Lifestyle Travel

My Big Fat Carbon Footprint: Is My Love of Travel Mother Nature’s Worst Nightmare?

My Big Fat Carbon Footprint- Is My Love of Travel Mother Nature's Worst Nightmare?
Olivia Burton
Written by Olivia Burton

I would like to think my lifestyle is eco-conscious. I religiously recycle and compost, I’ve never owned a car and I rarely eat meat. I do however have a big fat carbon footprint. Why? I regularly fly. Leonardo DiCaprio must have the same confliction, but I want to investigate the dilemma.

As a British person living in Australia, I’ve clocked up a significant amount of air miles over the last few years travelling back and forth to see family and friends. Travelling, like most people, is also a really big passion of mine. I love to visit new countries and see friends abroad (I blame my international parents). Flying is unfortunately one of the biggest contributors to global warming, contributing two to three percent to the global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Related Post: The 5 Sustainability Trade-Offs That Even Hard Core Environmentalists Make

My Big Fat Carbon Footprint- What is the Impact of Flying?

What is the impact of flying?

Ironically, I’m writing this article on the same day that I’m flying from London to Sydney. To put that into numbers, later today I’m nearly contributing the same carbon emissions on my round trip as half an average Australian’s lifestyle would in a year. I’m also not unique, flying is a common and growing method of transport, with nearly 40 million passengers flying internationally in Australia just in 2017.

The Airports Council International estimates that the number of airline tickets sold per year will double to more than 9 billion by 2025.

Planes emit large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere when flying, due to petroleum fuel burning with oxygen in the air. Carbon dioxide is a major greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere, causing global warming. There are also other greenhouse gases emitted from aircrafts such as nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide. Don’t even get me started on the excessive waste on board…

My Big Fat Carbon Footprint- Advocating a Low Carbon World While Living a High Carbon Lifestyle

Can I stop flying?

The fact is, flying is bad for the environment and the obvious answer is to fly less. Unfortunately I’m too selfish to give up flying completely as I want to see my family, friends and the world. There are however, small changes that might make a big difference to my impact.

  • Don’t act like royalty

This really isn’t an issue for me personally but if you avoid flying business or first class, it’s more fuel-efficient. It makes sense, the less room you occupy than the more energy-efficient your trip is.

  • Pack lightly

Don’t pack excessively, it will save your back and fuel. The heavier your back is, the heavier the plane will be and therefore the more fuel will be required.

  • Reduce your waste

Bring your own reusable cup, cutlery (stick with plastic or bamboo utensils and avoid metal forks and knives, they usually get confiscated when screened by airport security) and even food if possible. It will hopefully reduce the amount of plastic landfill waste from your flight.

  • Wrap up

On long-haul flights pillow and blankets are generally wrapped in excessive amounts of plastic, which inevitably ends up in landfill. To avoid them, bring your own neck pillow or wrap up warm. Planes are always cold.

  • Fly direct

The jury is out on this one. There are credible sources that claim that the most fuel is used during take off and landing. Therefore, it would make sense to avoid short flights if possible and stopovers.

My Big Fat Carbon Footprint- How to Balance Your Love of Travel With Your Eco Advocacy

What about offsetting?

When booking flights online there is commonly an option to ‘carbon-offset’ at the checkout. This works by adding an extra cost to your ticket to remove the equivalent carbon dioxide from the atmosphere e.g. planting trees or investing in renewable energy. The Qantas website, for example, lists its carbon offset projects and explains in detail its offsetting program here.

‘Qantas offsets its corporate travel and ground fuel emissions to help counteract the unavoidable impact of air travel. We do this by supporting people and projects that make a real difference to the environment.’ Qantas emissions statement 2017

Carbon offsetting is a good way to reduce your impacts from flying, however there are criticisms. Airlines commonly do not advertise the option of offsetting clear enough and the projects can sometimes be unverified. You can also purchase offsetting through other websites, read further advice from CHOICE here.

Related Post: Cleaner Plane Travel: 7 Airlines That Offer Carbon Offset Programs

Carbon Offsetting - How to Balance Your Love of Travel With an Eco-Friendly Lifestyle

What about long term changes?

As always, the best advice I’ve ever received to reduce my environmental impact is to be a conscious consumer. Flying is no exception. To make bigger changes in the world as consumers, we have to be aware of our impacts and question the decisions we make.

  • Be mindful

I’m going to start being conscious of when and why I fly somewhere. If I can avoid flying somewhere just because it’s cheap, I will.

  • Go local

Local weekends away are just as exciting, take public transport or go via a car share. For some inspiration, check out We Are Explorers for some local micro-adventures in Australia.

  • Ask questions

Look at the airline company online before booking to investigate their sustainability practices. Check out the transparency and verifications of their carbon-offset projects and sustainability initiatives. Atmosfair is also a handy website that ranks airline efficiency.

Over to you: How do you balance your love of travel with your efforts to live sustainably? Feel free to share your experiences, struggles and advice below.

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About the author

Olivia Burton

Olivia Burton

Olivia Burton has a passion for sustainability, the outdoors and science. After moving from London to Sydney three years ago, she is now an ocean addict. Olivia works for several not-for-profit organisations in the week and attempts to surf tiny waves on the weekend. Olivia also runs the blog 'Sustainable Cat' which focuses on the relationship between textiles and the environment.


  • Olivia, just rename yourself as an Ego Warrior. You are paying lip service to being sustainable without doing anything substantial towards it. You have a passion: it’s doing exactly as you want to do and retaining a veneer of environmental concern. Your children’s generation will suffer

    • Hi Jeremy,

      Firstly, thank you for leaving me an insulting and threatening comment with no relevance to the topic. It’s actions like yours that will truly save the environment.

      Secondly, did you actually read my article? The whole article is specifically about being selfish and is aimed at those you want to fly (for example to see family at Christmas) and want to know what small actions to take to reduce their impact.

      I would genuinely like to hear your thoughts on what people can do if they want to fly. That would be a helpful comment.

      • If you fly this isn’t really much you can do. Use skype. On a personal level it terrible, especially if you are aware of the impacts.

        Flying is likely more than 2-3% of overall emissions. Radiative forcing seems to be underestimated. Most footprint calculation shld be using 3-4x rather than 2.

        We need to try to get emissions below 2t per person to have a scraping chance at a livable planet and ppl r flying round on trips of 5t round trip. Can’t work.

  • Flying is incompatible with climate action and climate/social justice.

    If you fly don’t bother with the small stuff. Most flying unnecessary and it is tragic that most eco warrior are unable to adust to reducing their footprint voluntarily.

    • Yes this of all the activities we undertake as humans is the one that stumps me most and I think stumps most young eco-conscious folk. People love to travel, it’s an escape no doubt, and I’m sure it’s because there is peer pressure to do so from all around us, but aside from that, there are huge positives, like it deepens our cultural understanding and improves tolerance. I guess most environmentalists must make tradeoffs as each human has an impact on the planet. I wonder: If young people choose to travel and choose not to have children does it cancel each other out?

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