What if I didn't take that all-expenses paid trip? ✈️.

I love to travel. In fact, for the last 25 years I had made it a goal to visit at least one new country a year, because to me, travel felt like the marker of a life fully lived. So when, after 2 years of pandemic isolation, my company resumed its annual all-company offsite meeting in Hawaii, I should have been ecstatic. It was after all not just travel, but free travel. All of my coworkers were planning on attending. And I turned it down.

Months prior, I had come across a statistic I couldn’t get out of my head.

A long haul flight, such as the one between New York and London, emits more CO2 than the average global citizen produces in an entire year (source)

For context, I work for Mozilla, a non-profit backed company that works toward an inclusive, privacy-preserving, and trustworthy internet. In planning for the Hawaii event, Mozilla purchased high-quality carbon offsets, selected an environmentally conscious hotel, conducted a beach day cleanup, instituted protocols for shuttled transport, used reusable cups, recyclable name tags…

I should also be clear that I value my job, my coworkers, and the importance of IRL human connection - so much so that, as soon as it became possible, I commuted 11 miles a day by bike to my company’s 150 person capacity office to be with the two to five people who also chose the commute for a chance to say hello to a fellow Mozillian each day.

“Does passing up on company travel really make a difference?”

In the aftermath of the Hawaii event, as people came back tanned, energized, sharing stories and photos, I felt a strong need to know whether my absence was worth the impact. What would have been the impact of a whole company not conducting such a commute? I did some rough estimates.

My own emissions for a round trip flight would’ve been around 600 kilograms of CO2. Pulling a list of the locations of random Mozilla employees from the company directory, I found each location’s nearest airport, and calculated the carbon footprint of a round trip direct flight (traveling alone) to Hawaii from that airport, conservatively estimating around 800,000 kg of CO2 for the company as a whole.

“What do the numbers even mean, really?”

Without a connection from the number to its impact, carbon calculations have always seemed relatively useless to me. According to the EPA greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator, that’s about the same CO2 emissions as driving 2 million miles. It would require planting of 880 acres of forest today, and then not taking any additional flights until those 880 acres are mature enough to sequester the carbon we produced from that one event.

While we can purchase offsets, we don’t have thousands of acres of forests just sitting on the sidelines, waiting to sequester a company’s carbon. The trees we have are already over taxed.

“But that’s so little in comparison to everything else!”

It is an all-too-easy reaction to want to point our fingers elsewhere. “It’s electricity (25%), it’s agriculture (25%), it’s industry (20%)”. And that makes sense. After all, an individual’s carbon footprint is .00000003% of global carbon emissions. But maybe these calculations are getting in the way of things? Is the climate crisis is an accounting problem or a cultural one?

Would it matter if my actions at work resulted in the death of a coworker?

After all, that coworker is only .0000000000001% of the global population. But that is exactly what’s happening - our actions and inactions are killing people. So is the difference here simply that we’re not killing the people we know? What if we didn’t send entire remote companies to tropical destinations to account for our isolation from each other?

The richest 10% of people on earth, i.e. people like me and probably you (click to find out!), will be burning through nine planets worth of resources by 2030, while the global poor are already facing the worst of the effects of resource-wars, extreme floods, inhabitable heat, and increasing climate-related diseases.

Right now the earth is trying to find a way to carry all that carbon - to adapt to it, breathe through it. Is it any wonder then that we see it lashing out in so many forms of extreme weather events, exposing the weakest points of our planet and harming the most neglected of its members?

Until we can trace the thread from our individual actions to the lives affected, and until that connection leads to positive change, all the carbon counting won’t count for anything.