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Case Study: How many GHGs are emitted to travel to Hawaii?

Imagine a family vacation in Hawaii as we leave the cold northern New York winter for some sun, palm trees, black sand beaches and tours of active volcanoes.  But for a family of four, that is a lot of air miles that result in the combustion of jet fuel and the release of GHGs into the atmosphere.  How “bad” would such a trip be for a family that otherwise is quite efficient in our energy and material use?

Carbon Footprint

A greenhouse gas calculator for an adult in a conservative household in Potsdam, NY, with no air travel, shows an annual greenhouse gas footprint of 6.4 metric tons CO2 equivalents per year, which is substantially less than the ~20 metric tons for the average U.S. resident.

The itinerary for a dream trip to Hawaii requires the following travel:

  1. Drive from Potsdam, NY to Montreal, Canada
  2. Fly to Honolulu, HI (assume that even with one stop, each leg of the trip is >700 miles)
  3. Drive around the island of Oahu
  4. Fly to Hilo, HI
  5. Drive around the island of Hawaii
  6. Fly to Oahu
  7. Fly to Montreal, Canada
  8. Drive to Potsdam, NY

Hawaii Satellite Image

The distances traveled were determined with internet resources and are included in the MS Excel worksheet.

Wow!  Travel attributed to each of the four members of the family was 2.03 metric tons (mt) CO2 eq.  This is almost a third more than the personal annual GHG emissions associated with daily life and standard travel.  Over 90% of the total is associated with the long distance flight (4,900 miles) from Montreal to Honolulu.  Personal travel really can make a big (and negative) impact on a personal greenhouse gas footprint.

Because the air travel was the most significant impact, consider going to another location that has similar attributes, but not as far away.  How about Freeport (Grand Bahama Island), which is only 1,330 miles from Montreal? The island is smaller, so we can also anticipate less driving on the island.  The new total is 0.53 mt CO2 eq. per person.  This is now only about 25% of the per person contribution for the trip to Hawaii, yet the destination offers a lot of the same attributes as a trip to Hawaii would.  Table 1 summarizes the results of the analysis.  It is clear that the long distance travel is still the most important component of the GHG emissions for transportation for both trips (95% for the trip to the Grand Bahama Island).  In all cases, the CO2 emissions predominated, with minimal extra contributions from the methane or nitrous oxides.

As you consider your own trip, think about where you want to go and how you might get there.  Changes either in your destination or mode of travel can have a profound impact on your GHG emissions.

Table 1: GHG emissions for components of the dream trip. 

 

Component of the trip

GHG emissions for Hawaii itinerary
(mt CO2 eq./person)

GHG emissions for Grand Bahama Island itinerary
(mt CO2 eq./person)

Automobile Travel

67

26

Short plane travel

121

0

Long plane flights

1,841

500

TOTAL

2,029

526

Earth Satellite Image

Earth Satellite Image