Driving vs Flying: Which Harms Our Planet Much less?

Both automobiles and planes are terrible polluters. But for those who’re planning a visit and the much less polluting options — prepare or bus — aren’t choices, which do you have to select: driving or flying?

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

Emissions Refresher

Environmentalists have been fearful about carbon emissions for years now — it’s why electrical autos are so fashionable and why Google lets you seek for flights based mostly on carbon emissions. But there’s extra to emissions than simply carbon, so right here’s a fast refresher of the phrases related to automobiles and planes.

  • Greenhouse gasoline (GHG) refers to atmosphere-warming gases. NASA lists 5 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 ambiance.
  • Methane (CH4): While its warming results within the ambiance 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 automobiles (99% CO2) to a number of GHG-emitting planes (CO2, CH4, and extra).

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

Driving vs Flying Emissions

Our knowledge will give attention to averages, however the equations and sources beneath will present you ways to determine calculations on your personal journey.

For automotive emissions, we’ll use the US gasoline financial system calculator, which you should use on 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 less than about one-third of its complete emissions, and Google lately neutered its flight calculator to calculate solely CO2 and ignore different GHG. Because of the latest change, the UK authorities recommends multiplying Google’s flight emissions knowledge by 1.9 to find out the overall emissions of a flight — it is a long-agreed-to multiplier to evaluate complete emissions. Most journey websites additionally checklist Google’s emissions knowledge.

Factors that we take into account on this comparability embody the variety of folks touring, kind of auto, and distance of journey (quick journeys vs lengthy journeys). Google additionally accounts for the scale and sort of plane in its knowledge. Lastly, common unleaded gasoline is used on this comparability.

Car and Trip Comparisons

We’ve picked two automobiles and two journeys to match driving vs. flying. Gas guzzler and fuel-efficient, lengthy and quick distances. The automobiles 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 reasonable, however an excellent benchmark.
  • Minneapolis to Milwaukee: It is 336.5 miles and takes slightly over 5 hours to drive.

Emissions Results of Flying vs Driving

For our flying journeys, we picked nonstop direct and the bottom emissions choice. 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 knowledge 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 information 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 slightly 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’ll be able to see, from an emissions perspective, flying is nearly all the time the extra environmentally damaging choice.

Wildcard: Tire Pollution

Tires are one of many predominant sources of microplastics discovered within the ocean, and it might be irresponsible to match the environmental results of driving and flying whereas focusing solely on GHG emissions. Microplastics are actually discovered on newly fashioned volcanic seashores, on the prime of mountains, and in human breast milk. While we aren’t totally conscious of all of the injury 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 artificial plastics fairly than rubber, and microplastics are created from friction between roads and tires. Planes contribute solely 2% of world tire microplastic air pollution, with automobiles 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 strong objects right here, which is slightly like evaluating toxic apples with toxic oranges. It doesn’t work. But on the identical time, this dialogue could be missing if microplastics weren’t talked about. Our planet is interconnected, and climate change isn’t an issue alone on an island. Biodiversity loss, ocean acidification — these items 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’ll be able to see, each are damaging in their very own methods. For short-haul journeys lined in a day or much less, automobiles are preferable. But for the lengthy haul as a solo traveler, planes are extra environment friendly.

And concerning the microplastic drawback, firms are engaged on plastic-free and low-plastic options. There are virtually plastic-free tires and plastic-free rubber choices. But to butcher a Mark Twain quote, the distinction between plastic-free and virtually 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 a number of the instruments talked about on this article. When you speak and share your ideas about these items, the consequences may be exponential. Because our planet shall be right here for a very long time — whether or not or not it’s livable for us, that’s one other query.