Air Travel is a Climate Killer – Can We Make Flying Greener?

Look up. See the sky? Right now, this very second, there are around half a million humans up there, flying to and fro. At the same time experts predict aviation will soon be the biggest single source of CO2 emissions. If you’re wondering if our obsession with flying doesn’t make sense, you’re right.

You probably already do a handful of worthy things to help slow climate change. Most of us do. You might’ve given up meat or cut down on dairy, decided to only buy locally-sourced foods or gone full-on vegan. You might avoid plastic packaging, buy an electric car, or cycle to work. But what about air travel?

Air travel climate change update – The latest – 5th August 2019

As this week’s New Scientist magazine reports: 

“Let’s be clear. Jetting across the world is a privilege, not a right, and the best way to limit it is to do less. There can be no excuse any more that the importance of what we do somehow somehow trumps a shared duty to take action.”

If you must fly, what do the scientists say about limiting the amount of CO2 you are responsible for emitting?

  • Know that while CO2 Offsetting is a good thing, available on plenty of airline websites, it’s no substitute for not flying at all
  • Short haul is the worst emitter, so do less of it  
  • Fly direct whenever you can
  • Choose airlines with newer, more fuel-efficient aircraft 
  • Shun business class
  • Use tech to cut right back on face-to-face meetings 

Cheap flights are a big climate issue

Not so long ago there was no such thing as cheap flights. Flying was expensive. Fewer of us flew, and we didn’t do it anywhere near as frequently. In 1995 it cost roughly 60% more to fly than it did in 2017, and the low cost of air travel has resulted in a year-on-year 5% increase in passenger numbers.

Today’s wealthy western consumers adore flying. Some of us fly long haul several times a year for holidays. Travel is fun. Exotic places are exciting. The sunshine’s lovely. But, let’s be honest, flying is about as bad for the environment as it gets, an absolute whopper of a contributor to climate change.

Worse still, international aviation hasn’t been included in accords like the Paris Agreement, and even though domestic flights are covered by the Kyoto Protocol, they only account for a tiny percentage of total aviation emissions. Then there’s the issue of borders. Who, exactly, is responsible for aviation emissions and for reducing them? It’s all a bit of a mess, and the airlines probably like it that way.

Facts about aeroplane emissions

  • In 2017 alone the worldwide aviation sector emitted 859 million tonnes of CO2
  • In 2017 4.1 billion of us took flight
  • The air travel sector generates 2% of total global CO2 emissions
  • Flying is responsible for 12% of transport-related CO2 emissions
  • About 80% of air flight emissions happen when the journey is longer than 1500km, in other words long haul flights

Do you feel like you have a right to fly?

I hate flying. I’m not interested in going abroad. I like my holidays here in Britain. So it’s easy for me to give up flying. I haven’t done it for years. I’ll be perfectly happy never to climb aboard a plane again. But the ‘don’t fly’ message is one that most of us don’t want to hear. While we do everything we can at home and work to combat global warming, flying is sacrosanct. It’s almost like we think we have a right to fly, a right to enjoy unlimited foreign holidays, gap year travel, even completely crazy stuff like flying half way around the planet to do conservation work… the ultimate in climate ironies.

It’s a fact. Every time you travel by air you contribute large amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere. But our morality evaporates where flying is concerned. We really, really don’t want to give it up.

If we won’t give up flying, what can we do to mitigate our nasty habit?

Since most people are simply not willing to give up air travel, the solutions are limited. We need greener air travel technologies, and we need them fast. We need more countries to impose stiff aviation taxes like Sweden has. We need more people like Maia Rosen and Lotta Hammar, the Swedish women who launched the country’s We Stay On The Ground campaign. So far they have persuaded more than 10,000 of their fellow Swedes – and counting – to find alternatives to flying.

We need to stop expanding airports and not build any new ones. We also need international laws with teeth rather than toothless recommendations. Take the United Nations. While the UN has promised to cap aviation emissions beyond 2020, as long as airlines can offset the CO2 they emit, they’ll still be allowed to keep emitting it. Since their focus is short term profit not long term climate responsibility, they’ll probably carry on as normal.

There’s some good news about greener flights

Luckily, there’s some good news amongst all this selfish nonsense. Greener aviation tech is indeed being developed, far too slowly but it’s better than nothing. We’re looking at hybrid electric aircraft, at flying planes in straighter lines to save fuel, and at growing much better biofuels.

The new Airbus A380, Boeing 787, ATR-600, Embraer E2 and Bombardier CSeries planes all use less than three litres of jet fuel for every 100 passenger-kilometres, and that’s actually just as fuel efficient as a compact modern car. There’s more. Since the year 2000, retro-fitting ‘winglets’ on planes has prevented 80 million tonnes of CO2 from being emitted.

During 2016 the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation brokered a voluntary global deal to cut CO2 emissions. So far more than 70 countries have signed up to the agreement, which already covers more than three quarters of the total CO2 emissions from international air travel.

Your fight for greener, cleaner aviation – Here’s the science to support

As a climate campaigner or an ordinary bod who wants to help slow climate change, it’s good to know what you’re campaigning for as well as the things you’re campaigning against.

Here are the developments you might want to support to help tackle the impact of air travel on our climate. Support any or all of these, cut back on flying or stop altogether, and you’ll enjoy a clearer, cleaner conscience.

  1. Educate the public about the CO2 emissions made by aircraft so people can make a properly informed decision about whether to fly.
  2. Educate business about the many advantages of conference calls and VR, both viable alternative to taking international and national flights to meet face to face.
  3. Fly in straight lines rather than zig-zags – something that’s entirely possible since planes only fly wiggly as a legacy of of old-school radar tech. Flying straighter could prevent 150,000 tonnes of CO2 a year from being emitted over Europe alone.
  4. Fly at higher cruise altitudes, a good way to save fuel because the thinner air higher up causes less drag on the plane.
  5. Design for better aerodynamics – Airbus has already gone all sleek. Their modern A350 model generates 15% less CO2 than the older A330 model for the same amount of thrust, something that more airplane designers could take advantage of.
  6. Improve the tech used in propeller aircraft – they use a great deal less fuel, but at the moment they also take longer to get from A to B.
  7. Invent a carbon neutral fuel – Modern craft run on Jet A fuel, very like kerosene. It’s entirely possible to make synthetic kerosene, and jets are already allowed to fill up with as much as 50% of their tanks with it. The trick is creating synthetic kerosene in a climate-friendly way.
  8. Set in place more agreements and make more laws so that every country in the world promises to reduce its air travel emissions.
  9. Grow much better biofuels – Biofuels come from crops. So far biofuels have failed to mitigate climate change thanks to the huge amount of land and energy needed to grow them. We should be able to do better with more help from genetic modification.
  10. Retro-fit winglet devices to every relevant aircraft on the planet.
  11. Work harder to build practical electric planes – A number of aviation companies are working to improve electric plane performance, including Avinor in Norway. Airbus, Siemens and Rolls Royce are busy collaborating on new ideas. Boeing is getting into bed with the start-up Zunum Aero, aiming to create a workable 50 seater hybrid craft by the year 2022. And the German company Volocopter is developing a cool electric vertical take-off machine to seat two people, a machine called the eVTOL. Happily, they’re just the tip of the iceberg.

Will you stop flying?

Having read this post, are you prepared to stop flying to help protect your kids’ future? Maybe you can see yourself replacing one of your annual foreign holidays with a staycation? If you’re going to carry on flying regardless, I’m interested – why do you feel that way?

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