Stuck between this sustainable life and flying to see my family

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Thinking about the risks of climate change and our personal and community responsibilities to avoid the worst harms to people and planet is my gig, both personally and professionally.

As managing editor of FS Sustainability, I've written about carbon footprints, emissions intensity, net zero targets, the need to align investments and business with the Paris Agreement, and a range of other climate change-related considerations.

My Instagram feed is a curated, scrolling paeon to every single stereotype of the inner Melbourne sustainable lifestyle.

sustainability flying

Sustainastyle? Has anyone come up with a portmanteau for that yet?

Organic gardening. Composting. Attempts at sourdough bread (I never got that right). Reusing glass containers to make preserves from said garden and the largesse from neighbours' urban harvest. I ride my bike for short errands, thanks to living in an area with good bike infrastructure.

Even my wardrobe screams Melbourne sustainastyle, consisting of vintage finds from social enterprises, classic statement pieces and the old, "This? I bought it from a fabulous local designer who upcycles material and makes everything herself in her studio. You probably don't know her."

But there's one glaring exception to the almost painful sustainability-based performative navel-gazing that is my life: plane travel, specifically the luxury of transnational plane travel. I'm an immigrant from America, and before All This, my family and I would take biennial trips back to the US for family reunions, whilst my extended family would travel to Australia to visit us as well.

Aviation is one of the most emissions-intensive sectors of our global economy. According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, aviation produced 2.4% of global CO2 emissions in 2018. If global commercial aviation were a country, the industry would rank number six in CO2 emissions, between Japan and Germany.

Worse yet, research suggests that 10% of the most frequent fliers (people who take more than 300 flights a year) are super emitters - responsible for more than half of global CO2 emissions from commercial air travel.

While my personal travel doesn't put me in that category, my family reunion comes with a heavy carbon price tag that others are forced to pay.

That same research noted that "adding air transport's non-CO2 warming effects, super emitters may contribute to global warming at a rate 225,000 times higher than the global poor".

That is, to say the least, as hard to swallow as some of the in-flight meals I've consumed over my years as a global traveller.

I know I'm not the only one considering these impacts. At a collective level, Climate Action 100+, a collaborative group of global investors including the largest Australian superannuation funds, has begun meeting with representatives from the aviation industry to highlight how the industry can reduce its carbon intensity in the face of few cost-effective and readily available options.

I don't know what this means for me on a personal level. I've bought carbon credit offsets in past for my flights, but that's not an adequate solution for me; offsetting carbon emissions doesn't mean removing emissions - it just means paying to plant a few trees to consume the CO2 I've put in the atmosphere through my consumption habits.

Given that borders will remain closed for probably the majority of this year, I have more time to mull over my options. Being grounded from flying through the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that I have gone on a carbon emissions diet. Zoom calls with various parts of my family can't replace hugs, but they sure are a lot better for the planet.

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Rachel Alembakis is the Managing Editor of FS Sustainability, a Rainmaker title that examines how investors and companies integrate environmental, social and corporate governance issues into their decision-making processes. She has more than a decade's experience covering investment issues for a range of publications in Australia and overseas.