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I live in another country, approximately 2000 miles away from my family. Now, my parents have really hard time understanding the kind of personal sacrifices which are necessary to keep the world a habitable place. This of course includes the convenience of air travel. Despite numerous conversations I've tried having with them I keep getting the "So what, are we supposed to ride on a bus for three days or something?!" argument.

I don't spend very much time with them, because of the physical distance between us. Mostly I just come home for Easter and Christmas. I feel like this makes them feel like I'm a bad son, especially compared to my sister who is happy to fly home every month or two (she also lives away). They frequently comment on how little I am home.

Recently my dad came up with an idea to go on holiday to a pretty remote location and as always, my sister was instantly on board. I would love to go with them, it would mean a lot to me and I know how much that would meant to them, but frankly I feel pretty conflicted about casually blowing off another 1.3 tonnes of CO2 off my personal carbon budget. Does anyone have any experience or advice on how to deal with these kind of situations?

UPDATE: This question was meant to be less about the specific flight and more about how to negotiate a lifestyle choice where some sacrifices need to be made in order to form a sustainable society.

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KubaFYI, in light of the update you made to your question, I am submitting a second answer for your consideration.

The title of the question is "How can I make my family understand my CO2-emissions-related hesitation to fly in order to spend time with them?" In the update you say that "This question was meant to be ... more about how to negotiate a lifestyle choice where some sacrifices need to be made in order to form a sustainable society."

It would seem that the two highlighted sections are at odds with each other.

Negotiation is a dialogue between parties to address a point of conflict and obtain (usually via compromise) a beneficial outcome for one or more of the parties. If you have adopted a stance that is non-negotiable, then this has nothing to do with negotiation and all about imposing your choice on others.

I do note, however, that you visit at Easter and Christmas... so it could be that you feel you have already made concessions to your "no fly" rule and you may feel it is unreasonable of your family to expect any more?

In any case, think if it from your family's point-of-view: "We love our son. We gave birth to him, raised him, provided for him, educated him, and now he's run off to a foreign land and we barely get to see him any more. He doesn't even think it's worth using a little bit of fuel to come visit us. Family visit each other — that's what families do. If they don't visit then they're nothing more than strangers. It's like he's deliberately trying to avoid us. What's wrong with him?"

Of course it would be presumptuous of me to say I know exactly what your family is thinking — the above is presented just to get you thinking about what might be going through their minds.

Further, your dad might have thought "Well, if our son doesn't think it's worth visiting us at home like he normally does, maybe if we spice it up by going somewhere different he will be more likely to come?" Maybe your father loves you so much that he is willing to spend a whole lot of money to lure you to that remote location just so that he/they can spend a few more days with you?

If we look at it from that perspective, the issue seems to have nothing at all to do with emissions and sustainability and everything to do with observing cultural norms and maintaining the strength of the family unit.

I faced the same issue when I moved several hundred kilometres away from home for education and work reasons a few decades ago, and so have millions (perhaps billions) of other people over the ages. It's nothing new.

Parents can understand children not visiting if it is simply not possible for them to do so (e.g. they are working, don't have enough money, car has broken down, have to look after livestock, medical issues, etc.) but that is not the case here. In this case you are choosing not to visit. Your reasons are irrelevant. Nothing is preventing you from visiting — you are making a choice not to visit.

Your parents don't (perhaps can't) understand or accept that choice because "maintaining the strength of the family unit" is supremely important to them. Bonds between family members are emotional — they are not logical. Logical arguments (emissions) do not apply to emotional bonds (kinship) — such arguments are like water off a duck's back. Love trumps all.

If we distill your situation to its very essence I think it ends up looking something like this:

  • You do not value family bonds as much as other members of your family do
  • For 'reasons' you choose not to visit them as frequently as you are able to
  • They feel that your choices are threatening the strength of the family unit
  • Frustration is felt by both sides because 'the other party' just doesn't get it
  • Communication will improve if you both speak the same 'language'
  • This is an emotional issue, not a logical one
  • Emotional intelligence, language and arguments will be needed to resolve the issue

...and at that point we are well outside of the scope of the Sustainable Living.SE.

If you are resolved to pursuing this path (despite there being no mathematically-supported need to do so), then the Interpersonal Skills.SE is perhaps a better forum to consult for advice on how to tactfully talk to your family and get them to accept the fact that you don't care about them as much as they care about you... because that's what it boils down to.

Note (for anyone feeling triggered at this point): None of the above should be taken as a personal attack. It is absolutely normal for there to be children who don't value family as much as their siblings or parents. (I, in fact, am one of them.) History is littered with individuals that reject social norms and/or close family ties. History is also littered with individuals that take ideological stands on issues — often at great personal cost. All that I am trying to do is to make the real issue as clear as possible to assist the OP in moving forward.

tl;dr: It's not about the CO2 — it's all about the feels.

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    This statement is wrong: that you don't care about them as much as they care about you. Being with them is not the only way to show you care. Moreover, taking care of the environment means also caring of your own family. – J. Chomel Oct 11 '17 at 11:39
  • J, you should have read the note for folks feeling triggered. If you come up with a method for measuring 'commitment to / caring about family' then one person out of every single family on Earth will be at the bottom of that list. "Don't care as much about family" is not the same as "Don't care about family" — which is why I used the former instead of the latter. It's absolutely true and totally undeniable. Further, if all that's desired is for you to 'be there' then it is actually the only way that matters. Conflating care for the environment with caring for family is a clear error. – Tim Oct 11 '17 at 15:51
  • Valid points, but based on several assumptions. The OP should check those. – Jan Doggen Oct 5 '18 at 15:25
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Carbon offsets aren't a perfect solution by any means, but provided the activity being funded by the offset is genuine and sensible for the long term, carbon offsets could certainly be considered to be a good solution.

For example, if you help fund technology that reduces fossil fuel use that wouldn't otherwise have been able to be funded, then you could argue your net fossil fuel use has been reduced. When I did a Google search for carbon offsets, it looked like good quality results were found.

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    I read an interesting article recently about how carbon offsets primarily help people in developing countries. Most schemes invest in those countries because there the cheapest measures with the biggest impact can be taken. This is a good thing in my opinion because the people in developing countries are also the ones who are affected the most by climate change. – THelper Oct 10 '17 at 12:29
  • Not that same article I read, but an interesting one that makes more or less the same points: worldwatch.org/node/5134 – THelper Oct 10 '17 at 12:31
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"1.3 tonnes of CO2" is a figure that someone came up with by averaging the fuel per passenger trip and then converting it to emissions. It's not a number you actually need to worry about.

Think about it this way: A flight from A -> B will depart at the scheduled time regardless of how many passengers are on board. Virtually the same amount of fuel will be consumed regardless of the number of passengers on the plane because the mass of the passengers (and their luggage) is only a small fraction of the total mass of a loaded plane. For example, the ~266 passengers (and their luggage) make up only 17% of the mass of most Airbus A 300-600 flights.

So, whether you board the plane, or sit at home, the same amount of CO2 is going to be released into the atmosphere over the next few hours as the plane flies from A -> B. The airline will not cancel the flight just because you decided not to board. 1.3 tonnes of CO2 will not be prevented from going into the atmosphere every time you refuse to fly.

A single additional person adds a trivial 0.064% to the emissions of a given flight. For a 2,000km trip it's roughly on par with a four-cylinder car with one extra person inside. So, unless you object to people ride-sharing in four-cylinder cars over long distances, you actually have no reason to object to being a passenger on a long-distance flight.

Remember: The plane will still fly regardless of whether or not you are on board. 99.936% of the emissions will still be released, regardless of whether or not you are on board. You may as well make use of inevitable/unavoidable emissions and go visit your parents.

PS: I just calculated some more specific numbers for the opportunity cost of a single passenger on an A 300-600 over a 2,000km trip. Assuming the plane is half-full of just about everything (fuel, cargo, passengers, etc.) it works out to be ~26L of aviation fuel. That's it. You getting on the flight will only add 26L to the amount of fuel consumed by the plane over the entire trip. That's about 69kg worth of CO2 emissions — a far cry from the 1.3 tonnes you are worried about. How far can you drive with 26L of petrol in your car?

PPS: A commenter asserted that the above logic could result in the airline scheduling additional flights. That line of reasoning only holds true if you try to get onto a flight that is already at or near capacity. If you take advantage of a flight that is up to 50% booked, no manager in the world would use your booking to justify more flights. Wouldn't happen at 60% either. Around 70% you may be starting to generate a bit of pressure. At 80% you probably would be generating pressure. Above 90% you definitely would. So... don't do it. Avoid flights that are already near capacity and you avoid exerting any pressure whatsoever for airlines to increase the number of flights servicing a particular route. Catch a flight with a low number of passengers and not only is the issue avoided entirely, but you also do the environment a favour at the same time (because opportunistically flying 2,000km results in far fewer emissions than driving the same distance in any sort of petrol-powered car).

PPPS: All of the above refers to long distance international flights. It is almost unheard-of (in modern commercial aviation) for scheduled international flights to be cancelled due to low passenger numbers — the plane, crew, and cargo still need to get from A -> B because they are already booked to go on to C -> D -> E... after that. Short-distance (<1600km) domestic flights are a different matter entirely. Some of the airlines that service such routes can and do consolidate and cancel flights if passenger numbers are low. If you refuse to fly such routes, there is a small probability that, one day, you might actually be responsible for a plane not taking off. Math supports a strategy of reducing emissions by minimising short-distance domestic air travel — it does NOT support a strategy of boycotting long-distance and/or international air travel.

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    So basically you are saying, "just ignore all your CO2 emissions, because they are minuscule compared to those of the other 7 billion people on Earth"? If you use your argument to convince 250 or more people to travel by plane, then it doesn't hold anymore because additional flights may be scheduled. – THelper Oct 9 '17 at 9:28
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    No THelper, that is not what I'm saying and I didn't suggest anything of the sort. Further, this individual is not likely to go and round up another 265 individuals to make it worthwhile for the airline to add another flight on the same route. You are constructing a strawman. – Tim Oct 9 '17 at 9:53
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    Thanks for the postscripts. I do wonder how easy/difficult it is to assess if a flight is almost full for the OP. This answer on Travel SE says there are some tools for this but they aren't great. On the other hand the answer is already 5 years old. BTW CO2 compensation schemes may also help a bit (but probably not as much as most schemes claim they do). – THelper Oct 9 '17 at 11:34
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    I don't know what country the OP is living in, or what airlines fly the route he would need, but Qantas (for example) allows you to select seats on flights using a map of the cabin. Naturally, this reveals how many seats have already been sold on that flight. You can do this prior to having to supply any personal details or payment information. I strongly suspect many/most international carriers let you do the same... so it should be possible to wait until the last moment and then 'snipe' a seat on a flight that's not near capacity. – Tim Oct 9 '17 at 11:48
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    The possibility of the flight being cancelled due to low sales also needs to be considered, as the seat you buy may be the one that stops the flight being cancelled. In that case, you could be considered responsible for a far higher amount of emissions, going by your reasoning... – Highly Irregular Oct 10 '17 at 9:57
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I recently returned to NZ after visiting family in the UK for Christmas. This is a round trip of some 40,000km. My solution is to pay for some 60 trees to be planted, here in NZ. This is not a perfect solution, I know, but it salves my conscience somewhat and is definitely better than doing nothing. IMO, Tim’s answer above is accounting sophistry that is used so that nobody takes personal responsibility for their carbon emissions. It’s tantamount to the tragedy of the commons. i.e. it may be true for the individual but it breaks down when everybody applies it.

  • You are free to do the math yourself to dispel any illusions of "accounting sophistry". If you are unwilling or unable to do the math, then perhaps you should reflect on the basis of your own opinions? If they are not based on hard data, logic and math, what are they based on? The first step to making the world a better place is to see it how it actually is. That means putting aside ideology and looking hard at the numbers. I've done that, and I invite you to do the same. – Tim Jan 26 '18 at 6:22
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If you buy that plane ticket, it will go to the "more fossil fuel economy". That's how the CO2 figure is important.

Then an argument would be to say that you are saving the money for the flight to invest it into environment protecting projects, e.g. like try to save India from mass thirst or into sustainable energy production projects.

Caring for the environment is also caring for your family (however less for the elders, that's how I understand it is difficult for them to understand).

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