Love miles: The Carbon Footprint of Long Distance Relationships

Written by Caroline Haywood, Four Green Steps

How many people have relatives in different cities, states or even countries? Personally, my parents live in England, my sister in Australia and I’m in North America! However, with carbon emissions from air travel front and center of the greenhouse emission reduction debate, this scenario is troubling from an environmental perspective. The aviation industry boasts the highest growing rate of greenhouse gases of any other industry worldwide. There are no “technical fixes” or alternatives for more efficient engines or carbon-free types of fuel for airplanes. For the foreseeable future, the only course of action if we are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from air travel is to reduce the number of flights that we take.

This is particularly difficult for people who have family in all corners of the world. George Monbiot, an environmental author and journalist with The Guardian, has named this issue of visiting the people we care about who vast distances away “love miles”. Should we continue to justify trips that increase our “love miles”? If you believe in the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, then the answer is no. We cannot continue flying as we do, but this is a bitter pill to swallow for many of us who view flying as a normal part of life. The major ethical issue is that it is wrong not to fly to your best friend’s wedding in London, but it is just as wrong to take the flight, as well. A return flight London-New York produces 1.2 tonnes of CO2 per passenger – which is a lot! So what options do we have?

One option is to take a lot longer to reach your loved ones – either by train, bus or other slow travel mode (Monbiot notes that high-speed cruise ships such as The Queen Elizabeth II produce 9.1 tonnes of carbon dioxide per passenger on a trip from Southampton, England to New York, so that option is out!). Another option is to participate in carbon offsetting practices – when you pay someone else to reduce their emissions to compensate (or offset) your emissions. However, you need to pick your carbon offsets carefully. For example, although quite popular, particularly with airline companies, offsets from tree-planting projects are not permanent, as the trees will eventually be cut down or die, and these projects do not address our dependence on fossil fuels. Be sure to read the fine print when paying an extra $2 for carbon offsetting on your flight – it might just be an eye-opener. If you do have to fly, pack light, because lighter planes mean less fuel is burned. It may seem silly, but if everyone packed their luggage to be 20 pounds lighter, a lot of fuel would be saved and fewer greenhouse gas emissions would be emitted. You might also try to combine trips, so that you visit as many people as possible with only one flight.

Also consider not flying: move closer to your loved ones and take vacations together closer to home. Buy a webcam and sign onto Skype to keep in touch with family and friends who live far away. If we are to live in a low-emission world, the future of air travel is limited. Rather than enjoying it while it lasts, think about whether you really do need to fly.

Image Courtesy of Paul Bica on Flickr
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