16 Metric Tonnes and What Do You Get?

My first flight from Athens to Lesvos. The beginning of something life-changing.

I get a thrill every time I feel the three-second gravitational pull of a plane taking off. In 2019, I felt it 17 times on flights between the US, Mexico and Asia, and I plan to feel it another dozen times in 2020.

Some people, like Greta Thunberg, might wonder how I can justify traveling all over the world in an airplane. My upcoming flight from San Francisco to Barcelona will cost the environment 1.6 metric tonnes of carbon emissions. That’s just my share. To put that in perspective, hyper-consuming Americans use about 16 metric tonnes a year for everything.

Allie Brosh always gets where I am going.

I started thinking more about this after I read an article in The Guardian about a man who decided to travel from Germany to Canada with a lower carbon footprint. Instead of flying, he took a cargo ship across the pond and then a train across Canada to Vancouver. He was responsible for only a few kilograms of carbon emissions, and he had a lovely “immersive” experience. The trip took three weeks and cost more than $2,000. To put that in perspective, my flight to Barcelona will cost about $250 and will take less than 12 hours. I am pretty sure our hero won’t do that immersive trip again unless he has to write another article. https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2020/jan/07/cargo-ship-train-rail-to-vancouver-canada-low-carbon-travel-europe

My adorable son Gabe at the Outside Lands concert last year. He saved me 1250 metric tons.

Since I am not doing a cargo ship to Barcelona to save on carbon emissions, my other option is to stay home, which I am not doing while 45 is wreaking havoc. I am voting with my feet, even if I am flying.

I defend my current aeronautical lifestyle by telling myself I am just drawing down a few of the carbon emissions I have saved in my life. I have been a vegetarian for 52 years. I sold my car. I have driven my family crazy about wasting energy. I have been wearing used clothes for 20 years and, for the last four years, I buy very little except what I eat — I pay other people so I can use their used stuff. Here’s the big one: I gave birth to no children. In carbon emissions savings, that’s 16 metric tonnes x 78 years x 2 children for a total savings of 2500 metric tonnes of carbon — or 1500 flights to Europe.

A house I built in the San Juan Islands with forest poles and $72 worth of flooring. It stood for 30 years.

I still feel guilty, but there’s a bigger point. Although every one of us needs to change what and how much we consume, we also need government action. For example, if I don’t fly to Barcelona, the plane will take off anyway with the same carbon footprint. We need to reduce the number of planes taking off, with, for example, taxes on plane flights that acknowledge environmental damage, and require airline companies to develop technologies that reduce emissions. https://www.co2nsensus.com/chose-a-carbon-offset-project Oh and all kinds of other things my hopelessly analytical brain wants me to think about.

I love you, America, Land of the Free, but I am not holding my breath. And instead of spending $874 to get to NYC on Amtrak, I will do the best I can while I live my own brand of freedom.

The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.
—  J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

14 comments

  1. Hi, Kim

    So good to get another post from you. Curious that you embedded a link to a carbon-offset website, but didn’t mention buying carbon offsets.

    Pretty extreme government action is more and more obviously a necessity in the dire climate crisis we’re facing, and for now seems totally unattainable.

    Somewhat À propos, another statistic I read recently – the carbon footprint of every four pounds of beef we eat equals an airplane trip from New York to London.

    ¡Sigue viviendo en camino! It certainly seems to suit you.

    Best, Steve

    1. Hi Steve, oh, I should have been more clear — the “taxes that acknowledge environmental damage” are carbon offsets. 🙂 I love the statistic about beef….maybe the 8 pounds I didn’t eat last month will get me from SFO to Barcelona! I am in San Miguel de Allende which I truly love but I am getting restless!

  2. Great read Kim!

    BTW, I had an interesting and frustrating series of conversations with my housemate on using off-peak power and recycling/reuse over the past few days. After he independently and impressively checked out the rate structure and cost of power to dry a load of clothes, the housemate says the cost of electricity is so low that the difference between peak hour and off peak pricing is so small that changing his habits doesn’t make a difference in cost and what he does or doesn’t do has no impact on the environment because he’s just one person. Stunning.

    I have advocated carbon taxes (and equal tax cuts to things we want such as jobs via reduced employment taxes) for 30 years, I am more convinced than ever that until prices accurately reflect environmental impacts so that consumers have the right price signals then most everything else we do is basically spitting into the wind.

  3. aloha and as usual have enjoyed your reflections on what it means to be a world traveler. Where are you going first and when? Am here hosting quite a few friends for the next 6 weeks. Always fun but can be challenging. Today should be perfect though as my friend Marla is taking the car into Hilo for the day to see sights (gonna be rainy) and I can catch up with my correspondence and reading and writing.

    We’ve been swimming the last 4 days and there is something so healing about being in the precious ocean salt water.

    Karen Hester karen@hesternet.net 510-654-6346

    >

  4. Hola Mija! In late February, my trip starts and then ends in Spain in June. In between, a long list that includes the 5 “Stans”, Morocco, Amsterdam, Romania and, depending on the “climate,” Iran and Saudi Arabia. Two of us are walking the Camino de Santiago from Porto. Join us! Abrazos.

  5. I am half way through reading “The Pilgrimage” by Paulo Coelho about his walking the Camino. If you haven’t and want to borrow it, lemme know.

    Your son is adorable.

    I think you just need to accept that you have Gypsy blood and follow your heart. I look forward to your report backs.

  6. Querida Kim, so glad you wrote about this. My husband and I are travelers, too, and we never buy SUVs, had only one child, and I haven’t eaten meat since I was 14. We always buy carbon offsets for everything, cars and trips: https://www.terrapass.com
    And I feel guilty, too. I adore Greta Thunberg, but we cannot all travel by solar-powered private yacht. And if we all stopped traveling, it could be devastating economically for much of the world that depends on tourism. I agree that we all must contribute in our own best ways to reduce consumerism and support our planet, and that our governments absolutely must step up to make the tough decisions for the future. I am hopeful for the future. xoxo

    1. Thanks Wendy. I think where our generation has let the world down is in allowing the neoliberal agenda to go forward instead of questioning its “trickle down” premise — it benefited only a handful of the world’s people and done inestimable damage to the planet. I am going to start using carbon offsets — thanks for the link!

  7. Thanks for your honesty. I can certainly identify with the guilt you and other readers have mentioned when flying. It’s up to each of us to educate ourselves and choose the best path for reducing our carbon footprints. On an individual level, pointing fingers and making others the bad guys gets us no where. Agree that governments must lead and prices should reflect the environmental damage of mass consumption. Finally, enjoy Barcelona, one of my favorite cities!

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