Around the world in 23 tonnes


Having taken 51 flights in 2007, racking up 93,000km in the air, Frank McDonald, Environment Editor, confesses his carbon footprint

I knew I was doing a lot of travelling last year. At the height of it, in May, my brother Liam remarked: "You're away more often than you're here." Dublin Airport, a terrible place at the best of times, became so familiar that I felt I knew every bit of it, down to the end of the elongated Portakabin that served as a temporary Pier D.

Altogether, I took 51 flights and racked up nearly 93,000km in the air. That's equivalent to more than twice the circumference of the Earth, even at the Equator. I was quite surprised when I totted up all the trips with the aid of and even more shocked by the associated carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions - almost 23 tonnes.

Had I been driving a medium-sized car for the average annual mileage here (16,894km in 2005, according to Sustainable Energy Ireland), the CO2 figure would have worked out at 4.71 tonnes (petrol) or 4.95 tonnes (diesel) - in other words, only about a quarter of the emissions expelled on my behalf by all those aircraft I travelled on in 2007.

But the truth is that I have never owned or driven a car in my life, apart from a Cadillac going up and down a cul-de-sac in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, when I was a student. That was as easy as pie; the big car was an automatic, with a lever that had "D" for drive, "P" for park and "R" for reverse. Since then, I have only ever been a passenger.

AIR TRAVEL, HOWEVER, is one of the fastest growing contributors to the greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming, even though it still accounts for less than 5 per cent of CO2 emissions worldwide. And because aircraft fly at heights of more than 10,000 metres, their emissions are more damaging than anything at ground level.

Hence I had to make a complete confession about the extent of my carbon footprint last year, for air travel alone. Most of it was work-related, including - ironically - flights to far-distant places where global warming was on the agenda, such as Bangkok for the launch of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Yet how else was I to get there, or to Bali for the 13th UN Climate Change Conference in December? There simply isn't any alternative. And in the case of Bangkok, I stopped off in Dubai on the way to write a lengthy article about how it's become the world capital of unsustainable development. So that trip, at least, was good value.

I packed a lot into the Bali trip as well. Peter Ryan, a director of the Asia Europe Foundation had invited me to give an illustrated lecture to the Singapore Institute of International Affairs on how Ireland had handled becoming rich. I also went to Hong Kong to act as European rapporteur at a symposium in Shenzhen on the urban environment.

Last March, I gave similar lectures about the impact of the Celtic Tiger on Ireland's environment at West Virginia University in Morgantown, at the invitation of Prof Kevin Leyden, and at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC for its department of Irish studies, headed by Dr Bob Mahony and Dr Christina Mahony. Two in one, again.

A quick trip to Madrid at the end of March was for an international conference on re-thinking the urban policy agenda, organised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD); I was asked to serve as a moderator for one of the sessions. The wide range of speakers included former president Mary Robinson.

There were also trips to Glasgow (twice), London and Naples/Ischia for events involving the Academy of Urbanism of Great Britain and Ireland, of which I'm a founder member. I flew to Rome with Ryanair and took the fast (and cheap) train to Naples, rather than pay the extortionate fare quoted by Aer Lingus for a direct flight from Dublin.

I flew to Paris three times during the year: in February for the IPCC's launch of the first volume of its Fourth Assessment of Climate Change; again in June for a study tour sponsored by the French government; and finally in September for a bus tour of Loire Valley chateaux, organised by the French Association of Heritage Journalists.

In September, the Canadian Embassy invited me to go to Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto to see the remarkably energy-efficient housing being built there, along with a lively group of Irish house-builders and building materials suppliers. That was also a worthwhile trip, which showed how far we've lagged behind in this important area.

Ireland's participation in the first Lisbon Architecture Biennale was the reason I went there at the end of May. I must confess that I took two flights each way, changing in Madrid, instead of flying direct from Dublin at the ungodly hour of 7am when the airport is as close to Bedlam as you can get. No more early morning flights if there are other options! Inverness in May was for the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, which I spoke at and also chaired, at the invitation of its feisty former chief executive Mary Wrenn. Sicily in July was another work-related trip, to interview one of Ireland's leading property developers - in Palermo, of all places - for an Irish Times series.

ONLY TWO OF the trips were strictly personal - London in March for the installation of Rev Dr Alan McCormack, former Church of Ireland chaplain at Trinity College, as priest-in-charge of St Botolph's-without-Bishopsgate, and Ibiza in May for architect and old friend John Meagher's "big" birthday party, at which Denis O'Brien made "the speech".

It could have been worse. I was booked to go to New York City in mid-November for the annual outing of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland. But a chest bug intervened, and I had to make sure I was well enough for the long trip to Asia later in the month. Not flying to New York and back saved just over 2.3 tonnes in CO2 emissions.

So that's it, I've made a clean breast of it all now. According to, I owe the planet €1,592. As it happens, a good friend of mine, architect Paul Keogh, is planning to plant hundreds of willows on a hillside in Co Mayo next year - a project in which I will consider investing to offset all that CO2.

Incidentally, - which is run by a Swiss foundation, the Climate Protection Partnership - offers high-quality carbon offset certificates for business travel. Private individuals can also use the website to offset the environmental impact of emissions from their air travel by supporting climate-friendly projects in developing countries.

An Irish carbon footprint calculator is available on