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What can I do as a leisure traveller?

Choices made by individuals and businesses to fly less can open up conversations about flying and its alternatives, as well as demonstrate public appetite for political and policy action. Some early research has identified a ripple effect, whereby knowing someone who has given up flying because of climate change can significantly influence others to cut back on their own flights.

Our advice in this section focuses on helping individuals and businesses to make informed decisions about flying based on its impact on climate change (click here for What can we do as a business?). Choosing to take fewer flights will also help reduce aircraft noise. For information about aviation’s key environmental impacts, have a look at our ‘What we work on’ section.

AEF continues to focus on policy level change to tackle aviation’s environmental impacts for the long term, but we’re keen to find ways in which this work can be complemented by voluntary commitments by individuals and companies. 

Raising the visibility of aircraft emissions is an important aspect of this, as it leads to a greater public understanding of the issues surrounding air travel and its environmental impact.

The problem: aviation and climate change

Aviation currently accounts for around 9% of UK CO2 emissions (and 2-2.5% globally) and remains one of the fastest growing sources of CO2 emissions in the world.

With emissions from many other sectors starting to peak and fall, the proportion of global emissions that aviation represents is expected to continue to grow. This is largely because more than 99% of the fuel powering flights is oil-derived kerosene. While technology improvements and the introduction of alternative fuels may, in the coming decades, reduce the carbon footprint of an individual flight these changes won’t be anywhere near enough, on current trends, to achieve net zero emissions in the sector. Technologies that remove CO2 from the atmosphere will be needed in order to balance the emissions from aviation, but these are likely to be costly and challenging to develop, and are not currently commercially available. The Government’s climate experts have advised, therefore, that it won’t be possible to achieve the UK’s legal commitments on climate change unless growth in aviation demand is limited.

In addition to CO2, aviation also affects the climate by emitting NOx (which affects atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases like ozone and methane) and water vapour, as well as causing contrails and the formation of additional cirrus clouds. Current scientific understanding is that aviation’s total net warming impact is around twice that generated by its C02 emissions alone. Find out more about the climate change impacts of aviation here.

A return flight from London to Bangkok can generate more emissions than you would save going vegan for a whole year

In terms of an individual’s annual carbon footprint, a single long-haul return flight can generate more emissions than any other activity in a given year. While lifestyle changes around diet and home energy will be essential, a return flight from London to Bangkok can account for more emissions, for example, than you would save by going vegan for a year. For businesses similarly, travel, and air travel in particular, can represent the largest part of the organisation’s carbon footprint. 

In 2019, the Foundation for Integrated Transport commissioned AEF to provide a report estimating the emissions from flying and comparing the results with the emissions associated with common, everyday activities.

The report estimated that:

  • Taking a single long haul return flight from Birmingham to Delhi (emitting just over 1 tonne CO2 adjusted for additional climate impacts) would wipe out all the savings made by switching from moderate meat consumption to being vegan for a year.
  • Annual emissions per capita in the UK from driving are around 1 tonne CO2, equivalent to the emissions of a single long haul return flight.
  • Flying economy from London to Paris generates 27 times the CO2 emissions of making the same journey by Eurostar (53 kg compared with 2 kg for a one-way trip)

So what can I do?

Flight-free holidays

Tourism is the key driver for aviation demand. 7 out of 10 people who take flights in the UK do so to go on holiday. Business travel demand has been declining, and while the proportion of people flying to visit friends or relatives has grown over the past twenty years, the large majority of travel both to and from the UK is still for holidays.

Taking a holiday closer to home, either in the UK or Europe, often allows you to travel overland rather than by air, with the potential to make a significant reduction in the emissions from your trip. The journey can be part of the holiday experience, and many books, websites and social media influencers share and promote positive experiences of slow, flight-free travel. Often we don’t need to go to the other side of the world for the beautiful beaches, adventure and nature we seek.

Taking a holiday closer to home often allows you to travel overland rather than by air.

Can you travel by train? As you can see in the graph below, short-haul and domestic rail trips have a very small carbon footprint, particularly if you use services to mainland Europe via the Channel Tunnel. In some cases total journey time is no longer than domestic or some European flights and the trip can be competitive on price, particularly when accounting for the cost and time of getting to the airport. Coach travel can meanwhile be as carbon efficient as rail travel. 

BEIS figures for 2019 use a CO2 multiplier of 1.9 to calculate non-CO2 impacts. Lee et al (2020) have calculated aviation’s total warming impact to date is three times that associated with its CO2 emissions alone. Short- and long-haul aviation data is based on average passenger emissions across multiple seating classes.   

Calculators can help you estimate the emissions associated with a particular flight. This calculator by the UN body the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has access to information on the type of plane and load factors that are typical for each route, but the figures it generates are for CO2 only. Other calculators, such as the one developed by the German offset company Atmosfair, have an estimate of non-CO2 effects built in for flights above a given altitude (see their methodology here).

Understanding and reducing the emissions from your travel 

If you’re planning a trip for leisure or to visit family and friends, here are some things to think about:

  • When looking at holiday destinations consider how far you need to travel to find the experience you want. There are lots of wonderful destinations you can reach overland and by rail. Even if you fly, destinations closer to home will be better choices in terms of climate change since every extra mile you fly will increase total emissions. 
  • Consider how frequently you fly. Taking a single, longer trip will produce less carbon than two short trips to similar destinations.
  • Fly economy. Most leisure travellers book economy fares but some choose to fly premium economy, or use air miles to upgrade to business. With emissions related to the space that your seat occupies, travelling in these seats can significantly increase your footprint. And first class by air is easily the most carbon intensive way to travel, per passenger km. The space that your luxurious seat occupies could have fitted in several other passengers at a higher density (see graph below). 

Carbon emissions from flying vary by seating class

How to make sure we see change in the aviation industry 

Still worried that even if you cut down on some of your flying, other people won’t – so there’s no point you making the sacrifice? Or that there isn’t much point in us taking a stand on aviation carbon emissions when rapidly developing countries are increasing theirs? You can help make sure politicians and policymakers set the right level playing field for aviation both nationally and internationally.

  • This is what AEF works on day in, day out, so an easy way to do this is by supporting our work, either by becoming a member or through donations. With over 45 years’ experience, we are the only UK-based NGO working exclusively on aviation’s environmental impact. 
  • If you are a business traveller, ask your employers to use whatever opportunities they have to advocate for wider action from Government and the aviation industry. For aviation to get to net zero we’ll need not only less reliance on flying but also fundamental changes in how aircraft are powered in future. This calls for some big investments, which currently aren’t happening at the scale needed. The more airlines and politicians know that people care about these issues, and are ready to change their own habits to help solve the problem, the more ready they’ll be to put time and effort into finding longer term solutions.