The Climate Cost of Flying

What Impact Does Flying Have on Global Climate?

Aviation is an incredibly polluting sector, contributing as much as 5% towards the current global CO2 emissions. [1] Besides, planes contrails release a cocktail of nitrous oxide, water vapour and soot. The release of these chemicals in the troposphere and stratosphere can be up to four times as damaging as emissions from ground level. [2]

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Reducing the carbon footprint of air travel is a daunting task, and there are no immediate technology front runners that could help curb this. Electric motors have bee proposed but lack the power to create enough lift for taking off. Bio-fuels are also being considered but can have a damaging environmental impact due to the land use change required to generate enough fuel for the current air traffic. [3]

How Does Climate Offsetting Work?

Climate offsetting is a service where customers and businesses can pay to offset their carbon emissions by funding projects that are predicted to either prevent or take up emissions elsewhere. Many feature tree planting projects to directly draw carbon down from the atmosphere. Others focus on clean energy projects that provide more permanent solutions for communities and may advance their standard of living or provide additional social benefits. [3]

Carbon offsetting raises a moral dilemma because of its potential as a scapegoat. If wealthy people can buy their way to a clear conscience, there will be no change to the damaging behaviours that are suffocating the planet already. Funding schemes that may lead to carbon efficiency tomorrow does not solve the issues we face today.

What is the Solution to Air Pollution Caused by Flying?

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Carbon offsetting provides a starting point in compensating for the polluting impact of flying. However, this should be a last resort for unavoidable long haul flights. Longer flights have less of a polluting impact, due to the majority of the damage is done during takeoff. For this same reason, direct flights are a much better option than having layovers.

The effectiveness of the schemes may vary, and more legitimate companies will be open about the projects they support and why. Registration with the Climate Action Reserves is also a good indicator of a solid carbon offsetting scheme. Many businesses, such as Lyft, voluntarily fund carbon offsetting programs and include it in their service price. [4]

The major, overwhelmingly unpopular solution is to cut back on the excess flying to once every three years or so. Frequent holidays are a luxury that is hurting us dearly, and we need to make a change.

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Mahatma Gandhi

[1] Schallert, B (2016)
[2] Preist, C (2019)
[3] Clark, D (2010)
[4] Lyft (2019)