The Impact of Flying and Its Environmental Challenges

Blue sky with aircraft and its contrails
Winter is coming and the temperatures of the northern part of our planet will cool down. It is time for many to escape the cold by taking a short holiday to the warmer regions, making the whole situation more bearable. However, honestly speaking, this trend causes several problems in regards to climate change.
Airplanes are fuel guzzling machines that consume an astonishing amount of 5 million barrels of jet fuel every day. To put this another way, this amount could fill up 2 of the biggest oil tankers (ULCC) cruising on our oceans – again per day. Burning that fuel contributes to around 2.5% of global carbon emissions and the effect of that is estimated to be 3 times higher on climate change, due to radiative forcing – an effect that occurs from the high emitting altitude. Other industries are currently making efforts to reduce their environmental footprint and by 2050, aviation’s contribution could therefore represent 22% of global carbon emissions since others’ contributions will have significantly decreased.
Another issue is that air travel has become very popular thanks to low cost carriers such as Ryanair and EasyJet, enabling more people to fly on airplanes for all types of occasions. The International Air Transportation Association (IATA) expects the numbers of passengers to double by 2036 to 7.8b annually.
The biggest hurdle however, is the fact that unlike other sectors, there are not many eco-friendly alternatives for civil aviation to transport 10m passengers per day. Today, efforts are focused on making airplanes more fuel-efficient by reducing weight or optimizing operations, such as reducing wait time in the air or optimizing flight routes. New technologies like electrical airplanes are being worked on, however they will require a few more decades before they become operational. Indeed, they would require batteries, whose energy density is currently 50 times lower than that of liquid fuels. In addition, airplanes consume fuel during the flight, making them lighter and more efficient throughout the journey. This puts an even bigger constraint on electrical airplanes, which have to carry heavy batteries during the entire flight time.
Gangway with flight passengers boarding the airplane during sunset / sunrise
People become more aware of climate change and are willing to reduce emissions. However, there is a peculiar contradiction in all those endeavors and it is that carbon emissions from air travel are largely invisible. There is no other human activity that increases individual carbon emissions as quickly and immensely as air travel. Despite the positive changes people are making to reduce carbon emissions, millions of flights populate the sky every year, significantly impacting our environment.
Although the aviation industry is proud of its recent achievements in fuel efficiency, reaching an average of 3.5 liters per 100 kilometers against 7.5 liters per 100 kilometers for cars, the distances they travel are not comparable to driving distances which makes this comparison pointless. A flight from Paris (CDG) to Sydney (SYD) covers a distance of 17,000 km. Even if it were possible, nobody would drive that distance by car. The same flight produces about 2 tons of carbon emissions per passenger, round trip. In comparison, the global average per capita emissions is equal to 1 ton. Instead of trying to make air travel seem eco-friendly by comparing it the the car industry, the aviation industry should thus work on further reducing their fuel consumption.
Now can you ask yourself how are passengers so insensitive to the significant impact of air travel on climate change? After analyzing the situation, it seems quite obvious. Only a few airlines inform passengers on their homepage about the impact of flying and even fewer provide solutions to tackle the issue. Even environmental organizations are rather reluctant to report and educate about this issue as their own staff fly around the world to participate in conferences.
Aviation is strongly supported by the government, as the sector guarantees economic growth for the future with an expected global passenger increase of 3.6% annually. The reason behind this growth is that the industry is kept artificially cheap compared to trains and cars for which much more rules are applied such as the emissions standard. The whole situation originated in 1944 with the “Chicago Convention” agreeing internationally that no taxes on jet fuel can be claimed on international flights. The car industry has been heavily affected by tax increases over the last epochs whereas the aviation convention has stayed almost untouched. Flying has even moved into the other directions when low cost carriers entered the market decreasing ticket prices substantially.
Aviation has been excluded from the Kyoto Protocol with the condition to come up with its own solution instead. However, in 2012 the industry has been included in the European Emission Trading System (ETS), a carbon market for high emitting industries for all inter-European flights, as little action had been taken by the aviation sector itself. In 2021, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) will introduce the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) to cover international flights with another carbon emission market. With that, airlines will be asked to reduce their emissions continuously by paying penalties if they exceed the emission levels authorized.
In theory this sounds effective, however in practice the pressure put on the industry is too low to force urgent climate change actions within the industry and leaves too much room to avoid direct penalties. For instance, airlines can buy offset certificates that allow them reduce their carbon balance artificially.
Aviation is a global business which makes the situation fundamentally more complex. These issues are usually ignored and that is the real challenge. Governments will not act until their population becomes aware of the environmental harm caused by air transportation. Citizens will not stop using flights due to its immense benefits, however they should learn that it comes at a cost that nature is paying at the moment.


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