Flying and Climate Change

Excerpted by Barry Saxifrage from Clearing the Air, by European Federation for Transport and Environment

In Europe, much progress has been made on climate policy and reducing Greenhouse Gas emissions, except in the area of flying. 

Myth: Aviation makes only a minor contribution to climate change: 2 to 3%. 
Reality: This error is repeated in nearly every article about flying impacts. In reality aviation is currently responsible for up to 10% worldwide and up to 12% in the European Union (EU). The best science on this, the IPCC Special Report on Aviation, says climate changing emissions from high-altitude flight are 2-to-5 times the CO2 emissions alone. The extra global warming effect comes from NOx and water vapour emissions. 

Myth: Aviation climate change emissions will stay a tiny percent of global emissions even into the future. A common statement is that by 2030 they are estimated to be only 5% of EU total emissions. 
Reality: Aviation is already responsible for 5 to 12% and emissions are growing approximately 5% per year. According to the Tyndall Centre on Climate Change, in the most optimistic scenario aviation emissions for UK will amount to 40% of total allowed national emissions by 2050; in the most pessimistic scenario aviation emissions will equal 100% of total allowed emissions for UK by 2036. Other sectors of society and the economy will have to make more painful cuts than currently required if aviation emissions are allowed to continue growing for even a few more years. 

Myth: The aviation industry has continuously improved fuel efficiency. 
Reality: Aircraft manufactured in the early 1950s – such as the Lockheed Constellation – were virtually as efficient as the aircraft sold today. In short, the aviation industry has made almost no improvement in fuel efficiency over the last fifty years. 

Myth: Per passenger kilometre modern aircraft are more climate-friendly than cars. 
Reality: Aviation is between two and ten times more climate- intensive than surface transport. When it comes to freight transport, aviation is even worse. The external costs of aircraft-related climate change are approximately ten times greater than for lorries (trucks), the second worst mode. In addition, the climate impact per Euro or per hour spent is approximately ten times more for aviation than other modes of transport. 

Myth: The economic contribution of aviation is far greater than its contribution to climate change. 
Reality: It’s the other way round. Airlines cause 4 to 9% of global human-induced climate change, and contribute 1% to global GDP and 0.1% to global employment. 

Myth: The aviation sector covers its full costs. 
Reality: All parts of the aviation industry – airlines, airports and manufacturers – are directly subsidised and enjoy major tax exemptions. In the UK fuel and sales taxes are prohibited on all international flights. Only a very small minority of countries levy (small) ticket taxes or fuel taxes on domestic flights. Even the purchase of aircraft is exempt from VAT. Subsidies: “Since 1991 governments in the EU have paid over €20 billion in rescue aid for airlines; the US administration has supported its industry to the tune of $32 billion since 2001.” In addition, the US says Airbus has received €30 billion in loans and subsidies, while EU says Boeing has received $30 billion. 

Myth: More expensive air travel is bad news for the poor. 
Reality: It’s the rich that fly, even in this era of low-cost carriers – if aviation paid its true costs we could help the poor a lot more. The poor, relying mostly on road transport, pay high fuel taxes for their transport, while the wealthier frequent flyer folks can burn huge amounts of fuel tax-free. In EU, aviation saves 30 to 40% on costs by avoiding the fuel taxes that drivers must pay.


Calculating Your Flying Impact

You can quickly and easily find the climate changing emissions from any past or proposed flight using the Atmosfair Calculator. This calculator is top rated in several recent reports (see links below). Atmosfair gets the science right. They also provide lots of options to fine tune to your actual flight if you want that. Here are some facts and tips from their excellent website: 

  1. Air traffic contributes up to 10% to global warming. 
  2. Air travel has the fastest growing impact on climate change. Air traffic has increased fivefold in just under 35 years. 
  3. One reason for this fast growth is that kerosene is exempted from mineral oil taxation. 
  4. The longer the flight, the more harmful it is. 
  5. Business class seats are wider so fewer people fit in a plane, increasing emissions per person. For example: a business class seat causes 40% more emissions between Vancouver and Toronto than an economy seat on the same plane.
  6. Different aircraft type have different emissions. The calculator lets you compare different types. n Only about 5% of humankind has ever flown. This minority, which flies more and more often, lives mostly in industrialized countries. The consequences of climate change, however, primarily affect those who have contributed little to it, i.e. people in developing countries. 
  7. Water vapour…cannot be compensated, because no one can remove clouds from the sky. 
  8. Without a doubt, the best thing for the environment is to get to your holiday destination with an earthbound vehicle. Before the Wright brothers, people got along fine without airplanes, and today too, there are real alternatives to flying. 

Comparing Flying Climate Change Calculators:


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