Flying Has Largest Effect on Climate Change and Global Warming

by Barry Saxifrage

Air travel is the one major industry without an available technological solu­tion to climate change.

When I read in George Monbiot’s book, Heat, that there is no climate-compatible solution for high-speed air travel, I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t accept that the world must stop nearly all of its flying.

At first I thought I could bike more, turn down the heat, and still fly. But Monbiot’s indictment of people who know better, but are unwilling to make the necessary changes themselves, stung. To continue to fly, I had to prove to my­self that my flying was OK.

Through two years of research, I watched my flying emissions overwhelm all my other efforts. I finally had to look at the elephant in the room sitting in front of me, and it had wings. Monbiot and others were right: a person can’t live a climate-sustainable life and still fly. Air travel is the one major industry without an available technological solu­tion to climate change.

Join The Club

My research did reveal that I’m not alone in this colli­sion between hope for a livable future and desire for high-speed air travel. Addiction to flying is forcing countless individuals, families, businesses and governments into un­tenable positions. Here are a few examples.

Flying Over Patagonia

Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard has been at the forefront of the environmental movement for decades. Pat­agonia’s mission statement includes to “use business to in­spire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

Chouinard knows the stakes. He states, “global warm­ing is deadly serious for the future…we can’t wait for the government; it’ll be too late.” He quotes David Brower: “There’s no business to be done on a dead planet.”

Yet, when asked if he personally struggles with any environmental issues he admits there is a “special place in hell” for him, paved with his own flying emissions. Organic cotton, yes. Stop traveling by plane to favourite fishing des­tinations, no.

Hundreds Of Tonnes

Canada’s leading environmental voice for decades, David Suzuki is one of CBC’s greatest living Canadians and host of the popular TV show “The Nature Of Things” for years.

He ardently warned the public over a decade ago that global warming is the biggest threat to human beings’ sur­vival as a species outside a nuclear holocaust. Suzuki states that, to survive climate chaos, each person can emit no more than one tonne of carbon emissions from fossil fuels a year.

Yet by his own calculations, his yearly flying emissions are hundreds of tonnes more than what the average Cana­dian emits for everything in their lives. More importantly, his flying emissions are hundreds of times the sustainable limit he says we all must meet. Spurred on in part by his daughter, he is now starting to scale back some on his glo­bal jet-setting.

Except For That

National Geographic recently produced one of the best primers on climate change, a Special Report titled “Chang­ing Climate.” Currently available on newsstands, the report summarizes what everyone “should know,” and what each person “can do.”

The senior editor describes his family’s extensive ef­forts to reduce their emissions by bringing in a professional energy auditor and a top efficiency expert. They installed a ceiling fan, turned down the AC and the water heater, changed light bulbs, used power strips, drove less, biked more, walked to the farmers’ market and so on.

When time came to add it all up they were in for a “big surprise” because their emissions were double the average Americans. Their many efforts were “small potatoes,” more than wiped out by a single flight.

What did this highly-motivated family do when it ran smack into the elephant of their flying emissions? Skipping the flight “was never an option,” and “if you put our plane trip aside…[we] were able to cut our personal CO2 emis­sions by almost half. Not bad.”

In the carbon math of even the most environmental­ly aware, if the elephant in the room has wings, it doesn’t count.

The Business Of Stewardship

REI is the USA’s largest consumer cooperative with more than three million active members. Its mission is to “inspire, educate and outfit for a lifetime of outdoor adven­ture and stewardship.” REI has pledged to be carbon-neu­tral by 2020.

REI’s single biggest source of emissions? Adventure travel flights. They account for 30% of all REI’s emissions, while only serving a tiny 0.1% of active members. The share of REI’s greenhouse gas emissions by these 4,000 people is 75,000% more per person than for the remaining 99.9% of members.

It gets worse. REI’s total emissions grew 24% in one year from 2006 to 2007. The cause for the huge increase: “more people traveling.”

So how does one of the world’s premier, member-owned co-ops with a central mission of earth stewardship react to this elephant with wings trampling their efforts? Do they return “adventure travel” to its low-emission roots of sailing ships and trains, cycling and hiking? After all, it is hard to think of a continent more loaded with opportunities for adventure than North America. Or do they ignore their rapidly growing elephant? According to the Seattle Times: “The company will stay in the adventure-travel business, whose revenues and profits it doesn’t disclose.”

Nation State

England has made some of the most forceful calls to action of any government. How does flying fit in to the British government’s strategy? According to the UK’s own Tyndall Centre on Climate Change, aviation emissions ac­count for over 10% of the UK’s total, and comprise the fast­est growing source. At current rates, aviation alone will use up all 100% of total allowable emissions for every aspect of English life and industry within decades.

Yet last year, government employees flew over a mil­lion miles per workday on government business, not includ­ing military flights. In the age of the Blackberry, the web, instant global messaging and video conferencing, the of­ficial response seemed overly pat: “The Government would never indulge in unnecessary air travel.”

The government also has a high-profile push to expand airports including Heathrow, the world’s busiest airport. It also refuses to levy the same taxes on aviation fuel as it does on gas for road transport, providing flyers with a 30% to 40% savings on fuel costs over what drivers pay.

The British government, like individuals and corpora­tions, doesn’t acknowledge the elephant with wings sitting on the scale as it strives to counterbalance climate change.

Why Does It Matter?

Everyone has their areas of hypocrisy and contradic­tions. Why focus on environmentally aware folks and their oversized flying emissions?

Because, when world-wealthy, highly-motivated, cli­mate-knowledgeable people can’t come to grips with their biggest climate impact, one that is a non-essential luxury well beyond the reach of 90% of humanity, what hope do we have for a bottom-up, grass-roots emissions solution?

It seems we are going to have to “wait for government” to solve climate change, after all. But, sadly, even our gov­ernment laws and proposed solutions are unlikely to reduce flying emissions.

Flying has a special status that exempts it from limits imposed on other emission sources: no fuel tax; not includ­ed in Kyoto; not included in any cap-and-trade schemes; not even on the emissions balance sheets of any nations.

Worse, all our laws to reduce climate changing emis­sions, whether carbon taxes or cap-and-trade, rely on the marketplace to distribute a limited amount of fossil fuels based on price alone. The people who can afford to buy the fuel get it.

People who fly frequently are the world’s wealthiest, the last folks on earth affected by carbon pricing. Just look at the last few years. Jet fuel has quadrupled in cost, yet aviation miles continue to grow at 7%, and aviation emis­sions at 5%, year after year. If years of relentlessly rising fuel prices coincide with record increases in flights and fly­ing emissions, how will further cost increases from carbon taxes cut the bulk of emissions?

In fact, all the world’s climate changing emissions are skyrocketing even while fossil fuel prices climb to new heights. What’s going on?

The Missing Puzzle Piece

Professor Stephen Pacala of Princeton suggests an an­swer. His latest research shows that 50% of all global cli­mate changing emissions are caused by the wealthiest 8% of the population. The majority of emissions are caused by the folks who are the least sensitive to price. It helps explain why flying is growing despite price increases.

If the most wealthy cause the majority of emissions, we have trouble ahead. To significantly blunt demand by the most wealthy, fossil fuels will need to be extremely expen­sive. Long before we get to a price that changes the wealthy folks’ behaviour, most other people will have been priced out of their ability to fuel their cars or maybe even buy their food.

If so, our current tools will lead to carbon riots long before they lead to big carbon cuts. Voters will ultimately reject a system that hurts the majority of folks and doesn’t even solve the problem.

Aviation is the biggest, clearest example of the funda­mental flaw we have with our current schemes. It highlights why our best plans are in danger of failing spectacularly.

We need a tool that addresses the huge emissions of the wealthiest folks world wide. A single price for carbon alone won’t do it. Carbon rationing, a personal emissions cap, tiered pricing or something else might. Now is the time to start that discussion.


Complete and extensive sources for this article are available from the Watershed Sentinel or on line at

[From WS June/July 2008]

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