To fly or not to fly? The environmental cost of air travel [Deutsche Welle, 24/01/20]
Though air travel is more popular than ever, the vast majority of people in the world have never been on a plane. As that dynamic slowly changes, the environment stands to suffer. Is flying less the only solution?
When was the last time you traveled by plane? Various researchers say as little as between 5 and 10 percent of the global population fly in a given year.
But things are changing. According to International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) estimates, there were 3.7 billion global air passengers in 2016 — and every year since 2009 has been a new record-breaker.
By 2035, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts a rise to 7.2 billion. Like the planes themselves, the numbers just keep going up. And given the damage flying does to the planet, that is food for thought.
Not just the CO2
Many estimates put aviation’s share of global CO2 emissions at just above 2 percent. That’s the figure the industry itself generally accepts.
But according to Stefan Gössling, a professor at Sweden’s Lund and Linnaeus universities and co-editor of the book Climate Change and Aviation: Issues, Challenges and Solutions, “That’s only half the truth.”
Beyond emissions made solely in flight, manufacturing effects within the aviation industry add considerably to its overall footprint
“The sector makes a contribution to global warming that is at least twice the effect of CO2 alone,” Gössling told DW, settling on an overall contribution of 5 percent “at minimum.”
But IATA spokesperson Chris Goater told DW the science behind this so-called ‘radiative forcing’ is “unproven”.
Even if we accept the 2 percent emissions figure as final, if only 3 percent of the world’s population flew last year, that relatively small group still accounted for a disproportionate chunk of global emissions.
A few years ago, environmental group Germanwatch estimated that a single person taking one roundtrip flight from Germany to the Caribbean produces the same amount of damaging emissions as 80 average residents of Tanzania do in an entire year: around four metric tons of CO2.
“On an individual level, there is no other human activity that emits as much over such a short period of time as aviation, because it is so energy-intensive,” Gössling explains.
The WWF carbon footprint calculator is instructive in this regard. Even a serious environmentalist who eats vegan, heats using solar power and rides a bike to work, but who still take the occassional flight, wouldn’t look very green at all.
Just two hypothetical short-haul return flights and one long-haul round-trip in a given year would outweigh otherwise exemplary behavior.
New tech can’t solve everything
As awareness of the need to reduce our individual and collective carbon footprints in order to prevent climate catastrophe grows, several industries have come under sustained pressure to find clean solutions.