This weekend Lynne and I drove to Durham to visit our friend Rob for the week. In addition to being our first non-weekend trip since July, this is also the first time I have road tripped more than 10 hours since 2016. It was fun driving through WI, IL, IN, KY, WV, VA and NC taking in the changing landscape on the way to Durham. As we were driving, I was also considering long road trips in the context of tackling climate change.
As we know, Americans love cars. The road trip and the Sunday drive are classic American experiences and rituals. In 2018, there were over 281 million cars registered in the US. In 2017, light duty vehicles (cars and passenger trucks) drove over 3 trillion miles which added up to 1.1 billion metric tons of CO2e, about 17% of carbon emissions in the US. See the data here.
So how does road tripping and travel fit in to this picture? I don’t have a percentage breakdown of local miles (commuting, errands, recreation) versus longer distances, but both contribute to this enormous number of collective miles. Unfortunately, flying instead of driving is not a solution for reducing carbon footprint of long trips. While the comparison depends on a lot of factors (https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2015/09/evolving-climate-math-of-flying-vs-driving/), flying also has a significant carbon impact contribution per person.
The situation is changing a little as we see the increase of hybrids and electric vehicles on the road. If the electricity generated for electric vehicles is green energy, then that becomes a much cleaner option. However, given that most cars are still gas-powered (and that it will be for a long time to make the transition to a cleaner fleet because of the long time it takes for cars on the road to turnover), electric cars and hybrids are also not a broad, near-term solution.
So what should we do as individuals? There is no easy answer. On a broad scale, we can support policies that encourage fuel efficiency in vehicles, green transportation infrastructure, public transportation, and policies that capture the cost of carbon emissions. As for our individual road trips, it’s important to be aware of what contributes to carbon emissions and how we can help reduce and even offset the emissions of our travel. This includes steps as simple as taking your more fuel efficient vehicle or car-pooling as much as possible. In some cases, it could mean sacrificing some of our travel or finding less convenient, but more eco-friendly alternatives. There are also ways to offset the carbon footprint of your travel.
As I was reflecting during our drive, it is a privilege for me to be able to drive to Durham, not just financially but also in terms of the environment. I think appreciating the road trip and travel itself can also help me (and hopefully others considering the same question) find the right approach in caring for our environment in my future travels.