What you can do
There can be many good reasons for taking a flight and AEF has never expected people to give up flying altogether. Our organisational aim is for the industry to minimise its impact on climate change and to avoid damaging local air quality and people’s health and well-being. Our approach generally focuses on policy level change to tackle aviation’s environmental impacts for the long term. However, action by individuals and businesses is an important tool that could lead to broader change to ensure that the aviation industry does work within environmental limits. We have therefore put together a short guide about what you or your organisation could do to reduce the damage caused by flying.
Our advice on this page focuses on aviation’s impact on climate change. For information about aviation’s other environmental impacts and how they might be tackled, have a look at our ‘Issues’ section.
The problem: aviation and climate change
With emissions from other sectors now falling, the proportion of global emissions that aviation represents is expected to continue to grow. This is largely because, today at least, there is no commercially viable alternative to kerosene for powering aircraft. In the best case scenario set out by the aircraft industry, a growing proportion of flights will be powered by alternative fuels by 2050, which may reduce the carbon footprint of an individual flight but not enough to counter the global growth of the industry.
In addition to CO2, aviation has other emissions such as NOx, Methane, and water vapour, as well as causing contrails and cirrus clouds to form which all have an effect on the atmosphere at high altitudes. The net warming impact of these additional factors is uncertain but it is estimated at around 1.9 times that of CO2 alone. Find out more about the climate change impacts of aviation here.
For an individual person, a single long-haul flight already takes up a sizable portion of an individual’s annual carbon footprint and while people hope their footprint in the future will be smaller, the contribution from flying could get bigger. It is important to get into the routine today of flying as sustainably as possible. For businesses, to think about long-term prospects, now is a good time to become more productive without being too reliant on flying.
Step 1: Do you need to fly?
As you can see in the graph above, going by train for short-haul and domestic trips has a very small carbon footprint, particularly if you use the Eurostar which is partly powered by nuclear energy. In many cases, as this video by Transform Scotland shows, it doesn’t necessarily take longer than taking domestic or some European flights and the journey can be competitive on price. Alternatively, a coach trip may take longer but it could be equally carbon efficient. Indeed for European trips, the journey can be part of the holiday experience. The book, Beyond Flying: Rethinking air travel in a globally connected world, contains several chapters retelling different people’s experiences of taking an alternative route to a location than flying.
The graph above suggests that flying can be more carbon efficient than driving alone in a diesel or petrol car though if you take a family of four on holiday then the emissions can be divided by four for the car while the emissions from flying is four times greater than for one passenger. The other relevant issue is that flying makes it quick to cover long distances that you’d be unlikely to travel by car so you need to think about emissions per trip and not just emissions per km. Travelling first class by air is easily the most carbon intensive way to travel per passenger km, because the space your luxurious seat covers could have fitted in several other passengers at higher density. Emissions per kilometre for domestic flights are so high because such a large proportion of your flight is spent taking off and landing. We would say if you are serious about tackling your personal carbon footprint, you shouldn’t take domestic flights.
The difference in cost between flights and trains can be a major inhibition for taking long distance train journeys. However, flying has high environmental costs which should be accounted for. Until these costs are adequately included in the ticket price, choosing to travel by train should be viewed as an ethical choice. In addition, when flying you must also account for the cost and time of getting to the airport so you may well end up benefiting by taking the train.
Step 2: Counting the emissions from your flight
As you can see below, the associated emissions per kilometre for different ticket types significantly influence your individual carbon take-up. Economy tickets on long-haul flights (which generally mean flights to destinations outside of Europe) are marginally more efficient than their short-haul equivalents (to destinations within Europe) per kilometre due to the lower proportion of a journey taken up by the take off procedure during a long-haul flight.
One way of calculating emissions would be using the below estimates from Defra and multiplying the relevant figure by the distance travelled. You can calculate distances using Great Circle Mapper which works out the distances between two airports. This would be the strategy used by large businesses with many flights to account for. Options do exist that do the calculation for you, including one by the UN body the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), which we were involved in developing. The ICAO calculator takes into account the type of plane that tends to be used but like all emissions calculators it is not 100% accurate and 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).
Once you have calculated the emissions for a given flight, you can work out how much that would make up of your annual footprint. A round trip from the UK to Bangkok in economy class, for example, emits around 1.4 tonnes of CO2 per passenger, but including non-CO2 impacts the figure is around 2.7 tonnes. The UK average emissions per person for one year from all activities is 14 tonnes so a flight to Thailand could represent about a fifth of your annual emissions. For comparison, home electricity emits an average of 1.2 tonnes of CO2 annually, and average annual emissions from driving in the UK are 2.1 tonnes. By 2050, in order to meet globally agreed targets, emissions per person (including in the UK) need to be no higher than around 2 tonnes per person. So one return flight to Bangkok today would take up more than your entire emissions budget for a year.
If you’re looking at holiday destinations you should consider how far you need to travel and how frequently you fly. Emissions from a short-haul flight would be lower than in the Thailand example, although several weekend trips to Europe would quickly add up. So if you do travel by air, make the most of it. Half as much carbon is produced from flying somewhere and staying for two weeks than from two trips of one week each.
Step 3: What can you do to tackle the emissions from flying?
1. Keep your flight emissions to within 0.4 tonnes CO2 per year
One way to tackle your carbon footprint is to set yourself an annual carbon budget. We suggest that to fly sustainably, aviation should take up no more than 0.4 tonnes of CO2 per year of your personal carbon budget. Here’s why.
As indicated above, for the world to achieve the official target of not exceeding a temperature rise of 2°C, it is widely accepted that by 2050 average CO2 emissions per person can’t be higher than about two tonnes. As the UK’s part in this, we are committed under the Climate Change Act to cutting our emissions by at least 80% of 1990 levels at a national level. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) argues that if road transport becomes completely electrified and most of our energy can be derived from renewable sources, we can afford for about 25% of our national emissions in 2050 to come from flights departing the UK. Aviation emissions are assumed by CCC to be at the same level in 2050 as in 2005.
Applying the same proportion at a personal level would mean that of the 2 tonnes of CO2 available to you in 2050, about 0.5 could be used for flying. We also think that it’s reasonable to discount any business flights (and they make up around a fifth of UK flights) from your personal carbon budget, reducing that figure to 0.4 tonnes CO2 per year from flying. Personal carbon calculators generally talk in terms of round trips rather than just departing flights, suggesting your aviation budget should be doubled, but to take account of the non-CO2 impacts of aviation, you need to halve it again, so you end up back at 0.4 tonnes as an estimate for your personal emissions budget for all flying.
Assuming all flights were in economy class that would, for example, allow for two return flight from Gatwick to Turin in Italy, one return flight from Heathrow to Istanbul, or half of a return flight to New York (so you could flying one year but not the next). Over time, as aircraft technology improves, you’ll probably be able to fly a bit further annually on the same carbon budget, even though the rate of efficiency improvement in new jets is slowing down.
2. Consider offsetting
Carbon offsets work by paying someone else to reduce emissions (for example, covering the cost of more efficient manufacturing technology in a factory in China) to balance out the emissions from your flight. You can do this through an offset company you’ve chosen, or participate in airline schemes that may be offered when you make a booking.
There are some problems with this approach, though. As the world, and especially high-emitting countries such as the UK, needs to be reducing emissions, carbon offsetting can never be the whole solution. Also, schemes that rely on planting fast-growing trees to soak up carbon offer only a very temporary source of carbon storage, not really comparable to the burning of fossil fuel. Finally, It’s very hard to know whether the reduction you’re paying for would have happened anyway, as increasingly even developing countries have carbon management plans to encourage or require emissions reductions, and it can be in businesses’ own financial interests to upgrade to more efficient technologies.
Some offset schemes are better than others (see WWF’s benchmark for example) but many people feel that they’re largely a distraction from the urgent need for emissions to be cut (as argued, for example, by Friends of the Earth in this report).
3. Help toughen up the EU ETS
One alternative to carbon offsetting that ensures overall emissions are capped is ‘carbon retirement’, which focuses on making the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) more effective. The EU ETS covers about half of the EU’s emissions and works by setting an overall cap – which reduces over time – under which polluters either receive or buy emissions permits. Cut your emissions, and you can make money by selling your spare permits. Over-emit, and you’ll need to buy some from elsewhere. In terms of aviation, the system only covers flights within the EU and not long-haul flights. However, we are campaigning to extend the coverage following a review in 2017.
Unfortunately, the ETS is awash with carbon permits from periods in which there was an over-allocation – with more created than were actually needed by polluters to cover their emissions. As a result the carbon price is currently far too low to stimulate the investment in clean technology that the EU ETS was supposed to help deliver. Carbon retirement, such as that offered by Sandbag, allows you to purchase and cancel EU ETS credits, helping to tighten the cap and make the system more effective in general.
4. Help make aviation sustainable for the long-term
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? Then 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 as a member or through regular donations. We are the only UK-based NGO working exclusively on aviation’s environmental impact and with nearly 40 years experience of it. We are regarded as the Department for Transport’s key environmental ‘stakeholder’ on aviation issues, and have regular contact with other Government departments, regulators, and industry, challenging misinformation and making the case for communities and the environment. We also work at the UN level on both noise standards and especially climate change, regularly representing a global coalition of NGOs.
We don’t set out to demonise the aviation industry. But we do think that for various reasons the sector has tended to fall through the net when it comes to developing collective measures to managing environmental impacts and that actually there’s no justification for giving aviation special treatment. We’re making progress; first the EU and now, finally, the UN, are feeling the heat in terms of the need for urgent measures to bring aviation emissions under control. But there’s a whole lot more to do over the coming years.
Step 4: What can your organisation do to reduce business flights?
- Take part in some meetings by videoconferencing. The advantages of videoconferencing, including time saved and increased productivity, are well known. Moving some internal staff meetings to videoconferences in large organisations can be an effective way of reducing business flights
- Make domestic or European trips by rail, especially where this can be done in under 4 hours. Smart phones, laptops and tablets all enable travel time on the train to be productive
- If you do have to fly, travel on an Economy ticket. Taking a first class seat quadrouples your emissions compared to an economy ticket (see the above graph) while sitting in business class nearly trebles your emissions given the extra weight and space it’s responsible for. Indeed, increasingly businesses are choosing to save money (and lessen their environmental impact) by flying economy class
- Consider whether switching from one airline to another could improve the efficiency of your flight at the margins, taking account of factors such as the age of the aircraft typically used for that journey and average seat occupancy. For example, the International Council for Clean Transportation has compiled a league table of American airlines by fuel efficiency and work is on-going to develop an international league table
Top image Credit: Roo Reynolds via Flickr