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Packing on the Pounds (of CO2) for Thanksgiving

By Climate Central

Thanksgiving is so close, you can almost smell the turkey roasting in the oven, even if you're trapped in an airport waiting to get to the snow-clogged East Coast. Over Thanksgiving alone, some 46 million Americans will be taking trips of 50 miles or longer to visit friends and family, according to AAA. A whopping 89.1 percent of them will be driving, with another 7.7 percent taking to the air. The rest will travel largely by bus or train (if you're biking in the Northeast this year, best of luck).

Here's something to chew on in addition to turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce (or ponder as you're stuck in traffic): transportation accounts for 28 percent of Americans’ overall greenhouse gas emissions. Since this is the primary cause of global warming, many might wonder how their travel choices will affect the climate. For many of us, of course, there’s not a lot of choice in how we get from here to there since planes, trains and automobiles don’t go everywhere. Still, it’s useful to know how different modes of transportation stack up.

Driving is the most carbon-intensive way to go in terms of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions — that is, if you assume just the driver and no passengers. That’s unlikely to be the situation for many holiday travelers, however. If you add just one passenger it cuts each person’s carbon footprint in half. In that situation, going by car is actually better than flying. But non-holiday travel often does involve just one person per car, which comes out to .802 lbs. of CO2 emissions per mile of travel. For other modes of travel, based on an average capacity, the CO2 impact per person is .505 lbs. per mile for medium-haul plane flights, .408 bs. for trains and .236 lbs. for busses.

While the holidays themselves will be joyful time catching up with family and friends, getting to your Thanksgiving dinner will not necessarily be half the fun. Holiday traffic can be a nightmare even when the weather is good. Inclement weather is responsible for 30 percent of all flight cancellations in November, a number likely to rise this year with the nor'easter bearing down on the Eastern Seaboard. You can bet this storm will also stretch the number of hours motorists spend on the road.

But November's far from the worst time to fly if you want avoid flight-related cancellations. The winter months of December, January and February see the highest percentage of flights cancelled due to weather — no surprise, since that’s when major airline hubs are most likely to see snow and ice. You can take heart (sort of) in the fact that no matter what time of year, weather is responsible for less than half of all delayed flights.

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