Antoine Maillard / The New York Times

February 25, 2020

The Carbon Footprint of Your February Break Travels

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Every year, Cornellians travel around the country and world to get away from the cold of Ithaca for a couple days during February break.

Unfortunately, by emitting greenhouse gases, traveling by car, plane or bus can contribute to climate change — with America’s transportation alone responsible for almost 30 percent of all global warming emissions in the US.

As students flock back to campus from various destinations, Prof. Danielle Eiseman, communication, weighed in on the most sustainable methods for traveling.

“Traveling can often be very carbon-intensive [for] the environment,” said Eiseman, who teaches a variety of environmental communications courses at Cornell and focuses her research on sustainability messaging and pro-environmental behaviors.

While some think that traveling by car is more sustainable than traveling by airplane, this is not always the case. The degree of sustainability depends on distance — for longer distances flying becomes more sustainable due to more efficient fuel usage during cruising, while for shorter trips, driving may be better.

Despite Ithaca’s limited transportation options, if you plan to travel during breaks, but want to do it more sustainably, there are still a few ways to make your journey more eco-friendly.

One way is carbon offsetting, in which individuals fund environmental projects that decrease atmospheric greenhouse gas levels, such as replanting trees to absorb excess carbon dioxide from the air using photosynthesis. This results in a net reduction of an individual’s carbon footprint through reabsorption of the harmful carbon emissions one can generate, especially through travel.

Even if carbon neutrality is a stretch for some, individuals can make small changes during their daily commute to increase their sustainability during travel.

For regular commuters, public transportation is one eco-friendlier option, which, instead of using separate, emissions-producing vehicles, results in an overall reduction in air pollution on a per-person basis.

If driving is absolutely necessary, carpooling can produce a similar effect and reduce vehicle emissions.

“Carpooling is a great way to make long drives less boring while traveling sustainably,” said Miranda Vincent ’20, an environment and sustainability major.

There are other practices to promote more sustainable driving, like staying within the speed limit, stopping and starting your car whenever possible and not idling your vehicle during rest stops, according to Eiseman.

Cars themselves also vary in their sustainability — older vehicles are less fuel-efficient than newer, hybrid and electric cars, which release significantly lower quantities of greenhouse gases.

However, the manufacturing of newer “eco-friendly” cars can actually create a larger environmental impact than the carbon emissions potentially saved from simply switching to a more fuel-efficient car.

“A lot of people think that, as an individual, their personal carbon footprint is unimportant,” Vincent said. “This couldn’t be further from the truth. If we all take little steps towards sustainability, we can make a massive impact as a society.”