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.
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:
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.
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:
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.