Carbon Counting, Love Miles

“Love miles are the ones that are going to destroy us,” a friend dryly commented, on learning of my family’s planned flight to California for the winter holidays.

Love miles refer to the flights we feel we have to take, to stay connected to our family and friends: Grandma flying in from Saskatchewan for the winter holiday, or flying to Toronto to attend your favourite nephew’s wedding. Without those love miles, how we will stay connected to loved ones far away?

Avoiding airplane trips is part of our family’s shift to reflect our knowledge about global warming, because air travel is a huge contributor of greenhouse gases and has a totally disproportionate impact on our family’s carbon footprint (one flight for three to California in 2005 was the second biggest cause of family emissions, outweighed only by an entire year’s worth of driving). Also, it felt a little shoddy to head off to catch a plane to Los Angeles after giving carbon offsets to our friends for a holiday gift and writing here that we were taking a train one way instead. But when the time came to make the final decision, my husband’s mother was increasingly ill. And my mother was celebrating her 80th birthday.

As it turned out, my mother-in-law died, after years of illness. My husband was with her the last few weeks of her life, holding her hand and attending to necessary matters. I was with her for the last few days, long enough to tell her the things I wanted her to know: my love for her, that she raised a remarkable, kind man, and that our family is healthy and strong, so she needn’t worry about us. I was there soon enough for her to be able to squeeze my hand in acknowledgement.

It was my son’s first close experience with death, with that way grief combines with the need to make endless pragmatic decisions. All the photos and stories helped my son to know his grandmother better, because he was born during the long years of her disability and illness. The loving accounts of her family and old friends acquainted us with the vibrant, healthy woman who knew how to listen in a way that made the speaker feel accepted, and who told her sons, every day, that she was proud of them.

Then we drove 30 miles south to celebrate my mother’s eightieth birthday. The passing of my husband’s mother primed us to fully relish this celebration of life. We listened as my family and my mom’s friends took turns talking about all the good times they had enjoyed and how much they appreciate her sense of adventure and kind ways.

A few times, my partner and I got to walk on the beach and get a blast of beauty and sunlight. The ocean gave us a visual metaphor for life and death, and nine pelicans gliding just above the cresting waves made us incredibly happy.

The entire trip felt intensely meaningful, full of life experiences that are at the very core of being human.

Nonetheless, my curiosity about how we humans are going to deal with the climate crisis drove me to estimate the carbon cost of the birthday and the memorial service, and to search for some context for these figures.

Including our family, twenty six people averaged about 1.9 tons for their flights, resulting in emissions of about 49 tons of greenhouse gases for the memorial service and the birthday. This is equivalent to emissions of 10 cars given average use for a year, or a year’s heat for 6 households, or burning 5,000 gallons of gas.

I found that love miles are a significant part of the personal carbon footprint. In Canada, more than 40% of all travel is to visit family and friends. In the US, about 13% of all flights are for “personal business,” like weddings and funerals, plus some portion of the 55% of all flights for pleasure trips include visits to loved ones for other reasons. Business travel, by way of comparison, was about 16% of all US flights.

So what to do about the love miles?

The easy answer is that we should all buy offsets, always, ones that support the emerging technologies that we hope will save day. They cost so little relative to the cost of the tickets. In our situation, to offset the 1.9 tons of carbon for the average for the trip to Los Angeles would cost between $20 and $50. And it’s easy. You can buy offsets with your ticket when you use Expedia, the on-line travel agency, or go to the web for many good offset organizations. We use the Solar Electric Light Fund.

But we also have to reduce our personal carbon footprint in real terms. The actual allowance per person for global emissions to stabilize atmospheric carbon is .4 tons. We can’t achieve that and still fly. Ever.

The pragmatic answer is to fly as little as possible, but go when necessary. First, minimize the business trips. Teleconferencing technology has recently gotten better by leaps and bounds. Next, get rid of the purely recreational airplane trips. Explore locally and save the flights for those juicy, down-to-the-core love miles. If you can do even more, spend the love miles only on major events where you get to see everyone at once. We showed our loved ones An Inconvenient Truth, so they would understand our increasing reluctance to fly.

For me, limiting the love miles is hard. It’s like being the only one without phone service. This happened to us for two weeks this winter. When everyone’s phone is out, alternative systems rapidly emerge. Friends drop by. Word of mouth accelerates beyond the usual island velocity. More people congregate at the community hall on mail days.

But when you’re the only one, alternative systems don’t emerge. Those potluck invitations aren’t hand delivered. There’s no comraderie of shared inconvenience. You’re alone.

What will we all do if/when there are no airplanes or cars? What alternative systems of remaining connected will emerge?

Maybe we’ll live closer to loved ones, send our children off by bus for long visits with the relatives, and write more and better letters. I’m sure we’ll spend more time when we do get together, like people used to do.

Until that day, I have to trade off between my desire to spend time with my family and my desire to live in a way that reflects my personal responsibility for global warming. So we missed the family mountain ascent in August and the fashion show of ancient prom dresses at Thanksgiving. But we sure were grateful to be able to spend precious time with our mothers over the holidays.

Some good websites about airplane travel:
Impacts of flying: www.chooseclimate.org
Flight calculator: www.drivinggreen.org

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