I love to travel. But every time I get on an airplane I know that my carbon footprint gets bigger. What exactly is a carbon footprint? It’s the measure of the amount of carbon dioxide – the man-made gas that is responsible for global warming and the greenhouse effect – that is emitted into the atmosphere as you go about your daily life. Almost everything you do affects it: turning on a coffee maker, driving a car, buying food, and most especially flying in an airplane.
Air travel accounts for about 3.5 percent of the human contribution to global warming. My travels have been especially egregious, because many of the places I visited required long flights, and many of my destinations were so remote that they could only be reached by plane. To balance this, I try to minimize my carbon footprint in all other areas of my life. I walk everywhere rather than driving, and when I must use the car I plan all my trips in one day. A little more than a year ago I traded in my gas guzzling Yukon for a considerably more efficient Toyota. The thermostat for my air conditioning is set at 76 degrees because 2,000 pounds of carbon is saved for every two degrees of reduction. Long ago I trained myself to turn the tap off when I am brushing my teeth and I try to never to let the water run needlessly. I recycle everything possible; my roommate even has a compost unit where we dispose of our fruit and vegetable scraps. I carry a reusable bag into the grocery store and to the weekly Farmer’s Market, rather that using plastic bags. Even the food I buy has an impact; when I buy local fruits and vegetables I am eliminating the carbon produced by produce delivery trucks that drive an average of 1,500 miles from field to supermarket.
Because of my environmental consciousness I was thrilled when I read about the efforts of Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Atlantic Airways, who has committed to donate 100% of the profits from his transportation division (he owns a railroad as well as the airway) toward the development of clean energy. On February 24th, a Virgin Airways plane tested a new biofuel produced from the oil of coconuts and the babassu palm nut, which was mixed with traditional jet fuel in a 20% concentration, although Branson’s tests have indicated that the biofuel can be up to 40% of the fuel mixture. The demonstration flight traveled between London and Amsterdam without incident, carrying no passengers.
Virgin Airways said their biofuel was of a type that wouldn’t compete with food and fresh water resources amid mounting concerns about the impact of biofuels. Some studies suggest that converting land for crops such as palm oil (also used for biofuel) can generate far more in carbon emissions than the savings delivered by the fuel. Increased use of biofuels could also prompt food shortages, as farmland is turned over to biofuel production. This debate is currently raging over the use of Ethanol, which is produced from corn, and for which farmers are paid substantial subsidies.
Many scientists believe so-called second generation biofuels, which could be made from products such as municipal waste, will provide more substantial environmental benefits without competing for land that grows food crops. Branson believes algae produced in places like sewage treatment farms is the most likely future source of renewable fuel for the airline industry. Branson’s continued commitment to our environment is laudable, as is his most recent efforts to move toward cleaner flying. To calculate your particular carbon production number or learn more about how you can reduce your carbon impact on the planet, visit http://www.carbonfootprint.com.