Offsetting the Environmental Impact of Air Travel

Small changes I have made to reduce my environmental impact after flying across the globe

About 8 million people take to the skies every single day. It’s no secret that the environmental impact of aviation is huge. Air travel accounts for 3-5% of global carbon emissions. If you were to measure your carbon footprint like you do your calorie intake, getting on a plane would be like having an entire double chocolate cheesecake. With ice cream.  Even though that sounds delicious, it’s bad news for the planet. Unlike most other fossil fuel-guzzling transportation vessels, there’s no reliable renewable energy alternative for aviation. There has been advances in the development of bio-fuel for jets, but with the area of land needed to grow those crops, the environmental cost of the deforestation might outweigh the benefits. The only way to reduce our impact is to fly less or not at all. With flying becoming more and more accessible, the emissions will likely only increase.

I like to think of myself as an environmentally conscious person. I’ve tried to reduce the amount of plastic in my everyday life, I recycle, I turn lights off when I leave the room, and I use public transit. I’ve also flown on two trips this year, including a flight to the other side of the world. On top of that, both of these trips were for completely selfish endeavors. Here I am, writing about how much I love nature, and yet I’m only increasing my contribution to climate change. There has to be some kind of balance between wanting to see the world and wanting to save it.

If I can’t eliminate air travel, I can at least make changes in other areas of my life. I’ve decided to take this opportunity to change some of my daily habits, and hopefully offset some of the mass amount of carbon produced to get me here. I’ll add as a disclaimer that not all of these changes are voluntary and are a product of my living situation. I’m including them though, because I will still try to incorporate them when I do have a choice.


I have a meter in my apartment which tells me the number of kilowatt hours of electricity I’ve used. The person before me used 110 in a month, so my goal was to stay under that. My first month I used 88 kwh. The average per person residential usage in Canada and the US is over 375 kWh/month, much higher that the average 36 kWh/month in China. By Canadian standards I’m much lower, but I have some work to do to reach Chinese standards. Keep in mind that most households in China have 3 or more people, which share the usage from appliances and things everyone uses, so I’m not expecting to get quite that low. The household average per month is around 108 kWh, so I’m still not using excessively. Check out statistics from other countries around the world here.

This is how I’m reducing my usage:

  1. If I don’t need a light on, it’s not on. I don’t have a window in my bathroom or kitchen, but if I’m just running in and out and know where I’m going, I don’t turn the light on. If I’m not in a room, the light is definitely off.
  2. I have energy efficient light bulbs. These were already in the apartment when I moved in.
  3. If I’m not using an appliance or gadget, it’s unplugged. Laptop, washing machine, and anything else that’s non essential. The only things that stay plugged in are my fridge, water dispenser, and my air conditioner/heater unit.
  4. I hang my clothing to dry. Dryers are not common in China, and I don’t even have access to one. I probably would not have changed this habit otherwise, but now that I’m making it’s part of my routine I’m more likely to stick to it. I don’t even miss the efficiency. It’s nice to have clothes that are wrinkle-free and don’t shrink, but it does take longer.
China Energy Label, found on all appliances.

Based on an online calculator, my daily at-home water usage in Canada (not including food production, waste disposal, etc) was 142 gallons. Since moving to China, my daily usage is about 62 Gallons/day. I’ve cut my usage in half! Here’s how:

  1. All of my appliances and fixtures are water efficient, like toilet and washing machine. These were already in my apartment, and are common in urban China.
  2. I turn off the water while I’m brushing my teeth (which I’ve always done), but I’ve also started turning it off while I wash my dishes. I’ll rinse everything, then turn the water off while I scrub the dishes, then quickly rinse the soap off and I’m done. Considering I used to have the water on the entire time, this has definitely cut my use down a lot.
  3. I don’t let the water run through my whole shower. Similar to doing my dishes, I’ll turn the water on to rinse off, then I’ll turn it off while I soap up or shave, and finally rinse off. My whole bathroom is a wet room; the shower is not divided from the rest of the bathroom. My whole bathroom is also my shower. The drainage is also very poor. This means that I have to mop every time I shower, and the longer the water runs the more work it is to clean up. In Canada I used to step out of the stream of the water when I wasn’t using it. Now that I can see all the water I’ve used, I’m picturing how much water I’ve let run unused down the drain. What a waste!

    Bathroom shower
    My lovely bathroom featuring a regularly used mop
  4. I don’t flush the toilet every time I use the bathroom. I’ve adopted the ‘let it mellow’ rules. I never did this before because it grossed me out to use a toilet that someone else had used. It still grosses me out, but since I live alone it’s not so bad. I’m not sure I could keep doing it if I weren’t living alone. Water saving toilets though! These are great.
  1. I don’t throw out food. I had a bad habit of buying too much food, or shopping with the intention of cooking and then eating out a lot. Lots of food went to waste. Now I find I buy less, and I make sure to use everything I have before it goes bad. Meal planning is based on what’s in my fridge, instead of choosing a meal and then finding what I need.
  2. I walk or use public transit to get around. It’s not like I’m making the choice to do this since I don’t have a car, but I think it’s still worth noting.
Things I can still improve on
  1. Cutting down on plastic. Plastic and packaging in China is quite excessive. If you buy a coffee and McDonalds they will put it into a small plastic bag for you. In these cases I always say I don’t need one, but there are still areas I can improve. I should keep a reusable shopping bag in my purse so that I don’t need to get plastic bags.
  2. Like I said, in China there is a lot of needless packaging. I try to limit my garbage to one small (grocery size) bag per week, but sometimes that’s not enough. Where I live there’s no recycling bins so everything goes in the garbage. One thing I can do though, is separate my food waste from my trash. There are green bins that I can put the food into instead of keeping it all together, but I have yet to implement this yet.
  3. Cutting out paper towels! Though I have reduced my usage to about 1 roll/month, which is a huge reduction for me, they really are unnecessary. I have regular towels I can use instead. The challenge is breaking the habit.

In the grand scheme of things I know I’m not making a huge difference. Climate change won’t slow because I turn my lights off. It’s possible that the only result of all this will be that I don’t feel as bad about travelling. My hope though, is that I’m not the only traveler thinking about this. Or that someone reading this will get ideas for lifestyle alterations they can make.

If you have any energy saving tips or stories, I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment below.

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