Flying in an airplane is likely the most greenhouse gas intensive activity you can do. In a few short hours, you can can travel thousands of miles across the country or ocean. It takes a large amount of fossil-fuel energy (oil) to lift an 80+ ton airplane off the ground and propel it at 600 miles per hour through the air. Every hour of travel (in a Boeing 737) consumes around 750 gallons of jet fuel.
Even when dividing the fuel usage across all of the passengers (and cargo) of an aircraft, airplane travel consumes a significant amount of fuel per passenger. The fuel economy is estimated to be about the same as a fairly efficient hybrid car driven by one person (60-70 passenger miles per gallon). However, because you can go 10 times faster and much further more easily than you would in a car, airline travel can, on an absolute basis, emit larger amounts of greenhouse gases. In fact, an individual passenger’s share of emissions from a single airplane flight can exceed the annual average greenhouse gas emissions per capita from a number of countries (and the global average).
The following flight calculator and data visualization shows the miles and emissions produced per passenger by a airplane trip that you can specify. Choose two airports that you are interested in and click the “Calculate Flight Emissions” button to see the emissions associated with a round-trip flight between these two cities. The map will show you the flight route and also shows you the countries in the world where this one single round-trip flight produces more emissions per passenger than the average resident does in one year from all sources (annual per capita emissions).
In addition to individual countries, the tool also compares the flight’s per passenger emissions to the global average emissions per capita in 2017 (4.91 tonnes) and the emissions required to achieve a 22℃ climate stabilization in 2030 (3.08 tonnes) and in 2050 (1.37 tonnes). These 2030 and 2050 numbers are based on an International Energy Agency scenario.
The emissions calculated by this calculator are based on calculations from myclimate.org, a non-profit environmental organization.
The fuel consumption of a jet depends on the size of the aircraft and distance traveled, but takeoff and climbing to cruising altitude are particularly fuel-intensive. On shorter flights, the takeoff and initial climb will constitute a greater proportion of the total flight time so fuel consumption per mile will be higher than on longer (e.g. international) flights.
The detailed methodology is described in more detail in this document.
In addition to emissions of CO2 from the burning of jet fuel, jets also emit other gases (including methane, NOx, and water vapor) which can also contribute to warming (also known as “radiative forcing”). Because the emissions are occurring at high altitude, these gases can have different impacts than those at lower altitude. A number of studies have estimated the impact of these other gases can significantly contribute to the overall radiative forcing and have somewhere between 1.5 and 3 times the impact that the CO2 alone would. A number of studies, including the myclimate calculator use a factor of 2 to account for these non-CO2 gases and their warming impact, and that is what is used in this calculator as well.
Unlike cars, trucks and trains, it is much harder to power airplanes with batteries and electricity and producing low-carbon jet fuels from biomass is proving very challenging.
In order to achieve climate stabilization at 2 degrees C, global emissions need to basically go to zero over the next 40 years. With a growing global population, this means that the allowable emissions per person will shrink rapidly over these coming decades.
Ultimately, while aviation is a small part of global greenhouse gas emissions, it is a larger part of emissions in richer countries (i.e. if you are reading/viewing this post). And there are many in these richer countries who fly a disproportionate amount and therefore contribute a disproportionate amount of emissions. Hopefully, putting airplane travel in this context can help us better understand the impact of our actions and choices and maybe even change behavior for some.
Tools and Data Sources
Americans are known for loving cars and driving quite a bit. Drivers in the United States own more cars and drive more than those in any other country. So what kinds of vehicles do Americans drive? This visualization looks at the types of vehicles (by body type and country of origin) across the 50 States and Washington DC.
You can view two different attributes about the types of vehicles in use in the United States:
The different categories of passenger vehicles include:
Classification of the vehicles manufacturer (US, Asia or Europe) is based on the company’s headquarters and not the place of vehicle manufacturing. So a Toyota here is an Asian vehicle even if it was assembled in Mississippi.
It is pretty interesting to see the regional differences in vehicle types (cars vs trucks and SUVs) and vehicle brand (domestic vs foreign). Michigan, especially, stands out with their very high domestic ownership. It makes sense as Detroit is the home of the big three US auto manufacturers (Ford, GM and Chrysler). And I hear there’s a very strong culture of owning American cars there (and employee, friends and family discounts as well).
The data is derived from a survey by the US Department of Transportation called the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) released in 2017. The following is a quote from the NHTS webpage:
The National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) is the source of the Nation’s information about travel by U.S. residents in all 50 States and Washington, DC. This inventory of travel behavior includes trips made by all modes of travel (i.e., private vehicle, public transportation, pedestrian, and cycling) and for all purposes (e.g., travel to work, school, recreation, and personal/family trips). It provides information to assist transportation planners and policymakers who need comprehensive data on travel and transportation patterns in the United States.
Data and Tools:
The current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is over 400 parts per million (ppm). This has grown about 46% since pre-industrial levels (~280 ppm) in the early 1800s. The growing concentration of CO2 is a big concern because it is the most prevalent greenhouse gas, which is increasing the temperature of the planet and leading to substantial changes in the Earth’s climate patterns.
This graph visualizes the growth in CO2 concentration in the atmosphere (mainly from CO2 emissions due to human activities, such as burning fossil fuels for energy production, deforestation and other industrial processes). The graph starts at 1980 when CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was around 340ppm. It has grown significantly since then.
One of the interesting aspects of CO2 concentration is that it is not identical all around the globe, as it takes awhile for the atmosphere to mix. The graph shows geographic differences in CO2 concentration as well as seasonal ups and downs, that underly an overall growing trend in annual average (mean) concentration.
Seasonal trends in CO2 concentration occur due to differences in the amount of plant growth across different months. Spring and summer plant growth in the northern hemisphere causes a significant amount of photosynthesis, and CO2 absorption, relative to the fall and winter. This plant growth causes a very large amount of CO2 to be absorbed by plants and a noticeable reduction in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. The southern hemisphere spring and summer (northern hemisphere fall and winter) aren’t as obvious because there is much less land in the southern hemisphere and the land that is there is close to the tropics and green all year round.
CO2 concentration can change by about 4-5 ppm due to the “breathing” of plants, which is pretty significant. The total weight of CO2 in the atmosphere is about 3 trillion tonnes of CO2, so 4-5 ppm is about 1% of this or 30 billion tons of CO2 removed by plant life each spring/summer.
Data and Tools:
Electric vehicles are any vehicle that can be plugged in to recharge a battery that provides power to move the vehicle. Two broad classes are battery electric vehicles (BEVs) which only have batteries as their power source and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) which have an alternative or parallel power source, typically a gasoline engine. PHEVs are built so that when the battery is depleted, the car can still run on gasoline and operate like a hybrid vehicle similar to a regular Toyota Prius (which is not plugged in at all).
Electric vehicles (EVs) have been sold in the US since 2011 (a few commercial models were sold previous to that but not in any significant numbers) and some conversions were also available. Since then, the number of EVs sold has increased pretty significantly. I wanted to look at the distribution of where those vehicles were located. What is interesting is that California accounts for around 50% of the electric vehicles sold in the United States. Other states have lower rates of EV adoption (in some cases much, much lower). There are many reasons for this, including beneficial policies, public awareness, a large number of potential early adopters and a mild climate. Even so, the EV heatmap of California done early shows that sales are mostly limited to the Bay Area, and LA areas.
The map shows data for total electric vehicle sales by state for years 2016, 2017 or 2018 and also the number of EV sales per 1000 licensed drivers (this is all people in the state with a drivers license, not drivers of EVs). If you hover over a state, you can see both data points for that state.
It will be interesting to see how the next generation of electric vehicles continues to improve, lower in price and become more popular with drivers outside of early adopters.
Data and Tools:
It’s the winter rainy season in California again, so time to check on the status of the water in the California reservoirs. I previously made a “bar graph” showing the overall level of water in the major California reservoirs. This dashboard provides a bit more detail on the state of each of the reservoirs while also showing an aggregate total. It updates hourly using data from the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) website, giving an up-to-date picture of California reservoir levels.
This is a marimekko (or mekko) graph which may take some time to understand if you aren’t used to seeing them. Each “row” represents one reservoir, with bars showing how much of the reservoir is filled (blue) and unfilled (brown). The height of the “row” indicates how much water the reservoir could hold. Shasta is the reservoir with the largest capacity and so it is the tallest row. The proportion of blue to brown will show how full it is, while the red line shows the historical level that reservoir is typically at for this date of the water year. There are many very small reservoirs (relative to Shasta) so the bars will be very thin to the point where they are barely a sliver or may not even show up.
If you are on a computer, you can hover your cursor over a reservoir and the dashboard at the top will provide information about that individual reservoir. If you are on a mobile device you can tap the reservoir to get that same info. It’s not possible to see or really interact with the tiniest slivers. The main goal of this visualization is to provide a quick overview of the status of the main reservoirs in the state and how they compare to historical levels.
You can sort the mekko graph by size – largest at the top to smallest at the bottom – or by reservoir location, from north to south.
Units are in kaf, thousands of acre feet. 1 kaf is the amount of water that would cover 1 acre in one thousand feet of water (or 1000 acres in water in 1 foot of water). It is also the amount of water in a cube that is 352 feet per side (about the length of a football field). Shasta is very large and could hold about 3.5 cubic kilometers of water at full (but not flood) capacity.
Data and Tools