely for many many reasons. But that doesn’t make it a basic need. It doesn’t add “international flights” to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, particularly when that comes at the expense of other people’s very basic rights.

    1. Monte Castleman

      You’re right, there are SO many alternatives to air travel for pleasure, particularly “in this day an age”. The next time it’s winter here I could download a picture of Sanibel Island off the internet instead of putting my feet in the warm sand and my body in the surf. But no, I’m not going to do that. I’ll be sure to think of the poor starving kids in Africa I’m allegedly “exploiting” or “depriving of very basic rights” the next time I’m in that plane.

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

        Climate change is an issue that makes for a fascinating test of political worldview because the relationship between cause and effect is so abstract and collective. One of the things I take from Julia’s comment is that she is trying hard to connect individual consumption with aggregate impacts. Think of it this way: at what point does the social impact of a consumption decision made in the US start to matter for you? I.e. if your iPhone is made by a 15-year-old, is it a problem? ( What if your cat food is made by captured slaves abandoned on fishing ships? ( These two examples offer pretty specific connections between products and their social effects, but climate change is a whole different level of ethical concern because it represents millions of decisions that, collectively, have very disproportionate impacts across the globe. (

        It’s a really challenging issue politically because the time and space effects are so large. Decisions we make today, collectively, like the decision to subsidize and justify 87,000 American flights each day ( will impact climate change and thus the lives of billions of people. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday soon and for the rest of your life.

        This issue means we have to think about different political frameworks, because ethical ideas based on direct, individual causality don’t do it justice.

        1. Monte Castleman

          I’m not a climate change denier. At the same time I have yet to see a proposed solution that doesn’t force us back into cold dark caves, dimly like with a flickering compact fluorescent. Ultimately I’m hoping battery cars will become practical (would this be enough to let air travel stay on fossil fuels?) Or maybe S02 injection?

          As to your point about China. Yes I have an iPhone. No, I don’t like that it came from China. They’re absolutely the evil empire nowadays and I don’t like my money supporting a communist government, but again it’s just about impossible not to. Around 2000 I tried to avoid buying stuff from China for a while and even back then it was extremely hard.

          1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            I don’t know if it’s accurate to call it “communist” anymore, but there are lots of issues with China’s totalitarian government. Nonetheless, us buying products made there has moved hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty and in to the global middle class.

        2. Julia

          I’m in agreement, Bill. Collectively, climate change is a difficult problem because you’d have a hard time designing a feedback loop that humans are less equipped to handle–we’ve got climate feedback that is displaced by both time (decades) and geography (thousands of miles). And even really direct cause-and-effect isn’t easy to grasp for many people.

          That’s why it’s going to take collective, system action at national and international levels to address actually address the individual choices/behaviors that drive climate change, not to mention the other destructive and exploitative choices that most Americans make daily.

          Yet around most other destructive choices, we DO have somewhat sustained conversations around cause-and-effect and ethics. We’ve had sweatshop protests, boycotts of grapes/lettuce for decades, people who categorically refuse to shop at Walmart, petitions to stop Trader Joes and McDonalds from using palm oil, etc. And even in addressing climate change, we (as a society) will talk about switching out incandescents for CFLs, taking public transit one day a week or driving a Prius, recycling more, eating less meat.

          It’s disturbing to me that the choice to fly is so rarely linked to climate change, even within conversations from environmental organizations. I try to understand WHY that is. If we aren’t climate deniers, it’s relatively easy to understand the cumulative negative impacts of flight. It’s not like some other forms of consumption, where the carbon footprint is split throughout the production/manufacturing process. And it’s not like, say, a drive to the store or a hamburger, where it’s relatively incremental. Any basic carbon footprint calculator makes it really clear how large of a carbon footprint every single flight has. In many ways, flight-as-greenhouse-gas-production is relatively easy to grasp. Additionally, flight tech is far from being able to be carbon neutral, while we see huge strides in efficiency and renewables in many other areas.

          Logically, luxury flight is the low-hanging fruit for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There’s a lot that goes into fixing sprawling cities and reducing/eliminating car-dependency, from political will to changing infrastructure to adjusting zoning to actual development. Most of our changes require building/retrofitting things. But luxury/unnecessary flight? Why can we not say “hey, instead of flying somewhere every vacation, try flying every other vacation”? Why aren’t we talking about the air quality impacts of flights on cities? Why not try to get professional organizations to bump their meetings from every 12 months to every 18 months? Why not change our rhetoric to at least stop normalizing flight? Or laud those who don’t fly (whether by choice or necessity) rather than pathologizing them?

          What it comes down to for me is this: WHY is flight exempt from these conversations of climate change and individual responsibility/change? What makes flight different from lightbulbs, cars/driving, recycling, etc.? I think it’s because flight, particularly luxury flight, is the one that is by and large the purview of the (global) 1%.

          I don’t think individual choice is the right scale for dealing with the immense and cumulative negative impacts of flight on our climate. But I do call out the strange silence/vehement defensiveness I see on even unnecessary/luxury flight from avowed environmentalists. I believe this silence is destructive and intellectually repugnant, though very human. How do we trust an environmental movement that tells low-income workers in sprawled cities to drive less and switch their lightbulbs while saying nothing about the many orders of magnitude more destructive luxury vacations of the upper-middle class?

  4. Brendon SlotterbackBrendon Slotterback

    Here is some context:

    For the US, air travel accounts for about 3% of the total emissions from the economy. Even on a local level (Minneapolis), our emissions from air travel are dwarfed by heating and cooling our buildings and driving our cars:

    This is not to say that we don’t need to reduce emissions from air travel, but there are many other opportunities for reductions that are 1) technologically, socially, or logistically easier, 2) more cost-effective and 3) will have a greater impact more quickly. So we should focus on those first (getting more emissions-free energy on our electricity grid, energy efficiency). Solutions for air travel may come (more rail, biofuels), but we need to focus on the quickest and most reductions we can get immediately.

    The individual who is concerned about air travel emissions should investigate carbon offsets through entities like terrapass or carbon fund. These entities have a third-party certification system in place to ensure that offset projects are truly “additional”, and thus can theoretically mitigate travel’s impact.

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