Everyone could stand to be more aware of their carbon footprint. But you should know—reducing food waste and bringing reusable bags to the market isn’t going to make much of an impact, at least in comparison to one big thing: cross-continental flights.
A new visualization called “Plane Shame” demonstrates the difference in stark detail. The site asks you to type in an origin and destination, and then instantly translates how that flight’s carbon footprint corresponds to ice melt globally. Directly below that, the viz has an interactive chart where you can select from a list of climate-friendly lifestyle changes, like going vegetarian, only using LED light bulbs, and eating only local food. The chart directly compares the carbon emissions these actions save compared to the impact of taking that flight.
For a single roundtrip flight from San Francisco to Stockholm, you would have to make every lifestyle change on the visualization’s list, including going completely car free, going vegetarian, and reducing your food waste to zero, to get even close to offsetting the amount of carbon emissions from the flight (and it still wouldn’t be quite enough). The numbers are based on a 2017 study that quantified how much impact individual actions have on reducing emissions and the MyClimate flight emission calculator, which was produced by the Climate Protection Partnership.
Plane Shame’s biggest flaw is that it ignores the structural factors at play when it comes to climate change. Many argue that it’s not individuals’ responsibility to reduce their carbon emissions (even if it’s morally good) because it’s simply not enough to make a difference. Instead, it’s governments and corporations that have to change the nature of their operations. After all, a 2017 report found that only 100 companies have been responsible for 71% of all emissions since 1988.
That doesn’t stop people from feeling negatively about the impact their lifestyle has on the planet. For Victor Muller, the Stockholm-based web and typeface designer who created the viz, Plane Shame began as a personal project when he first realized that traveling so much was bad for the planet. He had just spent a full year traveling back and forth between Stockholm and San Francisco a total of 10 times. “The whole thing began as a way for me to become a better consumer,” he says. “This was my personal project about my shame about how much I flew.”
Muller says that he’s not trying to shame anyone else, even if that’s ultimately what the website accomplishes. Even so, the visualization’s clear information design presents a straightforward way to help people be a little bit more conscious about how their lifestyle is contributing to climate change.