Driving vs Flying: Which Harms Our Planet Less?

Driving vs Flying: Which Harms Our Planet Less?

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Both vehicles and planes are terrible polluters. But in case you’re planning a visit and the much less polluting alternate options — prepare or bus — aren’t choices, which must you select: driving or flying?

There are many concerns when touring, together with time, cash, the variety of folks, and whether or not or not youngsters are concerned. But in case you’re deciding between touring by automotive or by aircraft, primarily based solely on environmental affect, which one is least dangerous? We checked out two standards for figuring out the higher possibility: emissions and microplastic air pollution from tire put on.

Emissions Refresher

Environmentalists have been fearful about carbon emissions for years now — it’s why electric vehicles are so in style and why Google means that you can search for flights based on carbon emissions. But there’s extra to emissions than simply carbon, so right here’s a fast refresher of the phrases related to vehicles and planes.

  • Greenhouse gasoline (GHG) refers to atmosphere-warming gases. NASA lists five as influential on anthropogenic (human-caused) world warming.   
  • Carbon dioxide (CO2) is essentially the most well-known greenhouse gasoline and the first GHG emitted by human actions. It can final for hundreds of years within the environment.
  • Methane (CH4): While its warming results within the environment final solely about 20 years, this GHG is as much as 80 occasions extra highly effective at trapping warmth than CO2.
  • Carbon dioxide equal (CO2-eq or CO2e): This refers back to the variety of metric tons of carbon dioxide equal to 1 metric ton of one other greenhouse gasoline in warming functionality. This calculation is what we use to match primarily CO2-emitting vehicles (99% CO2) to a number of GHG-emitting planes (CO2, CH4, and extra).

The journey methodology that produces the least emissions on this race will probably be decided by CO2/CO2-eq per passenger.

Driving vs Flying Emissions

Our information will concentrate on averages, however the equations and sources beneath will present you ways to determine calculations in your personal journey.

For automotive emissions, we’ll use the US fuel economy calculator, which you need to use in your planning. For aircraft emissions, we’ll use Google’s flight emissions calculator as listed on its reserving search. However, a aircraft’s carbon emissions account for under about one-third of its whole emissions, and Google not too long ago neutered its flight calculator to calculate solely CO2 and ignore different GHG. Because of the current change, the UK government recommends multiplying Google’s flight emissions information by 1.9 to find out the overall emissions of a flight — this can be a long-agreed-to multiplier to evaluate whole emissions. Most journey websites additionally checklist Google’s emissions information.

Factors that we take into account on this comparability embrace the variety of folks touring, kind of car, and distance of journey (brief journeys vs lengthy journeys). Google additionally accounts for the scale and sort of plane in its information. Lastly, common unleaded gas is used on this comparability.

Car and Trip Comparisons

We’ve picked two vehicles and two journeys to match driving vs. flying. Gas guzzler and fuel-efficient, lengthy and brief distances. The vehicles and their emissions are:

  • 2021 Honda Insight Hybrid. It will get 52 miles per gallon metropolis and freeway mixed and emits 170 grams of CO2 per mile.
  • 2020 GMC Yukon 4WD. It will get 17 miles per gallon metropolis and freeway mixed and emits 525 grams of CO2 per mile.

The two journeys are:

  • Los Angeles to New York City: Google Maps says it’s 2,789.3 miles on a most well-liked route by the higher Midwest and takes 42 hours of steady driving, so not precisely lifelike, however benchmark.
  • Minneapolis to Milwaukee: It is 336.5 miles and takes somewhat over 5 hours to drive.

Emissions Results of Flying vs Driving

For our flying journeys, we picked nonstop direct and the bottom emissions possibility. This is the minimal, best-case state of affairs for flying.

We’ll additionally multiply Google’s acknowledged emissions by 1.9 to get the flight’s CO2e. The information listed are per passenger, which decreases because the variety of automotive passengers will increase.

For flights, the variety of passengers doesn’t change the outcomes as a result of the info are already listed per passenger. However, whereas flight emissions per passenger keep the identical, the overall quantity of emissions will increase for each individual added.


For this journey, we’re utilizing a nonstop Spirit Airlines flight that takes somewhat over 5 hours.

Insight (kg of CO2)
Yukon (kg of CO2)
Plane (kg of CO2e)
1 Passenger 474.18 1,464.38  376.2
2 Passengers 237.09   732.19  752.4 (376.2 x 2)
4 Passengers 118.54   366.09 1,504.8 (376.2 x 4)
8 Passengers NA   183.04 3,009.6 (376.2 x 8)

Minneapolis to Milwaukee

For this journey, we’re utilizing a nonstop Delta flight that takes 1 hour and 27 minutes.

Insight (kg of CO2)
Yukon (kg of CO2)
Plane (kg of CO2e)
1 Passenger 57.2 176.66  125.4
2 Passengers 28.6  88.33  250.8 (125.4 x 2)
4 Passengers 14.3  44.16  501.6 (125.4 x 4)
8 Passengers NA  22.08 1,003.2 (125.4 x 8)

As you possibly can see, from an emissions perspective, flying is nearly at all times the extra environmentally damaging possibility.

Wildcard: Tire Pollution

Tires are one of the main sources of microplastics discovered within the ocean, and it could be irresponsible to match the environmental results of driving and flying whereas focusing solely on GHG emissions. Microplastics at the moment are discovered on newly formed volcanic beaches, on the top of mountains, and in human breast milk. While we’re not absolutely conscious of all of the harm microplastics do, we all know that they result in each ocean acidification and biodiversity loss by toxin leaching.

These days, tires are made primarily from synthetic plastics moderately than rubber, and microplastics are created from friction between roads and tires. Planes contribute only 2% of world tire microplastic air pollution, with vehicles creating the bulk. Microplastics vary in dimension between 5 millimeters and 1 micrometer, and so they transfer with the winds and the oceans.

We are evaluating poisonous gases and poisonous stable objects right here, which is somewhat like evaluating toxic apples with toxic oranges. It doesn’t work. But on the similar time, this dialogue could be missing if microplastics weren’t talked about. Our planet is interconnected, and local weather change isn’t an issue alone on an island. Biodiversity loss, ocean acidification — this stuff all go collectively.

airplane seen in the rearview mirror of a car
Image: Holger Detje, Pixabay

So, Which Should You Use, a Plane or a Car?

As you possibly can see, each are damaging in their very own methods. For short-haul journeys coated in a day or much less, vehicles are preferable. But for the lengthy haul as a solo traveler, planes are extra environment friendly.

And relating to the microplastic drawback, corporations are engaged on plastic-free and low-plastic alternate options. There are almost plastic-free tires and plastic-free rubber choices. But to butcher a Mark Twain quote, the distinction between plastic-free and nearly plastic-free is the distinction between lightning and the lightning bug.

The neatest thing you are able to do although is discuss this throughout your planning, and use among the instruments talked about on this article. When you speak and share your ideas about this stuff, the results might be exponential. Because our planet will probably be right here for a very long time — whether or not or not it’s livable for us, that’s one other query.