It’s my first day back at work after a wonderful vacation, and I wanted to jump in feet first and address an issue we care a great deal about! Malte and I spent three weeks in the States with my parents and brother and while I didn’t get around to talking about it much before we left, the fact that we had to take a plane to get there is something that we’ve been thinking and talking about a lot. Now let me preface this post by saying that like with many other things, I do think that when talking about a sustainable lifestyle, it’s very important to acknoledge that we’re all constantly learning and to not get discouraged. Everything is a work in progress, no one is perfect or able to choose the most sustainable option 100% of the time, and every step in the right direction is important. Another thing I want to add is that the impact of planes on the climate is complicated and there are still questions left to be answered, but that shouldn’t stop us from caring about the negative effects that we do know about. For us, there are a few experiences we would consider flying for – such as this trip that our family has been wanting to do together for the better part of the past 10 years – but we never take the decision lightly. Whenever there’s a reasonable alternative, which is pretty much always the case within Europe, we use other forms of transport, and we’re lucky to be in a position where our family and friends all live within a distance that doesn’t require flying. Read on to find out how flying compares to other personal lifestyle decisions in terms of its impact on climate change, what we can do to slightly lessen the harmful impact when we fly and our plans for next year!
For many centuries, humans were fascinated by the idea of flight. In the early 20th century, heavier-than-air aircrafts were developed, and like with so many other things, once we got the hang of it, we got greedy. Today, thousands of airplanes fly the skies worldwide at any given time, adding up to a total of just under 37 million flights performed in 2017 with an ever- growing passenger demand of 6-8% per year (source: Statista). We’ll get to how that translates into the much talked about harmful carbon dioxide emissions in a minute, but first, let’s briefly look at what those emissions actually mean.
Carbon dioxide is an integral part of the carbon cycle whereby oceans, stones, soil and the biosphere exchange carbon, the main component of biological compounds. Plants and other photosynthetic organisms use carbon dioxide to produce carbohydrate, on which we humans and most other living beings depend as our primary source of energy. So in and of itself, carbon dioxide isn’t harmful. Quite the opposite: it’s essential for life on Earth. We all release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Every single day. The problem is that it’s become way too much. Most scientists assume that carbon pollution causes the average temperature of the Earth's climate system to rise, usually referred to as global warming or climate change. Using the most recent, certifiable EPA data, this Cool Effect graphic shows greenhouse gas emissions over time and you’ll see a radical spike since the Industrial revolution in the late 18th / early 19th century. Right now, we’re at an all-time high.
This all-time high means that the Earth is currently 1 degree Celsius warmer than preindustrial levels, which might sound insignificant, but is actually quite dramatic once we take a closer look at what a difference of as little as 1 degree means, and that oceans suffer from elevated acidity (I won’t go into details here to not make this post longer than it’ll be anyways - but let me know if this is something you’d like to read more about and we might cover it in the future! The New York times just published Why Half A Degree Of Global Warming Is A Big Deal, if you’re looking for something to read next). What makes matters even worse it that predicitons assume significant further warming in the future. Did you know that if nothing changes, we’ll reach the maximum carbon budget that still allows for a chance to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius before the end of 2045, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (who have great infographics, by the way)? In order to meet the goal of no more than 2 degrees Celsius, by 2030 we’d have to cut down carbon emissions by 45% and get down to 2.1 tonnes per capita emissions tby 2050. This won’t be possible without a high level of commitment and the support from governments and policymakers around the world, but still, there are many changes we can make to help reduce emissions.
Many of our lifestyle decisions impact global warming, some of them a lot, and others less. Interestingly enough, today’s textbooks and school curricula as well as government recommendations often neglect those high-impact factors and only address low- or moderate-impact factors such as recycling or avoiding plastic bags (all of which are still important of course!), as this comprehensive study by Seth Wynes and Kimberly A. Nicholas shows. One more reason to talk about flying! The authors analyzed 39 peer-reviewed articles, carbon calculators and government sources, aiming to quantify the impact of personal lifestyle choices, and here’s what they found (graphic source: Lund University):
Avoiding air travel is one of the highest-impact factors we can actively change, and given that takeoff and landing make up a considerable amount (of up to 25%, according to NASA research) of a flight’s total emission, this is relevant for shorter-distance flights, too. Being the most energy intensive form of transport, aircrafts use a huge amount of jet fuel, the burning of which releases pollutant emissions into the atmosphere. Add to this an aviation multiplier of around two as currently estimated by experts, meaning that the total impact of a plane is believed to be approximately twice as high as its carbon dioxide emissions. And what about alternative options? While electric motors unfortunately can't produce enough power to get a plane off the ground, biofuels in airplanes are being used more and more, though usually mixed with regular fuel. They’re said to produce at least 60% less carbon emissions than regular jet fuel on a life cycle basis, so although the potential for eco-friendlier flying is limited, it’s at least something.
Sounds pretty devastating? It is, but the good thing about being responsible for carbon emissions is that we can make changes, too! We promised practical tips, so here are a few things we as individuals can do:
Fly less. There’s no denying it, flying less is what cuts down our per capita carbon emissions most drastically. In numbers: a transatlantic round-trip comes in at approximately 1.6 tonnes. That’s quite a lot!
Fly coach. According to a study published by The World Bank, a first class seat’s carbon footprint could be as much as nine times as big as an economy class one, which makes sense if you look at how many people are being moved with the same amount of fuel.
Book a direct flight. Whenever possible, avoid the extra emissions of multiple takeoffs and landings.
Offset. There are many options to pay for taking planet-warming carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in exchange for the greenhouse gases flying put in. Make sure to choose a scientifically and ethically sound project to donate to! Good signs are a verification by an independent third party and 100% additional projects, meaning the reduction in emissions wouldn’t have happened under any other circumstances.
Choose your airline wisely. Help reducing your flight’s carbon emissions by flying with an airline that is making fuel efficiency improvements and uses biofuel. Look for airline fuel efficiency rankings like this one or this one to educate yourself and don’t shy away from contacting airlines to find our more about their biofuel policies if you can’t find any information on their website (which might very well be the case).
Pack lightly. The more weight we bring and the more space we take up, the less fuel-efficient and thus more polluting our flight will be.
Though we can tweak some things here and there to make flying slightly less harmful, we mustn’t fool ourselves - by far the single most important change to make is flying less. Improvements such as the International Civil Aviation Organization Council’s agreement on monitoring and reporting flight emissions are being made, but they’re small steps that are happening slowly, and we all need to take responsibility. Malte and I decided to not fly at all after our most recent vacation until at least the end of next year (#NoFlightsIn2019), and the prospect of knowing that flying simply won’t be an option for us in the nearest future actually feels pretty good!
What’s your approach to flights? Anyone care to join us for #NoFlightsIn2019? Share your thoughts in the comments if you like, I’d love to hear them!