Want to reduce your footprint? Take a vacation

Written by mfrey


I’ve just returned from a long-awaited vacation, a return to two of the many places that I have called home over the past several years. The planes, trains, and automobiles along the way, in addition to the widely varying accommodations and landscapes I encountered, brought me back to a simple question: how does where you spend your time affect your carbon footprint?

On a broad scale, this question is pretty easy to answer. Certain countries are less carbon intensive than others, and the same can be said for individual cities. The U.S. Energy Information Administration has some good information on national comparisons and a piece in City Journal compares the carbon profiles of various American cities. The Carbon Footprint of Nations web site also offers up a wealth of data.

I was interested in the shorter-term impact. Could taking a vacation somewhere actually end up lowering my carbon footprint?

Using the EIA and City Journal sources above, and TerraPass’ handy flight emissions calculator, I did some back- of- the- envelope calculations to see how traveling could lower your carbon footprint, both internationally and within the US. To do so, I had to make some simplifying assumptions:

* The average footprint for each location is used. I didn’t worry about hotels or commutes or any of the other things that would make a true apples-to-apples comparison more difficult.
* To be conservative, I used the most carbon-intensive flight if more than one direct flight is available. I was surprised to see that certain airline emissions were almost double the competition! Fly wisely.

The findings point to a clear conclusion: I do not get enough vacation! Not enough to lower my carbon footprint, at least. Maybe next year we’ll go to Jamaica. If you live in New York City (one of my old hometowns) and travel to Jamaica (the island, not the place in Queens), the carbon emissions from your flight will be matched by a lower day-to-day footprint in just over one and a half weeks.

If I had my druthers (and more vacation time), France sounds particularly nice. From San Francisco, I’d only need to eat, drink, and be merry for five and a half weeks to make up for my airline emissions. New Yorkers can pay down their carbon debt in three and a half weeks.

If you want a cheaper change of scenery, consider California. According to City Journal, all five of the least carbon-intensive metropolitan areas are in the U.S. can be found in the Golden State, led by TerraPass’ very own San Francisco (we claim only partial credit).

Round-trip flights for your family from Houston to San Francisco would be matched by lower daily emissions in about one month, or make your trip from Atlanta and it will take a little under two months. Want more fun in the sun? A family vacation from Oklahoma City to San Diego would level out in just over six and a half weeks, plenty of time to work on your tan.

If the suburbs are where you call home then you might not even need to get on a plane to lower your impact. Residents in the suburbs of San Francisco, for instance, are responsible for nearly 10,000 pounds more CO2 a year than their city counterparts, and the city-suburb difference is almost 50 percent higher in New York. It isn’t always the case, but generally speaking urban residents tread much more lightly than those in outlying regions.

So the next time you’re thinking about how to lower your footprint you might want to set your sights on more distant horizons. This analysis is surely too simple — for starters, the things you actually do wherever you are matter more than the broad averages — but it’s food for thought. Take a peek at the articles above to see how your location’s footprint compares, or leave a comment with your origin and destination and I’ll see how much vacation time you’ll need to request.

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