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Toward sustainable travel: breaking the flying addiction

By Elisabeth Rosenthal - posted Monday, 31 May 2010

Flying dwarfs any other individual activity in terms of carbon emissions, yet more and more people are traveling by air. With no quick technological fix on the horizon, what alternatives - from high-speed trains to advanced videoconferencing - can cut back the amount we fly?

In most departments I have excellent green credibility, and my carbon footprint is small. I have not owned a car in more than 20 years and commute to work by subway. I walk to the market and generally no longer buy produce flown in from far away. I recycle. I have an air-conditioner, but use it only on the hottest of days. I have gone paperless with all my bills.

But my good acts of responsible environmental stewardship are undercut by one persistent habit that will be hard to break, if it is possible at all: I am a frequent flyer, Platinum Card. Last year, I traveled nearly 100,000 miles of mostly long-haul travel. And that figure puts me in the minor leagues compared to legions of business consultants, international lawyers, UN functionaries - and even climate scientists - who certainly travel much more.


Flying, particularly on long-haul flights, is so highly emitting that it dwarfs everything else on an individual carbon budget. Many climate groups have calculated that in a sustainable world each person would have a carbon allowance of two to four tons of carbon emissions annually. Any single long-haul flight nearly “instantly uses that up,” said Christian Jardine, a senior researcher at the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University.

Despite the fact that most governments have vowed to reduce carbon emissions by a significant chunk by 2020, most of us are flying more and more. So while emissions from most other sectors are falling, they are relentlessly rising for aviation and will continue to do so.

According to various estimates, emissions from aviation currently represent 2 to 3 per cent of CO2 emissions and are likely to double or triple by 2050. The United States’ Federal Aviation Administration projects that even after the air travel slowdowns caused by 9-11 and the recent economic collapse and the rise in fuel prices and the bankruptcy of several major carriers in the past few years, the number of general aviation hours will grow an average 2.5 per cent a year through 2030, according to the latest projection.

While jobs and housing and car sales are only slowly recovering from the economic crisis of 2008-9, airline travel has rebounded with a vengeance. In March, international air travel, measured in paid passenger miles, was 10.3 per cent higher than a year earlier, according to the International Air Transport Association. Airfreight, measured by the weight of goods flown, was 28.1 per cent higher. In fact, current levels of air travel and freight are only 1 per cent below their early 2008 highs. Can the stock market replicate that?

The current vogue of canceling out the emissions effect of plane travel by purchasing carbon offsets to support activities like tree-planting in Africa has come under fire as a feel-good illusion and, anyway, cannot be scaled up to cover the amount of flying going on. Although the airline industry is working hard to improve efficiency with more direct routes and less idling time on the runway, it acknowledges such activities yield limited, one-time gains. There is no quick technological fix, like fully renewable airline fuel, on the horizon.

Given the math, it is easy to feel all is lost. George Monbiot concludes in his book, Heat, that to meet current environmental targets set by the British government for 2050, almost all flying will have to stop and the current fleet of planes grounded. “I recognise this will not be a popular message,” he writes.


Many of us by now have adjusted our land transportation habits - buying hybrid cars, revisiting public transportation, or biking to work, for example. But few have addressed what I call the “flyers’ dilemma”: when do we really need to fly on an airplane, and can or should we change that? With business and life so dependent on air travel, it is hard to even imagine how to do with less. In 2005, Allianz employees flew 490 million kilometres a year - 12.5 thousand times around the world, according to the company’s filing with the Carbon Disclosure Project, whose corporate members agree to report their carbon emissions, with an eye ultimately to reducing them.

Anyone who cares about a future with lower emissions and less fossil fuel must face the problem and some, like Paul Dickinson, executive director of the Carbon Disclosure Project, say change is inevitable: “I’m absolutely, definitely sure that people like you and me will be flying a lot less in fivr to ten years.” Last month the European Environment Agency started a series of workshops with representatives from all over Europe assembled in Copenhagen to think about how Europe might function in the future without air travel - or with much less of it. (Participants, ironically, flew in.) But how to reduce or eliminate an activity that has become as reflexive as hopping in the car?

High-speed trains will steal market share from flying - they are already doing so on some short-haul routes in Asia and Europe. Emissions estimates of train versus plane vary tremendously, depending on the how you do the calculation. Christian Jardine notes that estimates for airline travel range from 98.3 to 175.3 grams of CO2 per kilometre for each passenger, depending on things like aircraft type and whether the warming effect of airplane contrails is added in. Reasonable estimates for trains depend a lot on the source of electricity the train is using (coal versus nuclear versus renewable). Jardine says he uses a per-person estimate of 17.7 grams per kilometre for international train rides and 60.2 for British national travel. (Much of Britain’s electricity comes from coal, while France’s is from nuclear.)

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First published in Yale Environment 360 on May 24, 2010.

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About the Author

Elisabeth Rosenthal has covered international environmental issues for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune for the last three years, traveling extensively to report on environmental projects. Before that, she was a correspondent in the Times Beijing bureau for six years.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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