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How to know if flying or driving is worse for the planet — and the awesome tools to help you calculate

"There are so many different factors to consider."

"There are so many different factors to consider."

Photo Credit: iStock

Trying to find the most efficient and planet-friendly way to travel can be difficult. There are so many different factors to consider, such as length of trip, type of fuel required, passenger numbers, and even where you are traveling.

Short-haul and domestic flights (and private flights) are generally viewed as among the most polluting forms of transportation, but traveling the same distance in a dirty fuel–powered car might not seem much better, especially considering the number of passengers carried during the journey will be significantly less. 

So how can we try to weigh the pros and cons of different travel methods?

What tools are available?

8BillionTrees.com has provided a few handy tools to make the decision a little easier.

First up, there's a tool that lets you chart a journey between popular airports within the United States and worldwide to see how much carbon dioxide would be produced and how much it would take to offset the damage. You can also find out how much pollution you would account for depending on the airline.

For those with more expensive tastes, you can discover how much pollution you would produce on a private flight of varying lengths. Some celebrities might want to take note of this one. 

If you want to check the pollution your car would produce on an annual basis, there's a tool for that too, taking into account the model, its fuel source, and its usage rate.

In addition to the click-through tools, there are also useful charts detailing the pollution created by different forms of transport.

For example, trains (3 kilograms of heat-trapping air pollution per 100 kilometers, per the site) and subway cars (1kg per 100km) are among the better options for mass transportation, while electric vehicles (7kg per 100km) are better for personal trips. 

8BillionsTrees.com provides data on the emissions produced by different electric vehicles, as well as the costs to consider when driving or flying.

Why is this important?

Understanding the impact we have in terms of pollution helps us make informed decisions as we try to limit the levels of planet-warming gases we produce daily.

For example, using 8BillionTrees.com's tools, a round trip from Chicago O'Hare International Airport to Dallas Fort Worth for one person flying in economy class is calculated at producing 0.28 tons of carbon dioxide, with $5.52 needed to offset that pollution through tree planting. 

For a Honda Civic that receives occasional performance maintenance, needs 20 gallons of gasoline a week, and is driven in the state of Illinois, the yearly carbon pollution is calculated at 20,379.92 pounds. 

So if one person making a round trip from Chicago to Dallas produces 0.28 tons of CO2 in a plane, and the daily emissions of driving a Honda Civic works out at 0.027915 tons (20,379.92 pounds ÷ 365 days = 55.835 pounds), that would suggest making the trip by car is more efficient in terms of pollution produced (assuming driving in Illinois is roughly similar to driving in the other states on the route). 

How does tree planting offset carbon pollution?

According to CarbonFund.org (and the European Environment Agency), a mature tree will absorb more than 48 pounds of carbon dioxide a year from the atmosphere, producing oxygen in exchange.

While planting trees will not help offset the carbon dioxide pollution from traveling immediately, it will make a difference in the long run as we try to remove planet-warming gases — which exacerbate extreme weather conditions like deadly storms and drought — from the air. 

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