Home Climate Change Just how bad for the planet is air travel?

Just how bad for the planet is air travel?

by Ellie Hopgood

It is well known by now that, aside from having kids, flying is the most carbon emissions-heavy thing that an individual can do. However, there’s a world full of information and nuance behind that oft-repeated statistic. As someone who loves to travel, the environmental impact of flying does weigh on my mind, and has done so frequently this year as I’ve become more and more vocal about climate change. But as I think more critically about my air miles, it seems prudent to dig a little deeper into the stats and discern just how bad flying is for the planet.

But first, a word on guilt. I’m trying to move away from eco-anxiety, and shut down the voices in my head that suggest that unless I’m living in a hut off the grid eating hemp and drinking my own recycled pee that I have no right to be talking about the climate crisis. Digging deeper into the real impact of air travel on the atmosphere is not about attempting to assuage guilt by showing that it’s not that bad, nor looking for confirmation that I need to flagellate myself for even daring to dream about future travels to far-flung places. This blog post is about information, informed decisions and looking for the real facts in a world where headlines and sound bites reign. While I understand the feelings of guilt all too well, I know that I’m really just wasting energy that could be spent on other things. I should change my flying habits, or move past the guilt (or a combination of the two). I also believe that the truly meaningful actions to address the climate crisis are bigger than a transatlantic flight or two, and I don’t want to beat myself up over something that, as this blog post will show, doesn’t make anywhere near as much of a difference as many flight shamers would have you believe.

In terms of the data itself, commercial flying is widely accepted to make up around 2-3% of global carbon dioxide emissions (though some people do contest these figures, as flying also contributes to global warming by releasing nitrogen dioxide and water vapour). Within the transport sector, aviation accounts for around 12% of emissions, compared to 74% from road transport. A journalist crunched the numbers and found that a one way flight from New York to LA will shrink summer sea ice cover by 3 square metres (32 square feet), so yes, each flight you take does melt a little bit of Antarctica or Greenland, but those percentages did put it in perspective for me. Given how much it is widely known that flying is worst thing you can do for the planet as an individual, these numbers were a lot smaller than I expected. To me, this only adds to the argument that we will only curb the worst of climate change through massive structural changes, as all these flights make up a mere 2% of emissions. If we stopped air travel tomorrow, but changed nothing else, we would all be underwater within a matter of decades. Stopping individuals flying is just not the answer.

The most powerful point to make about flying, in my opinion, is not about aviation’s overall contribution to emissions. No, the most relevant point must be that this 2-3% is caused by a tiny proportion of the world’s population. Estimates vary, but some calculations suggest that only 6% of the world’s population fly each year, while others suggest that 80% of people have never stepped foot on a plane. This means that a very small proportion of people are responsible for all air travel emissions, which has social justice implications and paints a worrying picture of a future where more people fly. Air travel is the most carbon-heavy activity an individual person can partake in; it’s just that so few people fly that the total numbers are not yet that big. I’m going to guess that lots of people reading this blog post have flown before, and perhaps do so every year – I hope these stats make you feel as grateful as I do!

These figures are particularly concerning because, as the world’s populations get wealthier – as is happening all over the world, especially in Asia, where the middle class is expanding rapidly – a lot more people are going to start flying. And while the current levels of flying are on the whole quite low from an emissions perspective, that would change rapidly if billions of people suddenly became frequent fliers. It is obviously unfair that the world can accommodate a certain level of ostentatious frequent flying, but cannot extend that same courtesy to every keen traveller with a big enough bank account.

If anything, efforts to limit flights are more to do with fears about the potential growth of the aviation sector, rather than a real concern that current levels are unsustainable. At its core, flight shaming is about inequality, as are many parts of the climate crisis, which is a deeper reality with which to reckon.

It’s worth mentioning that, due to the nature of structural advantage, many Europeans and North Americans did not try to effortlessly subjugate billions of people by mere virtue of their choices. Living a high-carbon life is almost inevitable in the USA and Europe, given how our societies have been built, and that even a person with a modest income by American standards ($20,000) is still in the top 4% of incomes in the world. The fact that many Europeans and Americans can fly says less about their individual actions and more about centuries of colonialism, which allowed Europe and America to benefit from industrialisation before we had so clearly exhausted the world of its resources (though most flights are still taken by the richest members of these countries too).

Many people hope that improvements in technology will make it so that we are able to live the exact same lifestyles as before without killing people and the planet in the process. While advancements are being made in a number of industries, unfortunately, aviation is not one of them yet. There is a lot of research being done into biofuels and electric places, but nothing is as yet very promising. There is also talk of a hybrid-style plane, where the most emissions-intensive parts of the flight (take off and landing) are powered by a green fuel while the rest of the flight is covered by fossil fuels. However, these technological advancements are still a long way off.

Part of the reason that short haul flights have become so common is because air travel has enjoyed low or non-existent carbon taxes on aviation fuel. This means that for many journeys, short flights are much cheaper than taking the train or bus or driving a car, which doesn’t incentivise people toward these less carbon intensive modes of transport. I have heard of proposals for progressive carbon tax systems on flights, where taxes increase with each additional flight you take yearly, penalising frequent flyers the most but leaving minimal flyers largely unaffected. I think if you’re wealthy enough to fly frequently, you’ve got to support this kind of carbon tax system. Flying remains a luxury and if you recognise that it is a sign of extreme privilege to fly so much then surely that lends itself to you supporting a tax on frequent fliers, even if you are one. The great question of the climate crisis is about reducing greed, and not squeezing every last dollar out of a situation just because we can. If we can afford to fly so much, then we can afford to be taxed for doing so.

Of course, flights are still going to happen, many of them taken by people like me. No matter how much you dedicatedly replace your short haul flights with buses and train journeys, there are some distances that remain most practically travelled at 40,000 feet. Half of my family live in Australia, so unless I accept never seeing them again, I will definitely be boarding at least a few more of the longest flights in the world. How can we make flying greener?

  • Fly direct. Layovers create extra miles flown, and add extra take offs and landings, the most emissions-intensive part of a flight. Flying direct eliminates these additional emissions and is quicker too!
  • Fly with a more efficient airline and aircraft. Yep, not all planes and operators were created equal from a fuel efficiency perspective, which can impact total emissions.
  • Fly economy. The more people on a flight, the lower the emissions per person. Business and first class seats take up greater space on the plane, raising the emissions for those passengers.
  • Support carbon taxes for frequent fliers, even if you are one. Flying frequently is a luxury, one that other people will be paying for as the world warms up. In theory, those carbon taxes will used to fund sustainable initiatives, which seems like a good way raise money for innovations we all need.
  • Offset your flights. I have offset every flight I’ve taken this year at CarbonFund.org, contributing to clean energy initiatives around the world. The efficacy of carbon offsets is controversial and I’ll be doing a blog post dedicated to them soon, but donating toward sustainable projects is very unlikely to do harm.
  • Vote for green candidates. Worth a mention every time.

I want to travel extensively throughout my lifetime; it is absolutely central to how I want to spend my time on Earth. But travelling to far-flung places means flying, which, if I care about this planet I want so desperately to see, I have to engage with from a climate perspective. My recent forays into climate activism have already made me think a lot more purposefully about the flights I take. You’ll notice that I won’t take any more short-haul flights this year, which is an active choice. I want to be more intentional about the flights that I do take and make sure that the experience I’ll have at the other end will really be worth it. I don’t even see this as a sacrifice; I think it will make me a better, more thoughtful traveller, and for that I am grateful. I do think that flying has a comparatively small overall impact, and I will keep that in mind when I’m laying the guilt on myself, because the total levels of flying are not yet as bad for the planet as popular discourse would have you believe. But it is deeply unequal, as are most things about the climate crisis, and that matters too. I know that I am imperfect and that I am not ready to swear off flying at all – but I do plan to always be thoughtful about my choices, and rethinking how and when I fly seems like a good place to start.

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