How to Be a Low-Carbon Traveler

Easy tips for getting from A to B without emitting so much C.

This article is part of a special series from our fall 2019 climate issue on how you can level up your actions against climate change. Visit the full Climate Action Guide here

Travel produces nearly a third of U.S. greenhouse gases, so everything from your commute to your vacation matters. Keep these tips in mind next time you head out your door. 

Take Public Transit. Public transportation isn’t just good for communities: On average, it emits about half as much carbon dioxide per passenger mile as private vehicles. If one driver in a typical household takes transit on a daily commute of 10 miles each way, it shrinks that home’s total carbon output by almost eight percent.

Skip Short Car Trips. Car trips shorter than a mile add up to some 10 billion miles a year—the equivalent of everyone in Chicago driving to Las Vegas and back. Sometimes you have to get behind the wheel, but if even half of those short trips were made on foot or bike, it'd be similar to taking 400,000 vehicles off the road each year. 
Drive with Efficiency. If you can, an electric vehicle is the way to go. The average EV today is the greenhouse-gas equivalent of an internal-combustion car that gets 80 miles per gallon—a footprint that will shrink as electricity to charge them gets cleaner. Meanwhile, how you drive can make a difference in a gas-powered vehicle: Hard acceleration and braking can cut fuel efficiency by a quarter. 

Opt for Offsets. No getting around it: Air travel is a huge driver of climate change. A round-trip ticket on a transatlantic flight can emit enough carbon to melt 30 square feet of sea ice, per one study. But flying is also hard to avoid, so consider carbon offsets. Sold by airlines and third parties, offsets balance your climate impact with investments in green energy, forest conservation, and other emissions-reducing projects. And they're relatively cheap—around $10 for a cross-country trip and back. Look for programs certified through Cool Effect, Gold Standard, or other official verifiers. 

Electric Car, Hybrid, Plug-in Hybrid—What's the Difference? 

Gas-guzzling automobiles are one big way we’ve gotten into this whole climate mess. If going electric is something you can do and are interested in, here’s a quick primer. 

Hybrid: If you’re not ready to dive into the pure EV pool, hybrids offer better efficiency than a standard gas car by using a battery to aid in power delivery. The battery is also self-charging thanks to regenerative braking and other smart technology, so the vehicle essentially operates as a regular gas car while requiring fewer fill-ups. That's better for your bank account and better for the world. 

Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle: Range anxiety, or the fear of not having the battery capacity to get somewhere and become stranded, is real. But it’s also rarely a problem: Most people use their vehicles well under an EV’s max range daily or even weekly. Still, for those who remain concerned, PHEVs are the Goldilocks of electrified driving. These cars have a battery and a gas engine, so if you stay within the battery's range, you just run on electric power. But if you go beyond that, the engine kicks in, providing more miles and the ability to refuel whenever and wherever you like. 

Electric: For those looking to make the biggest automotive leap, a pure EV is the greenest car purchase you can make. These cars have no gas engines and operate solely on a battery pack. Plugging the car in each night to a standard outlet amounts to substantial savings in gas money for you and substantial savings for the world in terms of emissions. Charging stations are increasingly common, but EV ownership can require extra planning for longer trips.