How Much Does Flying Contribute To Climate Change?

How Much Does Flying Contribute To Climate Change? Planes can create clouds of tiny ice crystals, called contrails, and some studies suggest they could have an a significant effect on climate. from www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND Shaun Hendy  CC BY-ND

How much does our use of air travel contribute to the problem of climate change? And is it more damaging that it is being created higher in our atmosphere?

The flight shaming movement has raised our awareness of air travel’s contribution to climate change. With all the discussion, you might be surprised to learn that air travel globally only accounts for about 3% of the warming human activities are causing. Why all the fuss?

Before I explain, I should come clean. I am writing this on the train from Christchurch to Kaikoura, where I will give a talk about my recent book #NoFly: walking the talk on climate change. I have some skin in this game.

Staying grounded

Taking a train around New Zealand is no mean feat. In the North Island, the train between Auckland and Wellington runs only every second day. If you get off at a stop along the way, you have to wait another two days to continue your journey. You can catch a bus, but you’ll spend that bus journey fantasising about the possibility of an overnight train service.

So why do it? A good deal of global carbon emissions come from industrial processes or electricity generation under the control of governments and corporations, rather than individual citizens. For many of us, a decision not to fly might be the most significant reduction in emissions we can make as individuals.

As Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has shown, refusing to fly also sends a powerful signal to others, by showing that you are willing to change your own behaviour. Politicians and corporate sales departments will take note if we start acting together.

Impacts of aviation

Aviation affects the climate in a variety of ways.

Because any carbon dioxide you emit stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, it doesn’t matter much whether you release it from the exhaust pipe of your car at sea level or from a jet engine several kilometres high. Per passenger, a flight from Auckland to Wellington will put a similar amount of carbon dioxide into the air as driving solo in your car. Catching the train will cut your carbon emissions seven-fold.

When aircraft burn jet fuel, however, they also emit short-lived gases like nitrogen oxides, which can react with other gases in the air within a day of being released. When nitrogen oxides are released at altitude they can react with oxygen to put more ozone into the air, but can also remove methane.

Ozone and methane are both greenhouse gases, so this chain of chemical reactions can lead to both heating and cooling effects. Unfortunately the net result when these processes are added together is to drive more warming.

Depending on the atmospheric conditions, aircraft can also create contrails: clouds of tiny ice crystals. The science is not as clear cut on how contrails influence the climate, but some studies suggest they could have an effect as significant as the carbon dioxide released during a flight.

There is also considerable uncertainty as to whether aircraft exhaust might affect cloud formation itself - this could be a further significant contribution to warming.

Growing demand for air travel

Offsetting, by planting trees or restoring natural wildlands, will take carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere. But we would have to do this on a massive scale to feed our appetite for flight.

Emissions from international air travel are not included in the Paris Agreement, although the United Nations has been working on the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), which may begin to deal with these. Initially, the scheme will be voluntary. Airlines flying routes between countries that join the scheme will have to offset any emissions above 2020 levels from January 2021.

Emissions from flying stand to triple by 2050 if demand for air travel continues to grow. Even if air travel became carbon neutral through the use of biofuels or electric planes, the effects from contrails and interactions with clouds mean that flying may never be climate neutral.

With no easy fixes on the horizon, many people are thinking hard about their need to fly. This is why I took a year off air travel (alongside my colleague Quentin Atkinson) in 2018.

I have been back on planes in 2019, but I have learned how to reduce my flying, by combining trips and making better use of video conferencing.

Fly if you must, offset if you can, but – if you are concerned about climate change – one of the best things you could choose to do is to fly less.The Conversation

About The Author

Shaun Hendy, Professor of Physics

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

books_causes

enafarzh-CNzh-TWdanltlfifrdeiwhihuiditjakomsnofaplptruesswsvthtrukurvi

follow InnerSelf on

facebook-icontwitter-iconrss-icon

 Get The Latest By Email

{emailcloak=off}

LATEST VIDEOS

Tiny Plankton Drive Processes In The Ocean That Capture Twice As Much Carbon As Scientists Thought
Tiny Plankton Drive Processes In The Ocean That Capture Twice As Much Carbon As Scientists Thought
by Ken Buesseler
The ocean plays a major role in the global carbon cycle. The driving force comes from tiny plankton that produce…
Climate Change Threatens Drinking Water Quality Across The Great Lakes
Climate Change Threatens Drinking Water Quality Across The Great Lakes
by Gabriel Filippelli and Joseph D. Ortiz
“Do Not Drink/Do Not Boil” is not what anyone wants to hear about their city’s tap water. But the combined effects of…
Talking About Energy Change Could Break The Climate impasse
Talking About Energy Change Could Break The Climate Impasse
by InnerSelf Staff
Everyone has energy stories, whether they’re about a relative working on an oil rig, a parent teaching a child to turn…
Crops Could Face Double Trouble From Insects And A Warming Climate
Crops Could Face Double Trouble From Insects And A Warming Climate
by Gregg Howe and Nathan Havko
For millennia, insects and the plants they feed on have been engaged in a co-evolutionary battle: to eat or not be…
To Reach Zero Emissions Government Must Address Hurdles Putting People Off Electric Cars
To Reach Zero Emissions Government Must Address Hurdles Putting People Off Electric Cars
by Swapnesh Masrani
Ambitious targets have been set by the UK and Scottish governments to become net-zero carbon economies by 2050 and 2045…
Spring Is Arriving Earlier Across The US, And That's Not Always Good News
Spring Is Arriving Earlier Across The US, And That's Not Always Good News
by Theresa Crimmins
Across much of the United States, a warming climate has advanced the arrival of spring. This year is no exception.
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
by Alan N Williams, et al
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that without a substantial decrease…
A Georgia Town Gets Half Of Its Electricity From President Jimmy Carter's Solar Farm
A Georgia Town Gets Half Of Its Electricity From President Jimmy Carter's Solar Farm
by Johnna Crider
Plains, Georgia, is a small town that is just south of Columbus, Macon, and Atlanta and north of Albany. It is the…

LATEST ARTICLES

Hurricanes And Other Extreme Weather Disasters Prompt Some People To Move And Trap Others In Place
Hurricanes And Other Extreme Weather Disasters Prompt Some People To Move And Trap Others In Place
by Jack DeWaard
If it seems like extreme weather disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires are becoming more frequent, severe and…
If All Cars Were Electric, UK Carbon Emissions Would Drop By 12%
If All Cars Were Electric, UK Carbon Emissions Would Drop By 12%
by George Milev and Amin Al-Habaibeh
The COVID-19 lockdown has led to reduced pollution and emissions in the UK and around the world, providing a clear…
Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro Is Devastating Indigenous Lands, With The World Distracted
Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro Is Devastating Indigenous Lands, With The World Distracted
by Brian Garvey, and Mauricio Torres
The Amazon fires of 2019 drove the greatest single year loss of Brazilian forest in a decade. But with the world in the…
Why Countries Don't Count Emissions From Goods They Import
Why Countries Don't Count Emissions From Goods They Import
by Sarah McLaren
I would like to know if New Zealand’s carbon emissions of 0.17% include emissions produced from products manufactured…
Green Bailouts: Relying On Carbon Offsetting Will Let Polluting Airlines Off The Hook
Green Bailouts: Relying On Carbon Offsetting Will Let Polluting Airlines Off The Hook
by Ben Christopher Howard
The coronavirus pandemic has grounded thousands of aircraft, contributing to the largest-ever annual fall in CO₂…
Longer Growing Seasons Have A Limited Effect On Combating Climate Change
Longer Growing Seasons Have A Limited Effect On Combating Climate Change
by Alemu Gonsamo
Climate warming is leading to early springs and delayed autumns in colder environments, allowing plants to grow for a…
Both Conservatives And Liberals Want A Green Energy Future, But For Different Reasons
Both Conservatives And Liberals Want A Green Energy Future, But For Different Reasons
by Deidra Miniard et al
Political divisions are a growing fixture in the United States today, whether the topic is marriage across party lines,…
How The Climate Impact Of Beef Compares With Plant-based Alternatives
How The Climate Impact Of Beef Compares With Plant-based Alternatives
by Alexandra Macmillan and Jono Drew
I am wondering about the climate impact of vegan meat versus beef. How does a highly processed patty compare to…