Carbon diary of reluctant traveller – 77,000 air miles per year for work; 12,000 air miles for holidays …..

In a carbon diary looking at his annual carbon emissions, an American who works for a transport organisation, the ICCT, calculated just how much of the total came from flights. For his job, he travels a lot internationally. The number of  miles for work, to attend meetings to help set emission standards for planes and ships through ICAO, came to 77,000 miles – on 30 flights over 9 work trips, releasing an additional 11 tons of CO2. Other journeys during his year accounted for 11,000 miles from regular commuting trips to the office by train, and another 12,000 miles flown on two family holidays.  Due to a Californian lifestyle, in a warm climate, transport makes up a higher proportion of his annual carbon footprint than for someone living in a cold climate, needing heating (or a hot one, wanting air conditioning). But on the amount from flying, he reflects that this can be seen as a systemic problem, not just an individual one. And as such this means we need governments to develop policies internationally and domestically to impose a price on carbon to curb aviation emissions.  “All this, and more, will be needed given that aviation CO2 emissions are on track to triple by mid-century.” Another blog stresses the need to reduce the demand for flights.


Carbon diary of reluctant traveler


By Dan Rutherford  (ICCT – International Council on Clean Transportation)


As we enter the new year many of us are in the habit of making New Year’s resolutions. Personally, I take the time to balance my family’s books, mostly financially but from time to time environmentally as well.

So, last week I did a rough calculation of my personal carbon footprint for 2014 using data from our local utility, my own record of travel activity, and emission factors for local transit from the transportation LCA database developed by Mikhail Chester, Arpad Horvath, and their colleagues, as well as the ICCT’s aircraft performance model.

Doing so helped me put several recent articles on the environmental cost of air travel into perspective.  [See one copied below]. 

First observation: my carbon budget reaffirms that I’m in the right line of work. Transportation – especially the 11,000 miles I commuted to the office by train and the 12,000 miles I flew last year for our two family vacations – accounted for almost 80% of my personal carbon footprint in 2014.

In contrast, my residential energy use was modest, thanks to a mix of personal choice (some investments in energy efficiency and sharing a small home with my family) and luck (being located in Northern California, with its temperate climate and a relatively clean electricity mix). Automobile emissions were low because I only drive on the weekends, and even then in a fuel-efficient car.

In total, my direct energy consumption led to about 3.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) being emitted last year, which doesn’t look too bad considering the global average of about 5 metric tons per person, not to mention the 16.5 tons put out by the typical American.

One caveat: my calculation doesn’t take into account carbon emissions due to embodied energy use linked to the production of food and manufactured goods, my share of the built environment, etc., complicating a direct comparison.

Even this figure underestimates how central transportation, especially air travel, is to my carbon footprint because it doesn’t take into account work-related air travel.

As a technical observer to UN agencies that regulate international transportation – the International Civil Aviation Organization for planes, and the International Maritime Organization for ships — I fly regularly to attend meetings to help set emission standards for planes and ships. Last year I flew 77,000 miles on 30 flights over 9 work trips, releasing an additional 11 tons of CO2.

This means that flying for work quadrupled my emissions last year. And this doesn’t take into account emissions of nitrogen oxides, black carbon, and water vapor that likely make a gallon of fuel burned in a plane worse for the global climate than if it were used in a car or truck.

2014 air travel (work trips in blue, personal trips in green). Source:

chart: total CO2


So what can be done about this? If we’re going to be bluntly honest, in the short term, and on the individual level, not always very much; I can’t take a bus to London, and I can’t not go if I want to do my job.

This is a systemic problem, not an individual one. To be sure, individual travelers can vote with their dollars and choose to fly on less polluting airlines, and we should. ICCT research has shown that in 2013 the least fuel-efficient airline in the US released 27% more CO2 than the most efficient carriers to provide a comparable level of transport service, a gap that can be even larger on individual routes (see the appendix of this study).

If more travelers let that fact influence their planning, the industry will have to take notice. For shorter trips where planes, trains, and automobiles really do compete, getting there and back again by a more efficient mode of travel may be part of the solution, too.

But the fact that this is a systemic problem means that we need governments to develop policies internationally and domestically here in the U.S. to promote more efficient planes and to impose a price on carbon to curb aviation emissions.

Unfortunately, the jury is out about how ambitious policymakers really will be in the near term. Longer-term, larger investments in new technologies such as blended wing body aircraft, open rotor engines, and third generation biofuels will also be important.

All this, and more, will be needed given that aviation CO2 emissions are on track to triple by mid-century at the same time that many developed countries are resolving to reduce their emissions by 80% in order to avoid dangerous climate change.

The fact that to succeed we have to tackle this as a systemic problem doesn’t mean that personal choice won’t come into play as well.

The days of the “road warrior” business traveler are numbered, if we’re serious about reducing GHG emissions from aviation. We — I — need to be thinking harder than ever about whether it’s really that important to be at that meeting in person rather than virtually. (And so do our bosses.).

At some point more of us will likely have to start enjoying the benefits of staying a little closer to home.




JAN 2, 2015

Every Time You Fly, You Trash The Planet — And There’s No Easy Fix

When the latest international Climate Conference wrapped up in Lima, Peru, last month, delegates boarded their flights home without much official discussion of how the planes that shuttled them to the meeting had altered the climate.

Aircraft currently contribute about 2.5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. That might not seem like much, but if the aviation industry were a country, it would be one of the world’s top 10 emitters of CO2. And its emissions are projected to grow between two and four times by 2050 without policy interventions.

Left unchecked, aviation emissions could help push global warming over the 2 degrees celsius line. But cutting aviation’s impact poses a daunting challenge.

“Aviation is a global industry. People want global solutions,” said Daniel Rutherford, an environmental engineer at the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), [author of the article above] an independent nonprofit.

Planes often take off in one country and land in another, making country-by-country regulations impractical. For this reason, the task of addressing aviation’s climate consequences has fallen to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the United Nations agency in charge of negotiating aviation agreements.

Planes don’t just release carbon dioxide, they also emit nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides and black carbon, as well as water vapor that can form heat-trapping clouds, said Rutherford, who serves as a technical observer to ICAO’s working groups on climate issues. These emissions take place in the upper troposphere, where their effects are magnified. When this so-called radiative forcing effect is taken into account, aviation emissions produce about 2.7 times the warming effects of CO2 alone, according to estimates by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Atmosfair, a German organization that sells “offsets” for people looking to compensate for the flights they take, offers a calculator that takes radiative forcing into account. Its calculations show that a roundtrip flight from, say, Denver to New York produces the equivalent of nearly a year’s worth of emissions from a car, and more than the annual emissions of an average person living in India.


[ The distance between Denver and New York is about 1625 miles (about 2615 km)  – which is around the same distance as London to Athens (1484 miles). ]


Basic physics means there’s no way around expending fuel to get a plane in the air. “Aircraft are heavy, so it takes a lot of energy to get them off the ground,” said Alice Bows-Larkin, an atmospheric scientist at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester.

New aircraft designs can help, but even when new technologies come along, they may take years to reach critical mass in the fleet, because airplanes can last 30 years or more. (And aircraft retired from U.S. fleets often remain in the air when they’re acquired by airlines elsewhere.)

Fuel represents airlines’ No. 1 cost, so they’re highly motivated to optimize fuel efficiency, said Nancy Young, vice president for environment at Airlines for America, an industry trade group. American carriers have already posted impressive efficiency gains of 120 percent since 1978, and that means there isn’t much low-hanging fruit left.

Undaunted, ICAO has pledged to increase fleet fuel efficiency by 1.5 percent per year up to 2020, and it aims for “carbon-neutral growth” after that, with the ultimate goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 50 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2050. The plan depends on improvements in three areas — fuels, aircraft technology and operations — as well as the introduction of so called “market-based mechanisms,” such as carbon offsets.

On the fuels front, work is underway to develop jet fuel from alternative sources such as algae, switch grass and camelina, but it’s uncertain whether these fuels can be created at a rate that meets demand. In 2011, Lufthansa used biofuel on more than 1,100 short-haul flights, but it halted the program after failing to find a reliable source of the fuel. Still, other efforts are underway. United Airlines will start using biofuel on flights out of Los Angeles beginning in the first quarter of 2015 and Southwest also just inked a deal to purchase an alternative fuel made from organic waste.

Meanwhile, incremental changes to aircraft, such as winglets (wing tips that point upward, to reduce drag) and revamped jet engines, are expected to improve fuel efficiency by about 15 to 25 percent by 2020, said Rutherford, the ICCT engineer. [Over about 10 + years or so – ie. a bit over 1.5% perhaps].

Added together with other improvements and more radical aircraft designs, such as a blended wing design that integrates the aircraft body into the wing, these new technologies could eventually triple efficiency, he said.

Operations also offer the potential for gains. The FAA’s NextGen navigation system aims to improve traffic flow through airspace and airports by ensuring that planes are routed via the most efficient path, and by switching over to satellite, rather than ground-based radar navigation systems. One NextGen initiative, the Seattle Greener Skies project, is expected to cut carbon emissions equivalent to taking 4,100 cars off the road.

Despite these promising developments, the numbers show that ICAO’s emissions targets will be impossible to achieve. ICAO readily acknowledges this, which is why it has agreed to develop a global market-based measure to address emissions, a plan its members agreed to at their 2013 assembly in Montreal. The plan would allow the aviation sector to buy the right to emit greenhouse gases from other industries, in the form of carbon credits.1Such a plan is absolutely necessary if ICAO is to meet its targets, because nothing else can bring emissions into line.

The charts below (taken from a report by researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University) show the emission reductions projected for various combinations of approaches: technology and operations, biofuel and emissions trading (MBM-ETS, for market-based measures and emissions trading systems in the chart). These approaches are compared to three objectives (based on the ICAO plan) — a 2 percent per year gain in efficiency, carbon-neutral growth from 2020 and a reduction to 2005 emission levels. Even added together, none of these approaches comes close to meeting the latter two goals.


The European Union’s Emissions Trading System (ETS) was set to include aviation emissions, which would have forced U.S. airlines that take off and land in the EU to participate. But after Congress and President Obama blocked American carriers from complying with the rules, the EU backed off.

Despite such political resistance, the U.S. may soon enact new limits on aviation emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency is working on rules to address carbon dioxide emissions from aircraft after environmental groups forced the agency’s hand by suing to regulate aviation emissions as pollutants. The EPA is currently scheduled to propose its findings in late April this year and then make final determinations sometime in the spring of 2016. The U.S. is responsible for about a third of global aviation emissions, so action by the EPA would be “very significant,” Rutherford said, though how ambitious the EPA’s standards might be remains an open question.

Young’s group expects that the EPA standards will align with the CO2 standards ICAO is currently formulating, due for release in 2016. “There’s no one silver bullet — it’s silver buckshot,” she said. “You have to shoot a lot of these pellets.” She said reducing emissions can be done without making flights prohibitively expensive.

One option that’s not part of ICAO’s plan is reducing demand for flights. Doing so might sound radical, but a sober look at the numbers shows that it may be necessary.

Alice Bows-Larkin recently published an analysis concluding that the aviation industry is placing too much hope on emissions trading to help it attain CO2 reductions that would keep it in line with the 2 degrees goal for limiting global warming. Achieving this goal, she concluded, will require flying less.

“Flight is the most carbon-intensive activity that we can do,” said Bows-Larkin, who hasn’t flown since 2005.

Carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere today can stick around for a hundred years, and it can’t easily be recaptured. The urgency of the problem requires a solution sooner rather than later, she said. “Time is massively against us.”




See also

American blog “Love and long-distance travel in the time of climate change”

In a thoughtful, soul-searching article by an American climate campaigner, Eve, she sets out her dilemma about flights across the States to visit her family several times each year. About a year earlier, a meteorologist in the US, Eric Holthaus, vowed not to fly again – after he understood just how serious the issue of climate change had become, and how large a part of his personal carbon footprint flying had become. With thousands of other Americans, Eve was influenced by Eric Holthaus. She writes of her difficulties in having lived a typical American life, involving studying and working in places far from home, yet wanting to keep in regular contact with parents and family. She describes the sadness of choosing not going home to visit parents. “It is very, very strange to be in a position now — and I don’t think I’m alone — where I find myself weighing seeing the people I love against my own complicity in the global climate crisis.” And “Never before has our economy been so effortlessly globalized that jobs pull people back and forth across countries and oceans, and never before have we had so much evidence that the systems and habits we’ve created to actually live in that economy are quite literally destroying the planet.”

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