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?