First of all I want to acknowledge the positives of the plane. Cheap air travel has revolutionised the way many people think about the world – although given that nearly half of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day it is still a distant dream for the vast majority. It has enabled more people to experience more of the world and explore beautiful places and cultures. It has brought people closer together and made the world a far smaller place. It allows millions to escape the drudgery of the 9-5 for a couple of weeks in the sun. It has given me a new homeland 16,000 km from my birthplace. It has also fostered a greater understanding of the world and made many people appreciate that despite humanities vast diversity we’re not really that different after all – as I experienced after coming across a farmer tending his fields in the depths of the Thai mountain jungle resplendent in this Arsenal football shirt.
As with most upsides there is also a downside, and for aviation its a pretty big one – the greenhouse gas emissions it produces. Just one return trip from Sydney to London produces around 5.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is roughly equivalent to what an average Australian produces from their car and electricity emissions over a year, or what one Bangladeshi produces over 20 years (at current rates of emission) !!!!! One of the reasons I decided to try not to fly is that just one flight would undo all the carbon dioxide I’d avoided creating by not driving a car, not owning a plasma TV and generally trying to live a low carbon life. There really isn’t much point in doing all that if I continue to fly.
Aviation is currently the fastest growing source of green house gas emissions in the developed world. According to the IPCC flying currently contributes around 3.5% of total global greenhouse gas emissions and projects that it could reach 5% and possibly even 15% by 2050 if nothing is done to mitigate them. The other problem with planes is that the greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, water vapour and sulfates, are pumped out high in the sky (9-13km) where they are far more potent in terms of the greenhouse effect than emissions from the ground – around 2 to 3 times.
But are planes really that bad? As British Airways point out the emissions per passenger km of a modern aircraft(if full and that’s a big if) are the same as that for one person driving an average family saloon car. But that’s only because cars are an incredibly inefficient mode of transport and in any case that’s still 4 times the emissions per person as that of 4 people in the car. Anyway who’s going to drive a car from Sydney to London?
Compared to trains planes have 10 times the emissions and it is conceivable using currently available technologies to envision a zero emission train ie electric trains powered by renewable energy. A zero emission plane is still a distant dream, but may be possible using either hydrogen or some form of biofuel as an energy source. However given the likely value attached to such fuels in a carbon constrained future coupled with the relative inefficiencies of aviation it may never become a reality. In the meantime if we are serious about avoiding catastrophic climate change we are going to have to cut our addiction to the plane (and lots of other things)
I don’t want to take a holier than thou attitude towards flying though- that I am somehow a better person than those who continue to fly. Firstly because I recognise not everyone has the particular fortunate circumstances that enable me to take the time to travel in this way. Until ground and sea travel is made easier and faster and employers more understanding and flexible (in the true sense of the word unlike the current parlance which basically means that the “flexibility” is wholly the part of the worker) people will fly to visit loved ones or catch a couple of weeks in the sun. Though you could try holidaying locally (or slowly) after all it is something you’ll probably have to get used to in the future as flying becomes prohibitively expensive – either because something is being done to tackle climate change (hopefully) or because we’ve used all the oil. Secondly I don’t believe that individual action is effective in stopping climate change. What is actually required is political change. All the lightbulbs changed, solar panels installed and holidays taken locally will be for nothing if they aren’t accompanied by the building of high speed rail links and a renewable energy electricity generation system etc. For me far more powerful than the emissions I save from not flying are the conversations generated by taking such a stance. It is only when millions of people around the world are convinced of the need to take urgent action that a safe climate has any hope of being preserved. This will require literally millions of conversations. I hope that this journey will stimulate some of them