commute green, fly less
Try to travel via foot, bicycle, mass transit, or an efficient electric, hybrid or gas vehicle. Combine vacations to reduce flying.
A typical car costs about $0.60/mile to operate and generates lots of greenhouse gas emissions. You can bike to work, use mass transit, or walk to join exercise with errands. New electric-assist bikes now offer the option of getting to the office super-efficiently without breaking a sweat.
~3x vehicle weight per year
The average new vehicle produces almost three times its weight in greenhouse gas emissions every year - or about 11,000 lbs! (calculation details)
Calculation of ~11,000 lbs CO2: Average new vehicle (2015 EPA data) gets 24.8 MPG and weights 4,035 lbs. Average annual mileage (2015 DOT data) is 11,443 miles/year. One gallon of gasoline (EIA), adjusted for full life cycle (EPA), produces about 24 lbs. CO2.
Buy a vehicle like a hybrid that gets 50 MPG and you can cut that number in half. Since gasoline combines with oxygen to form CO2, every gallon of fuel not burned saves about 4 times its own weight of CO2 from going in the atmosphere. Go all the way by combining an electric vehicle with a renewable energy source and you effectively have zero greenhouse gas emissions from running your vehicle.
If purchasing a new car, pick a car with a high MPG rating, or better yet, consider a hybrid or electric car. For maximum benefit, combine an electric car with a renewable electricity source like wind or solar. The National Renewable Energy Lab has a cool site where you can enter the State you live in to get an idea of the pounds of CO2 emissions produced by vehicle type (gasoline, gas hybrid, electric, etc.) based on how the energy is produced in your State.
Air travel generates a lot of greenhouse gases. If air travel was counted as a country, it would rank 7th in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. And the emissions from the aircraft industry are increasing every year.
Low-emitting fuels for aircraft engines are being developed but are not ready for full-scale use. So the best we can do at this time is to fly less (and don’t just drive instead!)
Try to make that meeting on-line, or if you are flying for vacation, consider taking one longer vacation instead of two.
Travel by air
One round-trip flight for two from Chicago to Las Vegas puts the equivalent of about 4,800 pounds of CO2 into the air (source). That’s about the weight of a minivan in pollution. A trip for two to Europe is more than double that.
4,800 pounds of CO2 are based on data from the Berkeley Cool Climate Calculator. Rather than use their online caculator with its four categories of flight options, we use the more precise forumula in their documentation - PDF file.
Airplane photo by Owen CL on Unsplash.
Carpool to work, or join a car-share program if one exists in your area.
Join a bike-to-work challenge.
Advocate for walkable neighborhoods and bike lanes in your community - write your city council representative or send a letter to the editor of your local paper. Support initiatives to improve mass transit.
If people buy cars with poor fuel economy, the auto companies will conclude that fuel economy is not important to the public, and concentrate less on fuel economy for future models – and on lobbying the government to reduce fuel economy regulations. Your impact goes well beyond the fuel used in the car you purchase.
There are 260 million cars and light duty vehicles on the road in America, and together they produce a lot of our greenhouse gas emissions. Add in emissions from airplane travel, and transportation contributes about 10,000 pounds of CO2 annually for every American. That's almost enough gas in 12 months to fill a hot air balloon 60 foot tall. And it adds up to about 28.5% of U.S. CO2 emissions. (Calculation details).
The text above and the graph below are based on percentages of carbon emissions across four source categories from a Union of Concerned Scientists 2012 report and a table in that report . Those percentages are multiplied by the ~36,000 pounds of CO2 per person per year (2014) value assembled by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and later reorganized and visualized by World Bank.
The above graph shows emissions for the average American. But your personal graph of emissions might be quite different. You can estimate your overall carbon footprint, including transport, using one of the many carbon footprint calculators online. Most of them will also give you hints on how to reduce your emissions. We like the Berkeley CoolClimate calculator. Different calculators use differing categories and assumptions, so your numbers may not seem to fit with the above graph [ ]. That's OK. What's more important is that your calculator can still help you reduce emissions.
Percentages listed in one place on this website can seem to contradict numbers listed elsewhere. But there isn't any contradiction and the percentages aren't wrong. Instead, the numbers come from studies that aren't directly comparable because of different categories, different assumptions etc. For example, the pie chart on our Science page is based on emissions from five U.S. economic categories: electricity, transportation, industry, commercial+residential, and agriculture (EPA calcuation). Those percentages cannot be directly compared to the ones we show on the home page for a similar, but different set of U.S. categories: energy, transport, products, and food (UCS calculation). In other cases, we discuss global average percentages, which can vary substantially from corresponding U.S. values.
Greenhouse gases come in many forms such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide. CO2 is the largest overall contributor to climate change. But less common gasses like methane have a much more powerful effect per pound of gas than CO2. In order to have comparable numbers, we convert all the greenhouse gases into a “CO2 equivalent” for this website. For example, when we state the CO2 emissions for beef, the number includes the methane produced by the cow converted into an equivalent amount of CO2.
Consumer Reports magazine has a good description of the various vehicle technologies available and their pros and cons.
Carbon Counter enables you to compare car costs versus emissions for many vehicles sold in the US. The display can be customized and filtered in many ways. Developed at the MIT Trancik Lab.
David Suzuki, a well-known Canadian scientist, has a good explanation of the impact of air travel on climate change.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has a good article explaining the complexities — and pros and cons — of buying carbon offsets.
As an Earth Scientist, I believe it is important to take what I know about the importance of reducing our carbon emissions and bring it home. Walk the talk. The transportation sector is one of the largest contributors to U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The more days we can leave the car in the garage, the better off the planet will be. So, I ride my bicycle when I can.
My commute is 7 miles west, 600 feet up, and takes about 45 minutes to get home. I have to admit, the last ½ mile is steep and gives me a good workout. But as life has gotten busier, and I have gotten a bit older, I noticed I wasn’t biking every day, even if the weather was good. It took time and energy that I didn’t always have. I thought about getting a plug-in electric vehicle and charging it from my solar panels at home. That would reduce my carbon footprint, but it would also be expensive. Then a friend let me try his e-bike just for fun. The fat-tired monster lifted me up the hill like a magic carpet and put a smile on my face. I was hooked. I felt like ET riding effortlessly on my floating bike to the moon.
After I got my e-bike, the fun continued. It’s made the choice to ride each day an easier one, as long as the ice is melted on the bike path in the canyon. Or at least now I have fewer excuses not to ride. Often, I can make it across town on the creek path quicker than I could in my car battling rush-hour traffic. I keep up with young athletic mountain bikers heading to the hills and smile at them as they wonder why the gray beard just passed them while carrying a load of groceries in my panniers. I get to share the benefits that all commuting cyclists enjoy, like being in a better mood when I arrive, and the bonus of getting exercise at the same time I am commuting. On the e-bike, I can adjust the electric assist from 0 to 5, depending on my mood, whether I am feeling tired or ready to sweat a little.
I had difficulty rationalizing an e-bike in the beginning, having ridden regular bikes all my life, including weeks of self-supported bike touring. I still ride my other regular bikes that don’t have an electric assist, yet somehow I felt like an e-bike was cheating. But at the end of the day, if it gets me out of my car, we all win. And the energy required to re-charge the battery takes about 100 watts for 4 hours. In other words, it’s about like having a bright lamp on with a conventional bulb for 4 hours. With over 12 kilowatts of solar PV on my roof, I can make that up in minutes on a sunny day. Call me smug, or just energy conscious. Either way, it brings me joy to get a free ride from the sun. I sleep better knowing that while my contribution maybe small, every little bit helps.
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