Ready to get over your post-festive comedown by booking an escape to the sun? For many of you, that will involve flying. And while I’m sorry to put a downer on your holiday plans, there are several problems with this from a climate perspective.
The first is that aviation is essentially a fossil fuel industry, one which guzzles an eye-watering 5m barrels of oil every day. Burning that fuel currently contributes around 2.5% to total carbon emissions, a proportion which could rise to 22% by 2050 as other sectors emit less.
The second problem is, as Air Asia puts it, “Now everyone can fly”. And in “generation easyJet”, those who already fly, fly more than ever. This increasing demand from new and existing travellers means the number of passenger aircraft in our skies is set to double by 2035.
The third problem is that unlike other sectors where there might be a greener alternative (solar not coal, LEDs not lightbulbs etc), there is currently no way to fly 8m people every day without burning lots of dirty kerosene. Aircraft are becoming more fuel-efficient, but not quickly enough to offset the huge demand in growth. Electric planes remain decades away, weighed down by batteries that can’t deliver nearly as much power per kilo as jet fuel.
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But here’s the peculiar thing: although no other human activity pushes individual emission levels as fast and as high as air travel, most of us don’t stop to think about its carbon impact.
While in many countries new cars, domestic appliances, and even houses now have mandatory energy efficiency disclosures, air travel’s carbon footprint is largely invisible, despite it being relatively much bigger. For instance, a return trip from Europe to Australia creates about 4.5 tonnes of carbon. You could drive a car for 2,000 kilometres and still emit less than that. And the average per capita emissions globally is around 1 tonne.
Several studies have found people to be quite ignorant of how their own flying behaviour contributes to climate change. It’s not hard to see why. Research into airline websites shows little mention of environmental impact. Green NGOs are often quiet on the issue, perhaps being reluctant to “preach” to their members to fly less, and concerned over accusations of hypocrisy as their own staff fly around the world to conferences.