How Bad Is Flying for the Environment?

Flying is the fastest way to get from point A to point B—but is it the best method of transportation when it comes to the environment?

Ever since they were invented, planes have changed the way we travel. Traveling by plane makes everything from a weekend trip to the opposite coast to a journey to other continents possible. They’ve brought the world together in ways we could never have imagined. Still as necessary back then as they are now, planes leave a carbon footprint that does not make the friendly skies quite so friendly.

We dug deeper into our favorite mode of transport to see exactly how bad flying is for the environment:

Planes use a lot of fuel

In order to move that massive plane carrying hundreds of people across the sky and over oceans, tons of jet fuel is required, according to USA Today. For example, flying from the west to the east coast within the United States produces at least 1 metric ton of CO2, while a flight from the United States to Asia or from Asia to Europe produces up to 5 metric tons of carbon equivalent emissions (carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses). That’s the equivalent of the average amount of CO2 made by each human each year.

Even short flights produce large amounts of CO2

A short trip from London to Rome (so short, you could take a relatively inexpensive train trip that would get you there in just about the same time when you factor in getting to and from the airport and passing through security lines) carries 516 pounds of CO2 per person, which is more CO2 than the average people in 17 countries produce annually, according to the Guardian. More bad news? This number is expected to triple over the next 30 years. Even if the planes become more fuel-efficient, emissions could more than double by 2050, according to projections from researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Greenhouse gases go up, too

A whopping 8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions (these include CO2, water vapor, methane, and more) result from traveling (this includes flights, hotels, food, and sundries), according to USA Today. Greenhouse gases are responsible for preventing the heat from escaping from the earth’s atmosphere, creating a temperature increase similar to a greenhouse effect. During the 20th century, the planet’s temperature increased by 2 degrees, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Could the U.S. be carbon neutral by 2050? Here’s exactly what it would take.

And then there’s the exhaust

Emissions beyond CO2 are also bad for the earth. Ever notice the trail of exhaust fumes and soot? This happens at high altitudes when the water vapor condenses on soot particles. This freezes and forms a cirrus cloud that may last for hours depending on the humidity and temperature. Those clouds have a net warming effect according to NewScientist. Planes are also germy on the inside. Here’s how to germ-proof your plane seat.

The U.S. leads the way

Data from the Clean Transportation Council found that the flights out of U.S. airports were responsible for ¼ of the global passenger flight-related CO2 emissions, according to the New York Times. Next on the list came China, then the United Kingdom, Japan, and Germany.

What you can do:

Fly non-stop

About 25 percent of the plane emissions are from landing and taking off, according to a report from NASA. This also includes taxiing, which is the biggest source of emissions within this cycle. You may not be able to help curb the taxiing, the take-off, and the landing—but taking non-stop flights whenever possible can help as the fewer times you have to take-off and land, the better. While you’re taxiing…here’s why you aren’t allowed to use an in-flight bathroom during takeoff.

Skip the summer months

Flying in warmer temperatures is the worse than cooler ones, according to a study by researchers at Columbia University. When the temperature rises, the air density decreases, making it more difficult for the plane to take off. The number of summer days where weight restriction has increased since 1980 due to climate change—and the impact of this on flights has increased and is expected to increase even more. By 2050 to 2070, the number of weight restriction days between May and September for a Boeing 737-800 plane is expected to increase by 50 to 200 percent, the study found. If you need to fly during the hotter months, choose a time of day that’s not as hot, such as early in the morning or late at night.

Fly economy

It’s nice to stretch your legs in business and first-class seats, but the emissions that are associated with those upgrades are three times as much (or up to nine times as much) as they are when you fly coach, according to a study by the World Bank. Since the seats and walkways are larger in business and first-class, you have fewer people in those areas, yet the plan uses the same amount of fuel.

Danielle Braff
Danielle Braff regularly covers travel, health and lifestyle for Reader's Digest. Her articles have also been published in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Boston Globe and other publications. She has a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and a master's degree in musicology from Oxford University in England. Danielle is based in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and two children. See her recent articles at You can follow her on Facebook @Danielle.Karpinos, Twitter @daniellebraff, and Instagram at danikarp.