Sunday, April 18, 2010

Save the Planet Sundays - Green Air Travel?

Wow, is it Sunday again?  How time flies.  And speaking of flying...  With the huge shutdown of air travel in Europe, I thought I'd muse a bit on the environmental impact of air travel.  Living overseas and far from my family, I fly long-haul at least once a year, and more often 2-4 times, as well as taking shorter flights in the region for work or simply to get off the island.

According to several web sources, air travel is responsible for between 3 and 10% of global carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions per year, both of which have been linked to global climate change.  Aircraft rely on fossil fuels, of which they burn huge amounts, and release these gases into the lower and upper atmosphere (troposphere).  While there seems to be little data available on exactly how much is emitted and what the impact is, like any other fossil fuel-reliant industry, the folks who make planes are under pressure to make air travel greener by reducing emissions and increasing fuel efficiency.  However, with the number of air passengers set to double by 2020, even the ambitious 50% emissions reduction for that year targeted by the EU (see here) would basically bring us back to square 1!

Air travel is linked to the food industry, allowing us to eat foods that come from far-flung corners of the globe, and increasing as we then demand more.  On the other hand, it also allows us to receive mail, transport medicines and emergency supplies to those in need, and conduct search and rescue operations, to name a few worthy causes.  How much slower would the relief efforts in Haiti or Aceh have been without air travel?  How many lives would have been lost in remote communities without planes to fly the sick to hospitals?  And while the hordes of sunburned tourists on far flung beaches might look like they'd be better off back home, millions of families around the world depend on revenues from global tourism, trade and other ventures made possible by the speed of air travel.

If you've a mind to avoid air travel, you can look for opportunities to travel by train or bus instead of flying.  While it might take longer, you can sure see a lot more on the way!  Would-be air travelers are also encouraged to take local holidays - see the sights that you never see right in your backyard.  And when you do fly, some airlines offer passengers the option to add a few dollars to their ticket and support carbon-offsetting ventures.  Air New Zealand, for example, runs an Environmental Trust that buys and plants trees on conservation reserves and supports sustainable farming initiatives, has a carbon offsetting program, and is conducting research into more environmentally friendly fuels.

While these airline-conducted ventures are far from perfect, the eco-conscious traveler can certainly do some research before hand to pick a more environmentally aware carrier for their long-haul flight.  And, if you really have a mind to, some charities these days (at least in Canada!) allow you to calculate the environmental impact of your specific flight, and to make an 'equivalent' donation to preserve forests or plant trees to (in theory anyway) offset your individual emissions footprint.  (Full disclosure - I have yet to make use of these but if I do I will be sure to report back!)  There is a list with links to a few of them here!

And, of course, for the intrepid traveler looking for a fully sustainable form of travel, for those truly interested in the journey rather than the destination - there is sailing. :)

The lovely S/V Dany II

Well readers... what are your thoughts on the skies?


  1. This is a tough one. As you say if there were no air travel life as we know it simply would not longer exist. A British person telling me about the evils of air travel whilst eating a banana for example always amuses me.

    Without air travel I wouldn't be able to see my family and friends overseas.

    And yet...

    Sigh, like I say it's tough. I have no answers. Especially as a chronic sea/car/bus travel sick person.

    I try to limit my travel to one return flight a year. I never travel for work except by bicycle or bus and Himself has cut down to one work flight and one pleasure flight a year also.

    I really find it astonishing that there is so much air travel for work in these days of video and teleconferencing.

    So personally, compromise in all things I guess...

  2. Yes, very tough issue. I work for a university that works hard to make study abroad programs accessible to virtually every student. We also have strong sustainability programs, and we are endeavoring to cut our carbon footprint significantly over the next ten years (and then to cut it even further after that first milestone). How to reconcile all of this? I don't know. One could argue (I think rightfully) that young people who have the opportunity to travel and expand their perspectives are likely to be stronger stewards of our planet and better global citizens.

    I guess I don't have any answers either, but I do admire you and Suburban Yogini for being so conscious about how often you use air travel. I feel guilty every time I fly, but I've never set any parameters for myself about how many trips I'll take each year, etc. I think that's a good idea.

    Thanks, by the way, for a great post. You've done a very good job showing both sides of this issue.

  3. so, i also known that some of the larger travel booking sites also offer carbon offset/tree planting.

    but, i know. and i agree. i think it's about living the rest of your life mindfully, too (and i appreciated that you noted that you take long haul flights, too)

  4. Agree with all of the above... As you may know of me by now, I'm no advocate for trying to go back to a pre-industrial world. We live in our times, that's just the lot of it. For me, it's all about mindfulness - not taking these technologies for granted, not abusing them, and taking the time to learn about their impacts and thus (hopefully!) use them more wisely.

    Thanks for the comments all!

  5. I don't fly much. I wish it were for a responsible reason, but it's mainly because we don't have tons of money lying around to take trips. I am flying this May for the first time since August 2008, and that flight was my first one in about 4 years. But, I am also lucky to be close to my family.

    Also, flying makes me terribly anxious. Just thinking about an airport gives me a tight feeling in my chest. But it sure is convenient when you live in IL and want to visit a friend in California for the weekend!