Did you know that tourism accounts for 8% of global carbon dioxide emissions, the bulk of which is caused by air travel? (1)
Unless you’ve been under a rock or watching too much Fox News, I don’t need to tell you that climate change is going to wreak havok on the planet in the decades to come, with some of the most adverse impact on the very places that we’ve visited — poorer, less developed, equatorial climates that are least resourced to weather it.
Worldschooling is a privilege in many ways, not least of which is the substantial impact to climate change that all that air travel imposes. My kids did the math, and when it’s all said and done, we will have taken 32 flights over 72,000 kilometers (45,000 miles) to worldschool this year. That’s an additional 15.7 metric tons of CO2 in air travel pollution that we’re each responsible for; or 78.4 metric tons as a family of five. (2)
Let me put that into perspective for you. 78.4 metric tons is the weight of over 4,000 manhole covers or a little less than the weight of two Statue of Liberties — all in CO2 emissions. In order to keep global warming at a sustainable level, it’s estimated that we need to reduce CO2 emissions to 2.3 metric tons per person, about one seventh of what each of us produced this year in air travel alone. (3)
There are insightful articles that ask, “If Seeing the World Helps Ruin It, Should We Stay Home?” (4) If climate change were the only consideration, it would be hard to justify worldschooling at all. But worldschooling has had immeasurable benefits for us personally as well as for the local economies and livelihoods that depend on tourism. So where we can do something to mitigate the environmental impact we’ve had, we feel morally obligated to try.
Carbon offsets are one such way. The idea is that we ought to be able to balance out the CO2 we generate by contributing to efforts that reduce CO2 by an equivalent amount. There are several ways to do this.
One approach is to give up driving for as many years as it takes to make up the CO2 we produced this year. A typical passenger car emits 4.6 metric tons of CO2 per year, so seventeen car-free years would do the trick. It’s an idea worth considering irrespective of the worldschooling we’ve done this year, and one much facilitated if only my home city of Seattle would finish its light rail expansion before the year 2050…
A second approach would be to eat 406,112 fewer cheeseburgers over the course of our lifetimes. I kid you not. One creative individual named Jamais Casico estimated the carbon footprint of producing a cheeseburger, inclusive of the CO2 produced to feed the cattle, store them, transport the meat, and even the equivalent from methane that cattle farts are renowned for. (5) That said, giving up meat is one of the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint (6), and the fact that two of my children means that we’re already part way there as a family.
A third, albeit morbid approach, would be to pursue an untimely demise, such that I am not around for five years longer to produce CO2 at the rate of the average American. (7) It would make for a nice tombstone: “He died prematurely, so that the planet might live.” But seriously, birth control is also one of the surest ways to mitigate the environmental impact of our species, and that’s a consideration for another time. (6)
So then there is investing in projects that offset carbon, such as: planting trees, capturing methane where it’s produced, funding renewable energy sources where coal might have been used, or propogating clean cookstoves in developing countries that would continue burning wood without them. There is much debate about how well such efforts work and which ones are best; fortunately, there are organizations dedicated to helping allocate resources where they might do the greatest good. Two of my favorites are Atmosfair (http://atmosfair.de/en) and MyClimate (http://myclimate.org). Carbon offsets for a short flight by one person can be had for a little as $12.
Our family made one such investment to offset the offset the 78.4 metric tons of CO2 in air travel that we’ve generated this year. Our bill came to $2,036. A small sum, considering the enormity of CO2 we produced. And a large one, considering that it’s not an insubstantial amount of money. If we’re privileged enough to worldschool, we consider it not only the right thing to do, but also our moral responsibility.
Below: A flight taking off on our last day in Medellin
(1) Lenzen, Sun, Faturay et al. Nature Climate Change 8, 522-528 (2018)
(7) World Bank. The average American produced 16.5 metric tons of CO2 a year in 2014.