What is the real climate impact of flying and what can we do about it? (BBC info)


( from http://www.bbc.co.uk/bloom/guides/flying.shtml       – written in 2008)

What is the real climate impact of flying and what can we do about it?

Whenever the debate over climate change is aired – flying, and the harm it does
in terms of
CO2 emissions, is to the fore.   As you’ll see from the actions elsewhere on the
BBC “Bloom” site,
skipping a long-haul flight (see below) can be one of the most effective ways to cut our carbon footprint.

Yet the UK aviation industry claims it’s responsible for only a modest 7% of
the country’s
greenhouse gas emissions. And if that’s true, can flying really be so bad?

Links to the BBC “Bloom” website:
  • What’s the problem?

    While aviation emissions may seem relatively low now, they are growing faster
    than any other source of
    greenhouse gases in the UK. Brits currently take 200 million flights a year but if air travel
    continues to increase at current rates this will rise to 600 million by 2030.
    The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research estimates that before 2050, UK
    aviation emissions could exceed the emissions budget of the whole UK economy,
    wiping out hard-earned reductions in other areas.


    What can we do?

    We can fly less. Like it or not, analysts say that is the simplest way to reduce
    passenger numbers in time to stop dangerous levels of climate change. But there
    is good news: we don’t have to give up flying altogether. In fact, the majority
    of flights are taken by a small percentage of people who fly frequently. In 2007,
    for example, a third of all flights were taken by just 4% of the population who
    took five or more flights a year. So the most effective change would appear to
    be for frequent flyers to dramatically cut their air miles, while those of us
    who fly more than twice a year cut down a little.

    It needn’t mean missing our holidays either: since 27% of flights from Britain
    go to Spain and 50% to the rest of Europe, taking the train is an increasingly
    viable substitute.

    Choosing to fly less often, to holiday in Britain or to visit Europe by train instead of flying offer some of the most significant CO2 savings of any personal action.


    Can technology help?

    As yet there’s nothing that will prove effective enough soon enough to significantly
    reduce aviation’s impact on climate change, but various proposals exist to improve
    the efficiency of flying:

    • Better air traffic management systems – this would include filling planes to capacity and therefore scheduling fewer
    • More efficient planes such as the Airbus A380 could reduce emissions compared to older aircraft, but it would take decades
      to replace existing fleets and the savings are being outweighed by air traffic
      growth. Planes are becoming more efficient by about 1% a year, while the industry
      grows by 7% a year
    • Alternative fuels – aircraft have flown on biofuel blends in recent test flights, but they are
      unlikely to be used on regular flights in the foreseeable future while technical
      issues remain to be addressed. There are also significant question marks over
      the sustainability of
      biofuels. The first manned hydrogen fuel cell plane recently carried two people in a
      test flight conducted near Madrid, but scaling this technology up for commercial
      passenger jets is expected to take at least 20 years, and would create contrails,
      which may further warm the climate
    • Airships – you may laugh, but an airship running on non-flammable helium is one of the
      least polluting forms of passenger travel. An Atlantic crossing to New York would
      take around 45 hours. Before you rush to buy your ticket, this route is not yet
      commercially viable
    • Flying more slowly – in a bid to reduce fuel, Belgium’s Brussels Airlines have cut weight on aircraft
      and started to fly more slowly on certain routes. This adds a minute or two to
      journey times and saves 1 million Euros on their annual fuel bill. Planes on other
      routes currently fly at pre-set speeds, putting a limit on such savings



    What are the politicians doing?

    Political progress on reducing aviation emissions might be categorised as, at
    best, uneven. Unlike with trains, buses and cars, international flight emissions
    are not included in the
    Kyoto protocol (the legally binding inter-governmental contract to reduce greenhouse gas emissions).
    The reason for this omission, say governments, is that flights cross many international
    borders, making it hard to identify who’s responsible for aircraft emissions.

    Aviation will, however, be included in the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) – but not until 2011. The Department for Transport anticipates plane travel
    emissions will be capped at 2004/6 levels. Even then, scientists at the Tyndall
    Centre suggest the ETS will do little to reduce actual plane travel emissions
    because airlines will be able to increase passenger numbers through buying in
    extra permits. And they predict that the small price rise proposed for plane travel
    under the ETS will deter very few people from flying.

    Meanwhile, UK government aviation policy – as set out in the 2003 aviation white paper – seems sure to result in large-scale aviation expansion, including a third
    runway and sixth terminal at Heathrow. And Britain looks set to expand its airports
    around the country on a scale greater than that envisaged by any other European
    nation. Air operators claim this will benefit passengers by cutting congestion.
    Campaigners respond that making flying more appealing will simply increase demand,
    in turn increasing the need for further new airports and runways – a pattern demonstrated
    by recent road-building policies which, they argue, have actually increased traffic

    Another criticism of Britain’s aviation policy is that the industry has an effective
    subsidy of around £10 billion a year as no tax is levied on aviation fuel in the
    UK, and plane tickets are VAT-free.

    The government defends its policy on the grounds that aviation is critical to
    supporting the UK’s world status as a hub for finance, industry and tourism.


    What’s the climate impact of aircraft emissions?

    Flying injects exhaust emissions directly into the upper part of the atmosphere,
    where they cause the most damage. The effects of the resulting mix of chemical
    reactions are complex and hard to calculate, occurring over timescales between
    three days and 100 years. Even so, scientists believe that between 1992 and 2050,
    the overall impact of these emissions will prove somewhere between 1.2 and four
    times that of CO2 at ground level. [This is now established, by the IPCC as x 3.   See link].       (Contrails add to this mix of effects. Made up of soot and water vapour,
    scientists know that in some weather conditions contrails cause cirrus clouds
    to form, which warm the climate further, though these effects are as yet poorly

    What difference does this make in practice? Well, the CO2 emissions of a return flight from the UK to Malaga for example are 480kg.  If you multiply by the lower estimate of 1.2, the true
    extent of the damage would be 570kg – the same amount of CO2 saved by
    recycling nearly 15,000 green bottles. At the upper end, emissions could top 1900kg. [
    Multiplied by 3 it is about 1440 kg of CO2].

    This factor is also relevant when assessing the overall contribution of aviation
    to UK emissions. The government’s figures on the climate change impact of flying
    are calculated based on domestic and international departures from the UK and
    suggest it contributes only about 7% of the country’s CO2 emissions.   But because of the extra impacts, research suggests that it’s likely
    to create something closer to 11% [ more like 18% of the UK’s climate changing  impact,
    using the new multiplier of 3].   of our national total.



    Sky-high carbon savings for skipping a guilt trip

    Long-haul trips have the biggest climate impact of all our travel. Even with
    jumbo carbon savings on offer, this is a tough luxury to quit.

    The ‘jet set’ isn’t as exclusive as it used to be – more of us are flying further
    than ever before.

    This has made flying one of the world’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.  By 2050 plane travel looks set to undo all the carbon savings we make elsewhere.

    So what’s the alternative?   Taking the train to Europe or holidaying in the UK could substitute for a long-haul holiday.  Otherwise taking the time to travel
    overland could be the only solution.

    Skipping a long-haul flight is one of the most effective climate-friendly actions you can take – but can a holiday with a clear conscience overcome the
    allure of exotic destinations?

    How will it make a difference?

    The most accurate figures available suggest that a return flight to Thailand emits over 2000kg of CO2 equivalent per passenger, adding 50% to their annual direct emissions.   To save
    that amount by eating local seasonal food, for example, would take a full year.

    What’s the debate?

    It’s hard to state exact savings because of scientific uncertainty about the
    additional effect
    emissions have at high altitude. These could be up to four times as damaging as those
    at ground level.
    [This is now established, by the IPCC as x 3.   See link].       


    How do I do it?

    No other form of transport can cross continents as quickly as flying; this action
    requires a change of outlook.



    What’s stopping me?

    “Don’t planes only create about 2% of global CO2 emissions?”

    While 2% sounds small, it equates to millions of tonnes of CO2 on a global scale.  In the UK flying contributes 7% of emissions and is growing
    fast.   [This figure is now out of date.   Aviation contributes about 2% of the
    anthropogenic CO2, and multipied by 3 for its extra climate changing effect, aviation  globally  now
    contributes 4.9% of climate change worldwide     – see new IPCC information from
    May 2009 – see link   – about 18% of the UK’s climate changing effect].

    “But don’t developing countries depend on money from tourism?”

    While it’s true that tourism is a major source of income for developing countries,
    wealth from tourism will not necessarily ‘trickle down’ to all.

    Using an example of a Kenyan game safari, author George Monbiot argues that very
    little of the entrance fee to the game reserve will go to providing amenities
    for local people, whereas the impact of the flight contributes to worsening famine
    in other parts of Africa.

    If this is your concern, you could improve matters by opting for local ‘home
    stays’, for example, where you can ensure money goes directly to people you visit
    and not to a middleman or travel agent.

    “Can’t we offset flying by planting more trees?”

    Offsetting is a controversial issue; many claim it’s not an effective substitute
    for reducing emissions.   [Merely paying for someone else, somewhere else in the
    world to cut their emissions, on our behalf, is not a real solution.   Cutting
    our own emissions is the only effective solution.   Believing that by paying the
    “penance” of the offsetting cost enables people to think they can carry on flying
    with a clear conscience.   That is not justifiable].

    from the BBC   Bloom website

    Pub Facts  about flying, from the BBC:

    One short-haul flight has the same potential to warm the climate as three months
    worth of driving a 1.4 litre car

    Less than half of Brits fly for their holidays

    The average annual income of Heathrow passengers is £54,488

    In 2006, British airports handled more than 200 million passengers and it is
    predicted that that number will double over the next 15 years

    56% of people are concerned about the environmental effects of air travel, but
    only 10% have reduced the number of flights they take

    One flight to Sydney generates emissions equivalent to driving a mini around
    the earth 640 times

    To avoid more expensive airspace, certain airlines take longer routes to the
    Canary Islands, creating an extra three tonnes of CO2 per flight

    Over 10 years, all UK CO2 emissions (transport, farming, housing and construction) fell by 9%, apart from
    flight emissions, which doubled

    One short-haul flight has the same potential to warm the climate as three months
    worth of driving a 1.4 litre car

    A third runway at Heathrow is predicted to raise CO2 pollution by the equivalent of the national output of Kenya

    Over half of Brits never fly

    Flying to Australia and back is the energy equivalent of leaving over 15 low-energy light bulbs on for a year