Taking Responsibility for My Flights

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Flying is one of the most environmentally destructive actions that many of us take, yet it is relatively easy to take a flight without putting much thought into it. Flying is a relatively quick action and we don’t see the environmental destruction of this action directly. The impacts of this action are outsourced – out of sight, out of mind. On the other hand, our garbage is something that is tangible for most of us because we can see our trash cans filling up day after day. We see the food on our plates every day and we see the advertisements of “eco-friendly” or “sustainable” on the packages and in the markets.

To put it into a bit of perspective though, a single round-trip flight from Los Angeles to New York City has the equivalent carbon footprint of about 350 factory-farmed hamburgers. A flight is a big deal. Yet it is so easy to overlook.

The global average carbon footprint is about four tons per person per year and the average person in over 30 different countries generates only one ton of carbon in a year. A round-trip flight from LA to NYC generates about two tons of carbon. That is twice the amount of carbon that a large portion of our global humanity generates from ALL of their activities in an ENTIRE YEAR. Again, a flight is a big deal.

In my teens to mid-twenties, I flew a significant amount as a world traveler and for business as well. I didn’t wake up to the destruction that flying causes until 2011 and didn’t make significant change in my flying habits until 2015. When I decided I was going to take responsibility for my flights, I calculated that I had traveled roughly 199,500 miles by air since I first began flying in around 2001, 13 years prior. I’d taken 21 round-trip flights and 49 one-way flights. My share of those flights emitted roughly 125.6 tons of carbon. That is substantially more carbon emissions than billions of our global neighbors emit in their entire lifetimes from all of their activities, just from my flying alone.

I had made hundreds of changes in my life over the few years since I’d woken up, but flying was one that I delayed taking action on. I just found flying so convenient and easy to ignore, and I hadn’t put enough energy or time in to explore the alternatives.

In 2015, I committed to taking responsibility for my flights and following a deep set of ethics to utilize any flights that I do take as a tool in my service to Earth, humanity and the plants and animals we share this home with. I have laid out my commitments in the pages ahead.

This web page was last updated December 10th, 2023 and is currently up-to- date.
 

I commit to practicing complete transparency with my flights and my carbon offsets.

By knowing that every flight I take is viewable to the public, I have created a means to hold myself accountable for my actions. I cannot hide any flying that I do. Here is a record of all flights I have taken and the offset information. Each of the blue trip descriptions link to a page that shares that trip. My last flight was taken July 2020.
 

I commit to offsetting the carbon of every flight I take threefold using the Gold Standard of carbon offsets. I commit to choosing offsets that benefit under-served communities and improve their quality of life.

As an example, a round-trip flight from San Diego to London emits about 8.6 tons of carbon. Multiplying that by three, I would offset 26 tons of carbon (costing about $360 at 2015 prices). I will always calculate the carbon emissions using the Gold Standard, which is widely considered to be the highest standard for carbon offsets and is third-party verified. Gold Standard carbon offsets are high-quality energy efficiency and renewable energy projects that encourage a shift away from fossil fuel usage. My offsets have gone to the  The Ghana Clean Water Project, Honduras Coffee Grower Clean Water Project and Redd in the Yaeda Valley. I’ve linked to each project to share information about them. What I look for in a carbon offset is that it improves quality of life for under-served communities nearly immediately, reduces the causes that result in the emissions of carbon in the first place, and provides a more sustainable alternative. What I love about supporting these projects is that they accomplish their purpose whether humanity manages to substantially alleviate or reverse climate change or not. If these carbon offsets make absolutely no difference for the climate – which is quite possible – the contributions I make will still improve the quality of life for people now. The Ghana Clean Water Project, for example, installs water filters in homes to avoid potential greenhouse gas emissions by preventing the burning of wood and charcoal, which is often used for boiling water to purify it. It also prevents deforestation because the people who receive the filter won’t have to harvest wood from the forest to burn for fuel. Those are some of the environmental benefits, but what is even greater is that people who might not otherwise have clean water will have safe drinking water for a decade with the filter that is provided to them. Also, charcoal is often burned indoors, decreasing air quality and causing respiratory diseases, and these filters provide an alternative that does not pollute their air at all. Also, local Ghanians are employed to install and maintain the filters, which provides meaningful jobs to members of the community. When we look deeper, we see that humans and the environment in which they live are not separate at all. A living forest provides space to connect with Earth, to heal and experience joy, cooler temperatures from the hot sun and so much more.

These projects I have supported match my three standards of choosing an offset to support by:

Providing clean water for people now who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it and providing an improvement in their air quality, by giving them an alternative to burning charcoal. Air pollution like this is one of the largest contributors to lower quality of life and premature death.

Preventing the harvesting of trees, which means leaving forests standing.

Providing a sustainable alternative to cutting down trees and burning charcoal made from those trees.

I could certainly choose to use a much lower standard of offsets and make my numbers sound much better, but my primary intention is to make responsible and well-thought-out decisions for our Earth, humanity and the plants and animals we share our home with. That is why I support sustainable projects that contribute to a real reduction of carbon emissions and serve the interest of the local communities where the projects are being carried out.

See the bottom of this article for more details on carbon offsetting.

It is very important for me to forgo unnecessary flights because offsetting the carbon does not mean that the environmental impact of the flight is nullified. It is best to avoid burning fossil fuels in the first place, rather than to simply offset the fossil fuels burned. Within my ethics, offsetting is not about rationalizing flights and flying frivolously – feeling like my actions are fine because the carbon is being offset. For me, these offsets are a tool to be used as part of a larger set of ethics and critical thinking. (More on this below.) However, if at the very least, every single person who flies offset their flights with offsets with standards of integrity, it would drastically reduce our environmental destruction, and three-fold offset would be an even larger step forward. By requiring myself to offset my flights three-fold, I pay a price that is closer to the true cost of flying. An airline can fluctuate its’ prices to entice me to fly, but the self-imposed environmental tax will always be there to remind me that the cost of the flight does not reflect the environmental costs of flying.
 

I offset the carbon of every flight I had taken up until I took responsibility for my flights in late 2014 using the Gold Standard of carbon offsets

I calculated the carbon on four different websites, all of which have a high standard for carbon offsetting, and chose the highest estimate I found*. After choosing the highest calculation that I found within the Gold Standard, I added an additional 25% to account for possible underestimates. That totaled 157 tons of carbon. At a cost of $14 per ton (2015 prices), the total cost of this offset was $2,198.
 

I always fly in economy seating

I never have and never will fly in business, first class or any spacious seating arrangement. The more people who are on a flight, the less the impact of flying per person. One of the simplest ways of reducing the impact of a flight is through efficient and moderate seating. I’m more than okay with not being perfectly comfortable on a flight. For me, it’s already miraculous to be able to speed through the sky in a tiny metal tube and I’m grateful for the absolute most basic of accommodations. I don’t expect, deserve or need to be spoiled during this tiny fraction of time.
 

When I fly, I dedicate some of the trip to inspiring and educating others to live more sustainably

This is carried out through public speaking, hosting days of action, hands-on workshops, environmental activism campaigns, etc. Most of the flights I take are done for the primary purpose of carrying out my mission, as discussed later in this article, but if I take a trip solely for personal reasons, this commitment applies. I have not taken a flight solely for personal reasons since May of 2017.
 

I always attempt to utilize my trip as a means to raise funds for environmental and humanitarian nonprofits by forgoing luxuries offered to me

Often when I am being brought somewhere to speak, I am offered far more than I need. Fancy seats, fancy hotel rooms and private transportation are a few examples of this. I forgo these unnecessary options and have the organization donate what I save them to a nonprofit instead. For example, when I flew to London in October 2014 to promote my first TV show, I had them donate $1,980 to a nonprofit working to reduce food waste and hunger, simply by flying economy instead of economy plus, staying with a friend rather than in a hotel, and taking public transportation rather than private. Also because I’ve vowed to donate 100% of my media income to nonprofits, I’ve raised tens of thousands of dollars for nonprofits, most of which would not have been raised if I completely refused to fly.

Those are my concrete commitments that I have made to take responsibility for the flights I take.

Now, I’d like to explain my philosophy on flying and how I aim to use flying as part of my mission, as well as how I choose whether to fly or not based on different scenarios.
I generally prioritize ground public transportation or ride sharing in cars before flying when it is feasible and when the carbon footprint is less. However, I have done calculations and have been quite surprised at how close the carbon emissions of flying versus driving or public transportation can be in certain scenarios. Thus, I look at each scenario accordingly. Generally, I fly to cross large bodies of water or stretches of land that are not reasonably navigable overland. Within a continent, I prefer train, bus and car over flying. On my three European speaking tours, I have flown across the Atlantic Ocean and then carried out the tours across the continent via ground travel. This has included overnight trains and boats that took as long as 24 hours, for trips that could have taken just a few hours via flying. I also schedule as much as I can into a trip taken by a flight in order to maximize my impact. For example, when I was invited to give a TEDx in Paris in 2017, I organized a European speaking tour of over twenty talks. In this way, I was able to make a much larger impact with my flight. I analyze every potential opportunity to find the least destructive means of travel to achieve the task, and whether the flight would be worth it in the big picture. This includes looking at the opportunity and deciding whether my presence there will be worth it and also looking at the big picture of my life and deciding whether the flight will contribute substantially toward creating the change that I am striving for.

A vast majority, or all, of the flights I take are for opportunities to carry out my service to Earth and humanity, and allow me to make enough of a contribution to be worth the destruction that the flight causes. This means I don’t travel solely for the sake of personal enjoyment, like I did in the past. However, I do enjoy the trips I take and utilize them as opportunities for education, personal growth and joy. I want to be straightforward that I am not likely to operate with perfect integrity with my travels. Flying is a substantial hypocrisy in my life, although by utilizing flights truly as an effective means in my mission, I believe it is possible to operate not from a state of hypocrisy, but of true integrity.

My mission is not to live the most sustainable life that I can, but rather to be of service to move our greater humanity into a more sustainable direction. My mission is to move our humanity away from oppressive, exploitative systems and to contribute to basic human rights for all – Earth, humanity and the plants and animals we share this home with. I don’t know exactly what the future holds, but I think that it is likely that in the long run, I will choose to fly a fair amount. I believe that the way that I will be able to utilize my life in best service to Earth and humanity will include being physically present for my fellow humanity in numerous regions of the world. As much as it would be convenient, there are no black and white guidelines to knowing whether I’m making the right choice. At this point, I truly believe that I won’t be able to contribute toward a more harmonious path forward to my fullest capacity without taking some flights strategically. In the grand scheme of things, I do truly believe that flying at the right times will be key in my service. I am not in this movement for a few years. This is a lifetime of dedication and this will be reflected over the decades ahead.

I’d like to note that while I’m traveling, I continue living with integrity. This includes taking public transportation when feasible, sleeping in shared or simple accommodations, eating local Earth-friendly food, drinking water from the faucet rather than bottled water, creating minimal garbage and the list goes on. Wherever I am, I resist consumerism and materialism to my best ability.

My aim is to lead by example and inspire others to travel more ethically as well.

Here are some tips for those of you who would like reduce your impact from flying:

First, reduce flying in the first place by:

Second, if you do have to fly:

  • Fly economy to use less fuel and encourage the industry to change their practices.
  • Combine trips so that you fly less often.
  • Fly the most direct route possible, without layovers, since take-offs and landings use the most fuel.
  • Pack light. Less weight means less fuel burned.
  • Offset your flights using  The Gold Standard. It is extremely affordable and if you can afford to fly, you can afford this small additional cost.

More information on carbon offsetting:

*I calculated the carbon emission amounts using four websites that are recommended by The Suzuki Foundation, a source of high integrity. Of the four websites, I chose Native Energy, the site that gave me the highest calculations of my carbon footprint, which was between 21%-43% higher than MyClimate, Less and ClimateFriendly.

The calculations of Native Energy include the Flight Emissions Factor and the Radiative Forcing Index (RFI). If I chose to ignore these factors, I could have easily cut my carbon emission calculation in half, but I’m committed to the highest standards on the market for calculating carbon emissions.
 

What is The Gold Standard?

The Gold Standard is widely considered to be the highest standard in the world for carbon offsets. It ensures that key environmental criteria have been met by offset projects that carry its label. Significantly, only offsets from energy efficiency and renewable-energy projects qualify for the Gold Standard, as these projects encourage a shift away from fossil-fuel use and carry inherently low environmental risks. Tree-planting projects are explicitly excluded by The Gold Standard.

First, Gold Standard projects must meet very high criteria to ensure that they contribute to the adoption of additional sustainable-energy projects, rather than simply funding existing projects. The Gold Standard also includes social and environmental indicators to ensure the offset project contributes to sustainable development goals in the country where the project is based. Finally, all Gold Standard projects have been independently verified by a third party to ensure integrity.

Currently, The Gold Standard is restricted to offset projects in countries that don’t have emission reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol, primarily developing countries. Supporting offset projects that meet The Gold Standard therefore helps these countries leapfrog developed countries technologically so they don’t go down the same fossil-fuel path, which would be disastrous for the climate.

The Gold Standard is supported by more than 80 non-governmental organizations worldwide including WWF International, Greenpeace International, the Pembina Institute, and the David Suzuki Foundation. Read more at The Gold Standard.”

What is a carbon offset?

Many types of activities can generate carbon offsets. Renewable energy such as wind farms, installations of solar, small hydro, geothermal and biomass energy can all create carbon offsets by displacing fossil fuels. Other types of offsets available for sale on the market include those resulting from energy-efficiency projects, methane capture from landfills or livestock, destruction of potent greenhouse gases such as halocarbons, and carbon-sequestration projects (through reforestation, or agriculture) that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Note: There are many carbon offset programs that are not operating in integrity. Not all projects are equal, in fact they vary widely. Read more in this David Suzuki article: What is a carbon offset?

Resources:

Go carbon neutral article from David Suzuki

Air travel and climate change article from David Suzuki

Travel sustainably article from David Suzuki

Top 10 ways you can stop climate change article from David Suzuki

The Offsetting Delusion from Wicked Leeks

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