The Forgotten Footprint in your Flight

Author: Ambaree Majumder

Have you ever been given a choice to offset your carbon footprint while on a flight? I came across that question a few times, at times when I did not care much about the planet. Like many I suppose, I thought spending time and effort towards my work, health and family were of more significance, ignoring the fact that I had a responsibility towards the planet where I was living. During a recent trip to Hong Kong from Singapore, however, when I am more conscious about my lifestyle choices, something struck my mind related to carbon offsetting.

What is carbon offsetting?

Since I have turned vegetarian and then vegan, whenever I eat my meals alongside meat and dairy lovers (call them advocates of their choice of food and lifestyle), I always wonder if they know what they are eating. Invisible bubbles popup from over my head with questions like whether they know how their food is impacting their health, how much harm it is causing to the planet and why is it so easy for them to deliberately forget the painful and tragic stories of the animals whose flesh and bodily secretions they were consuming. It is almost like there were no stories at all.  

Coming back to today’s topic (trying not to go on an ethical roller coaster ride), like always, I was given my pre-booked vegan in-flight meal which had some couscous, stir-fried spinach and mushrooms, raw salad and fresh fruits. As I started eating my meal, I looked at the trays of the passengers around me and saw their meats. An invisible bubble blew up again. This time the question was whether these passengers belonged to that category of travellers who felt obliged to offset their carbon footprint due to their flying.

Options for Singapore Airlines

Typically what happens is that there are certain airline companies that offer carbon offset programs where the carbon emission caused by each passenger is calculated based on factors like the airline they are flying (some claim to use more eco-friendly fuels than others), the distance they travel, the kind of plane being flown etc and an option is provided to the passengers to buy carbon credits to balance out the carbon emission caused by their journey. The proceeds of this transaction is used up by a third party company  in projects like reforestation, rolling out clean energy technologies or purchasing and ripping up carbon credits from an emissions trading scheme.

My thought at that point was whether these environment conscious passengers (we should all be because the planet needs us to be) would be willing to offset a part of their carbon footprint, however tiny it might be since every bit counts, by choosing a vegan inflight meal instead of the regular meal high in meat and dairy products causing way more carbon emission than the former. According to the authors of a report published by the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, with contributions from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the University of Minnesota, the CGIAR network, and international universities, agriculture accounts for about one fifth of total greenhouse gases and globally about a third of agriculture’s methane emissions come from livestock. Another article published on the basis of the findings by Oxford Martin School, which is a research and policy unit based in the Social Sciences Division of the University of Oxford, writes that eating a diet free of meat would make a large dent in global warming by cutting the GHG emissions by nearly two-thirds.

After my flight landed at Changi Airport, I did a bit of a research on how much more carbon emission would be caused by a regular in-flight meal as opposed to a plant based meal.

A Singapore Airlines flight from Tokyo to Los Angeles were serving Japanese teriyaki chicken and rice, beef stew and mashed potato for dinner in December 2017 in the Economy Class. Assuming that 100 gms of chicken and, maybe, 50 gms of beef (excluding the dairy ingredients, for ease of primary evaluation) were used to prepare this meal, it was interesting to find out the quantity of carbon emission that could have been saved by a passenger opting for a vegan meal.

The production of 1 kg of chicken and beef is estimated to produce about 3.5 and 13.3 kg of CO2 respectively. On a side note, that much is the CO2 emission caused by burning 6 litres of petrol. Coming back, one passenger caused a minimum of .6685 kg of CO2 emission. On an average, there are about 200 passengers on board this flight. So, here we have about 133.7 kg of CO2 emission caused by the inflight meals.

Perhaps one could argue that this figure is insignificant as opposed to the fuel consumption that each flight is causing in the air. The place where we are at right now, environmentally, I firmly believe that every effort made towards saving this planet should be done. I also feel that if we add up the carbon emission caused by the meals being served on flights all over the skies, we would have significant figures. So, the point I am making here is that frequent flyers or even others can easily prevent a certain amount of global warming while traveling by simply eating a pre-booked vegan meal. Most flights have a variety of options available for passengers to choose from. Usually, after purchasing the ticket, I login to the website of the airline and choose a vegan meal from an array of special meals available. My observation has been that if normally there is no meal listed as vegan, then choosing Vegetarian Oriental Meal does the works because they obviously have no meat or seafood and most of the food items provided are free of dairy and eggs as well, although I would be watchful about the dessert.

At this juncture I have another thought coming to me. Why can’t the default choice of inflight meals be vegan and those who prefer to eat otherwise pay for the additional carbon emission that they would be causing because of their food?