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The Real Cost of Air Travel: Flying, Jet-setting, & the Climate

Can you really be green and still fly?

Can you imagine giving up traveling by airplane? It has always been the thing that seemed just a little too impossible to do. Yet, this article written by good friend and climate researcher Barry Saxifrage, shows us why we must consider it. In fact, give up flying and you just might be able to “win back” enough climate points that you can take up power mowering your yard, driving your 2-stroke motorcycle, or eating read meat again.  This is part of a series on transportation: trains, plains, and automobiles (and bikes) designed to help the ecocurious family navigate the frustrating terrain of greener transportation options.

I joined the “slow travel” movement about six years ago when I quit flying.

Jet travel lost its appeal for me when I realized the oversized climate damage caused by jet travel coupled with the industry’s refusal to do anything meaningful about it. Jet travel gave me a burden of complicity in our climate crisis that I didn’t enjoy. Below I present the charts and facts that led me to take action. Hopefully these will enable you to decide for yourself how big a problem it is and what should be done about it.

One of the most persistent myths I hear when I talk to people about jet pollution is the notion that the airline industry would have to cut flights to reduce their total climate damage. But that isn’t true.

The industry has identified many efficiencies that would allow them to reduce their total climate damage while still increasing flights. A UK government study I cover below shows this to be the case. But the industry insists on increasing flights much faster, regardless of the climate damage this causes.

So far, the lack of pressure from customers and politicians has allowed this industry to keep their massive climate pollution completely unregulated and surging past dangerous levels.

I understand the benefits of flying as much as the next person. I flew growing up. I felt entitled to it and reliant on it. Recently, I’ve turned down a dozen incredibly tempting offers to play in soccer tournaments around the world, including one against a Chelsea FC masters team on their grounds in London. And I have family I’m very close to that I haven’t visited because they now live in England. I miss going to lovely Hawaii for winter sun. I’m finally at an age where I have both the time and the means to fly regularly.

But, barring a true emergency, I plan to continue boycotting jet travel and I have no regrets about this decision. Here are the three main reasons why.


    I like living close to my core values. As my chart below shows, climate pollution per passenger on long-distance jet travel overwhelms the climate-safe “budget” remaining for each of us. A few weeks of novelty aren’t worth inflicting so many tonnes of climate damage on the things I care about. I realize I am just one person, but still it feels meaningful to me to bring my actions more in line with a world that has a safe and stable climate. In my view, society’s half-hearted actions are utterly failing to prevent climate pollution from accelerating with no end in sight. We are headed toward worst-case scenarios that I want to avoid.


    Another part of my motivation is to withdraw my financial support from an industry that I feel is acting immorally towards our future. The airline industry could reduce their total climate damage — while also increasing flights – but they refuse to take this path. As I’ll show below, this industry’s climate pollution is massive, unregulated and on track to quadruple by 2050. The world desperately needs to make deep cuts in our climate pollution. But after two decades of meetings, the global aviation industry still has no plan to ever reduce their climate pollution or to pay anything for the climate damage they cause. I don’t want my money funding that.


    Finally I’m motivated by a desire to understand the climate denial we all have inside ourselves that is preventing our acting effectively to solve the climate crisis. Climate denial isn’t caused by disliking the facts — it’s caused by not wanting to participate in the solution. I’m not talking about the kind of denial that disputes the climate science. I’m talking about the widespread denial that continuing with extremely high levels of climate pollution is compatible with a safe future. The attempt – at all levels of society from individuals to nations — to avoid making big sustained reductions in the climate pollution we have control over is leading to what the International Energy Agency terms a “catastrophe for all of us”.

Below I explore the facts and trends on passenger, and industry, climate pollution levels.

Climate impact per airline passenger

I’ll start with one of my Visual Carbon charts showing climate pollution per passenger. For clarity, I’m going to build the chart in three steps.

First, I show humanity’s maximum climate “budget”. This is how much climate pollution the average person can cause each year through 2050 and still avoid the “dire” climate impacts that will emerge in a world overheated by more than 2 C. The nations of the world have collectively said our safety requires not exceeding this 2 C threshold.

For the average human, this works out to 2.3 tonnes of CO2 (tCO2) per year.

Around 20 percent of this budget can be used for travel, which is around 0.5 tCO2 per year.

Both of these “budget” lines are shown on the chart below.

Next I’ll add the actual yearly CO2 emissions per person for different nations. These bars show all the CO2 for everything in life for an entire year (except international aviation and shipping). Some nations are below the maximum climate “budget”. Others are far above it. Notice that the world average is currently twice the climate “budget”. Big re
ductions in climate pollution are needed pronto if we hope to avoid a dangerous new climate system.

The final step in building my chart adds in the per passenger climate impact from a single round trip flight. These examples are for flights from Vancouver BC in an economy-class seat. Here is the final chart:

(Note: click the chart to view full size.)

As you can see at a glance, the climate impact of jetting a person to another part of the world overwhelms that person’s climate-safe travel budget. With the chart for reference, consider a few in-flight facts:


  1. A person can create more climate damage in a few hours of flying than most humans create in years. A single round trip flight to a far away destination can exceed 24 tCO2 per first-class passenger. That is more than five years of carbon emissions from the average person’s life and more than a decade of climate pollution for Indonesians, Indians or most Africans.
  2. A person can wipe out years worth of personal climate efforts with a single flight. For example, I’ve calculated that our family of three would have to stop driving for 17 years — or live without power and heat in our home for 40 years — to make up for the climate pollution (27 tCO2) we would cause flying once to Australia and back. I’m not going to be able to offset this flight by choosing more efficient light bulbs. I’d need to live in the cold and dark for the rest of my life.
  3. A frequent-flyer can use up their lifetime of climate-safe travel emissions in a single year. A frequent-flyer can cause 40 tCO2 — or far more — from flying in a single year. That equals at least 80 years of their safe-future travel “budget”.
  4. Flying first-class creates two to four times the climate damage as flying economy-class. Why? Because just like driving a car, the majority of the fuel is used to move the huge weight of the vehicle, not the smaller weight of the passenger. A 747 loaded with fuel weighs about a ton for every economy class seat. Each passenger has the equivalent weight of a small car being rocketed up 30,000 feet and driven along at hundreds of miles an hour. A first-class seat takes up twice — or more — of the plane as an economy-class seat. That means two or more tonnes per first-class seat. Think SUV. A study by the UK government found that business-class produces three times more emissions and first-class produces four times more emissions on long-haul flights than economy-class. The phrase “a tonne of extra leg room” should be taken literally.
  5. Flying on a private jet can dramatically increase the climate damage per passenger. Take a look at this chart to see the huge range in climate pollution per passenger for various kinds of aircraft. If you want to be one of the very biggest climate polluters on the planet, private jet-setting is a quick way to do it.
  6. If everyone took just one long distance flight this year, global climate emissions would more than double. Game over.
  7. Your flight? The climate impact of just about any flight can be quickly looked up at the top-rated website.

Most people I know sincerely aspire to live a sustainable and climate-safe lifestyle. Yet most also have a deep, psychological attachment — like I did — to flying to far flung places. When two goals conflict, denial of the conflict is a natural coping mechanism. But denial is taking us away from a safe climate future for ourselves and our kids. We need to try something else. What?

All this raises the question of how much more total climate pollution from jet engines is compatible with a safe climate? To answer that, let’s switch from the passenger to the broader aviation industry.

Climate impact of the industry

As mentioned above the industry could reduce its climate impact while still increasing flights over time.

For example, a study by the UK government showed that efficiency improvements could allow a 60 per cent increase in flying through 2050 without increasing aviation climate pollution. Emissions could even fall with a slower growth in flights or with better efficiency solutions.

The reason the UK did the study is telling. Their aviation emissions have been increasing 50% per decade. By 2005 they accounted for around 10% of the UK’s total climate pollution and were rising fast. On their current trajectory UK jet pollution will exceed the entire UK’s climate pollution budget by 2050. Clearly something has to change.

So far the industry has refused to act on either reducing their overall climate pollution or paying for it. Consider these facts:


  1. A major source of climate damage. If the aviation industry were a nation, it would be the world’s fifth most climate polluting country — exceeding the combined emissions from over 150 nations.
  2. Climate damage growing extremely rapidly. Emissions are seven times higher than when I was a kid and growing much faster than the population. Choosing to burn ever- increasing amounts of jet fuel is one of the world’s fastest growing sources of climate pollution. The industry itself expects their climate pollution to nearly quadruple by 2050. That is the least climate damaging scenario the aviation industry has agreed to “try” for — and only then if it they get to do everything on a purely voluntary, non-binding and aspirational-only basis.Take a look at this chart from the global aviation industry’s latest “Environmental Report on Aviation and Climate Change” report. During the decades shown on this chart the world needs to cut emissions in half or more. However, the pink line (S4) is the lowest amount of jet fuel the industry says it “aspiring” to burn. Emissions from this will be around four times greater in 2050 than in 2006. The green line (S5) — that sees emissions more than triple — is considered “Optimistic” by the industry. It is beyond what they have said they will try for.

    Click to enlarge

  1. No nations are responsible. The majority of aviation emissions are kept “off the books” of all nations.Nations don’t have to count, or act on, any of the climate pollution from their international flights nor most of the climate pollution from their domestic flights. That means 280,000 jetliners create 24 million tonnes of climate pollution every week for which no one is responsible.
  2. No existing climate limits. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is the group that determines all global aviation policy i
    ncluding climate policies. They have fought all attempts to put limits, caps or any fees of any kind on international aviation’s climate pollution for twenty years now.
  3. No plan to reduce damage: The industry has no plan, model, scenario or even discussion of ever reducing their total climate impact. Here is how Canada’s official ICAO action plan (Canada’s Action Plan to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Aviation) describes itself: “This voluntary Action Plan … does not contain legal obligations of any kind.” Nor does it include any mention of ever reducing their climate pollution. Imagine if a nation had no plan to ever reduce the climate pollution from other sectors like electricity, buildings or cars. As we’ve seen, emissions could decline while flights increased, but the goal of reducing overall climate pollution is not considered.
  4. Minority causing most of the damage: Two thirds of aviation’s climate damage comes from just twelve nations, which includes both Canada and USA. The other 180 nations cause the remaining third. Most of humanity has never set foot on an airliner.
  5. Jet-setters can afford to pay for climate damages. If any group can afford to pay for their climate damage it would be the folks that can afford to fly in the first place. Most of the world can’t afford to fly. Flying is one of the most modern of luxuries and yet manages to avoid paying most fuel taxes while also insisting they be exempt from paying any carbon pollution fees. If the world’s wealthy are exempt from limits on, or even paying for, the climate pollution from their luxury travel it is hard to see how we will ever solve the climate crisis.
  6. Even token climate policies crushed. The only effort to put a price on international aviation’s climate pollution was withdrawn in the face of intense pressure from USA, China and other nations. Europe tried to put a tiny carbon fee (a couple dollars per transatlantic ticket) on flights landing or taking off from their territory. The reaction from the industry and the nations causing much of aviation’s climate pollution was swift and angry. They threatened trade wars and eventually forced the EU to back down at the last minute. The US Congress, in one of the only things they have agreed upon in recent years, voted with “Unanimous Consent” to ban their airlines from participating. This was the first bill voted on after climate-fuelled Frankenstorm Sandy slammed ashore in the New York and New Jersey region, cause tens of billions of dollars in damage. Obama quickly signed it into law.

Again, I’ve talked with lots of professionals at many levels of the aviation industry and all seemed to me to sincerely want to play a role in creating a climate sustainable future for aviation. Yet none have been willing to stop increasing climate pollution from the aviation choices they were in charge of.  Like with other aspects of the climate crisis, it sure looks like dirty industries won’t act morally and politicians won’t act in time. That means citizens will need to lead the way from the grassroots up.

The aviation industry needs a limit and a price on their climate pollution. Allowing a major climate polluting industry to rapidly increasing climate damages for several more decades with no plan to ever reduce their overall damage is fundamentally incompatible with a safe future. Somebody has to do something. To borrow a phrase used by the fossil fuel divestment campaign, I think we need to “stop feeding the monster” of unregulated and surging climate pollution from the global aviation industry. At this stage of the climate crisis, my view is that social license for any industry should require a firm commitment to reduce total climate damages into the future.

For me, I’ll be continuing with my staycations, road trips, bus adventures and riding the rails. Game on, not game over.

Article by Barry Saxifrage and is reprinted with permission from The Vancouver Observer.  

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