Updated May 2021
Climate change is a hot topic as of late (pardon the pun).
It seems the more aware we are of our carbon footprints, the more dreadful it feels. While some still claim that climate change is nothing but a political agenda and “fake news”, the majority of data points to the fact that global warming is real and humans are damaging the planet.
I am one of those humans, you are one of those humans and the people around us are one of those humans. We all have a carbon footprint. We inadvertently contribute to CO2 emissions in the atmosphere through almost everything we do – eating, showering, commuting, working and even sleeping.
Things like the amount of water we use when we shower, the types of light bulbs in our homes, the distance our food has to travel to get to our plate, the clothes we wear – all these small aspects make up our carbon footprint. And it has come to my attention that travel – the very basis of what my blog is all about – contributes a heck-of-a-lot to that carbon footprint.
I was recently called out by a keyboard warrior in an article I wrote bringing awareness to the issue of cigarette butt litter on Meditteranean beaches. He was so very eager to point the finger at little ol’ me, quite derogatory actually. Albeit he did raise a valid point (would have preferred it in less of an arsehole manner though), the impact of my air travel is quite astronomical. The aviation industry, as a whole, contributes to 4.9 per cent of human-caused climate change, through the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
So where does that leave me and us as travellers? I dug through countless articles, op-eds and reports to find what the solution is. And just like my last relationship status – it’s complicated.
How bad is flying in comparison to other modes of transport?
It depends on the circumstance. For example, a return trip from Sydney to Brisbane in a 2L petrol engine car produces 0.26 tonnes of CO2, while a return flight produces 0.28 tonnes. By comparison, the same journey by train produces around 0.1 tonnes.
For short distances, the comparison between flying and driving isn’t much. It’s the long haul flights that contribute the most. One return flight from London to Sydney emits about 5 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) – that’s about half the average developed country citizen’s annual carbon footprint.
There is also the consideration of occupancy rate. If a plane transports roughly 300 passengers and the average occupancy rate of a car in the U.S is 1.54 people per vehicle per mile, the calculation alters. Similarly, trains and buses that carry larger numbers of passengers are more sustainable modes of transportation.
Is there an onus on the aviation industry to be more sustainable?
Yes. The aviation industry is certainly not denying its contribution to global warming. While they haven’t been quick to vocalise it, behind the scenes are investigations into more sustainable fuel options with the aim to cut CO2 emissions in half by 2050 from 2005 levels.
Some recent examples include KLM airlines, who are testing algae-based fuel and another version that uses partially recycled cooking oil, while Air New Zealand and Japan Airlines have both conducted tests with fuel extracted from jatropha flowers. Last October Spain’s national airline Iberia flew the country’s first commercial flight using a 25% blend of biojet fuel made from camelina.
Skyscanner’s new eco rating gives travellers an indication of the climate impact of the flight options they are viewing and recommends environmentally friendly options. Using data from ICIO, the flight cost-comparison platform vets airlines based on fuel consumption and aircraft type.
Are carbon offset schemes worth it?
You’ll notice that many airlines and booking websites now give users the option to offset their carbon emissions. This basically means that you can invest in global environmental initiatives that are helping the planet rather than destroying it. Websites like South Pole are dedicated to carbon offsetting and even allow you to carbon offset your whole life if you wish to.
One major consideration with regards to carbon offset schemes is that the projects worth investing in need to be making both short-term and long-term impact. Tree planting programs take years to come to fruition and the environmental degradation that will occur in those years may cancel out the impact altogether. High impact investments such as reforestation, clean-energy projects and forest protection should be the main consideration when offsetting. Organisations like WeForest offer immediate offsets through their forest restoration and conservation projects.
The question remains though – is offsetting a sustainable option? Or are we just throwing money at our flying guilt? Professor Susanne Becken of Sustainable Tourism at Griffith University in Australia says: “Carbon offsetting might be a band-aid, but it is better than not doing anything.”
Should we just stop flying?
That’s certainly a solution which is going to put a halt to carbon emissions. Is it the correct answer? In my opinion, no.
In 2018 tourism generated 10.4% of all global economic activity, and provided employment to over 300 million people. Communities around the world rely heavily on tourism for economic development, especially in developing nations. Some communities have actually turned to tourism as a more sustainable form of income, replacing unsustainable methods. For example, the community of Bukit Lawang in North Sumatra used to rely heavily on income from illegal logging and poaching. They are now protectors of the forests and guide tourists on sustainable trekking routes, educating them on the importance of forest conservation.
Another consideration is that flying is not the only driver for climate change. There is a whole spectrum of ways that we can reduce our impact, the main being to have fewer children. Overpopulation will ultimately cause a larger strain on the planet than flying ever will and hopefully, by the time our population hits a peak, we have adopted a more sustainable way of living.
To summarise – I may fly more than the average person. I don’t own a car, I have no children and I dedicate my life to educating others about being greener. My spectrum is unique, as is yours and others’.
While flying is by no means good for the environment we must continue the conversation around how we can make flying more sustainable, because tourism shows no signs of slowing down. As individuals, we can improve our impact by becoming aware of our carbon footprints, raising awareness and taking collective action. Flying should always be the last choice if there are other modes of transportation available, but if not then consider ways that you can offset some of those emissions.
I’d love to hear your thoughts here. Have you stopped flying? Do you participate in carbon offset schemes? Leave your comments in the section below.