Flying Better – Adopting Environmentally Conscious Air Travel

aviation-emissions“Travel broadens the mind” or so the oft-cited saying goes. But, as an environmentally-conscious business person, how can you reconcile travel for work (or indeed pleasure) with the environmental degradation that goes with most mechanised forms of transportation?

In terms of environmental impact, aviation is the most maligned form of medium to long-distance transport and the data seems to support this assertion. It is unarguably the most polluting form of transport per person per kilometre travelled. The aviation industry hides behind a current estimated figure of 1-3% global contribution to CO2 emissions, but conveniently ignores that it is the fastest-growing contributor to such emissions. In addition, only a small proportion of the global population can afford to fly so using a global estimate in this way is misleading.

The issue is complicated by the various factors that need to be accommodated when calculating CO2 output per passenger – type of aircraft, distance travelled, passenger/freight ratio, occupancy, etc. Furthermore, the overall environmental impact of aviation is greater than the carbon output alone; though hard scientific data is still lacking on radiative forcing and other such factors.

Given this lack of clarity, what are the options? Obviously, fly less or fly better! But how?

Ways to fly better

  • Switch to video-conferencing and webinars where possible. The costs are low when compared to the combined transport and subsistence costs for participants to attend meetings in person.
  • Many cities are now connected by high speed trains and, when the extra time needed for check-in and security and immigration clearance at airports is factored in (up to 3 hours), the difference in journey time between a train or plane can be minimal. And, remember, you can use your mobile phone and the Internet on a train, so your journey will be a lot more productive.
  • If you do have to fly, choose a fuel-efficient airline and choose economy not business class if possible. For example, the carbon output per passenger for a return flight from Amsterdam to London (a distance of 740 km) can be 241 kg with KLM in economy class (the best performer on the route), but 730 kg with British Airways in business class (the worst)!
  • Some airlines have begun offering the option of carbon off-setting to customers purchasing flights. The premise is that the extra cost goes towards environmental projects, selected by the airline or through some intermediary. However, the means of calculating the carbon miles are frequently vague and the targeted environmental projects are often not specified. Of course, off-setting typically only takes account of the CO2 output/per passenger, while other pollutants and environmental impacts are often not factored in. Even environmentalists are beginning to see that carbon off-setting tools can distract customers from the reason to off-set in the first place. If it becomes too easy to off-set your carbon footprint, then the basic behaviours needed to really have an impact on carbon output will never change.
  • Instead of using airline-based off-setting tools, why not offset the environmental impact of your flight yourself? Do a little homework and perhaps use a few different off-setting tools (especially those that take some account of what is called ‘radiative forcing’) to estimate either the cost of off-setting your flight or the amount of carbon generated by it. Instead of having that money channelled into unknown projects on the other side of the world, donate it to a worthy project closer to home. Or, if you have calculated the carbon footprint of your flight, why not vow to off-set that with some personal environmental project at home, e.g. install a solar panel, convert to energy-efficient light bulbs, etc.

The crux of the aviation issue is that most people who fly make no connection between the act of taking a flight and the environmental consequences. The aviation industry in general is clearly reluctant for this to change. Aviation is a rapidly growing market and likely to double in the next 50 years based on current trends and projected capacity, particularly in the Far East. Thus, its contribution to environmental degradation is only likely to multiply.

As the consumers who keep the aviation sector afloat, we can make choices that can help to mitigate the impact this industry has on the environment and, indeed, force it to strive harder at adopting better environmental practices.

About the Author John O'Brien

Dr. John O’Brien is a zoologist with significant experience in Biology, Chemistry, Geology, Industrial Microbiology, Medicine, Pharmaceuticals and Mathematics. John has worked extensively in both the academic and animal conservation fields. John holds a Ph.D. in Conservation Genetics from University College Dublin, Ireland

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