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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

Aviation is already a significant source of CO2 emissions (making up around 6% of UK emissions and 2-2.5% of global emissions) and is one of the fastest growing sources of emissions in the world.

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 travelling 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.

Do you need to fly?

Flying is at times the only feasible way of getting to a location but a significant proportion of UK flights are to other destinations within Europe which could be reached by other means. The first step to reducing your aviation carbon footprint is to consider whether you actually need to take the flight: look at where you need to go to and see whether there are any viable alternatives to getting there.

Aviation emissions show CO2 emissions alone plus estimated non-CO2 impacts (shown as being semi-transparent). Medium car refers to 1.4-2.0 litre engine for Petrol and 1.7-2.0 litre engine for diesel. All emissions shown in kg CO2e per passenger per kilometre except for a medium car which is emissions per kilometre for just the driver, any additional passengers would reduce this figure. Source: Defra emissions conversion factors (2014 data).
  • Can you travel by train? 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, particularly when accounting for the cost and time of getting to the airport. 
  • Alternatively, a coach trip may take longer but it could be equally carbon efficient as getting the train.
  • If you are serious about tackling your personal carbon footprint, you shouldn’t take domestic flights.

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.

Fly responsibly

A round trip from the UK to Bangkok in economy class emits around 1.4 tonnes of CO2 per passenger, but including non-CO2 impacts the figure is around 2.7 tonnes. 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

  • f you’re looking at holiday destinations you should consider how far you need to travel. Emissions from short-haul flights are lower than from long-haul, and you might even be able to take a less carbon-intensive forms of transport, such as the train. Often we don’t need to go to the other side of the world for the beautiful beaches and nature we seek.
  • Consider how frequently you fly. Several weekend trips to Europe, for example, 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.
  • Calculate the emissions from your flight. This calculator by UN body International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), which we were involved in developing, takes into account the type of plane that tends to be used 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).
  • Fly direct. 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.
  • Fly economy. 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.
  • Fly with more efficient carriers.
The Y-axis refers to the equivalent of kilograms of Carbon Dioxide emitted per kilometre per passenger taking into account non-CO2 effects. Average passenger for short-haul/long-haul means the emissions averaged out across different ticket types. Source (2014 figures)

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.

What can your organisation do to reduce business flights?

There are also some specific steps that businesses can take as part of a sustainable travel plan which could save money and time through connecting in other ways beyond flying.

  • Calculate your company’s carbon footprint from flying. One way of calculating emissions would be using the above 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. 
  • 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.