Flying has turned from an overall classy experience into a true no-frills commodity unless you belong to the select few upper class travelers. Yet at the same time the popularity of those commercial airliners has exponentially increased. This article by IATA states an increase from 2.8 to 3.6 billion passengers per year from 2011 to 2016.
The Points Guy mentions another 7.2% increase from 2016 to 2017.
Most of us are not aware of the ecological impact of our traveling. It’s an inconvenient truth but it can’t be ignored.
Let’s do some math
This article at Wikipedia states the following CO2 output numbers:
- Domestic, short distance, less than 463 km (288 mi): 257 g/km CO2 or 259 g/km (14.7 oz/mile) CO2e
- Domestic, long distance, greater than 463 km (288 mi): 177 g/km CO2 or 178 g/km (10.1 oz/mile) CO2e
- Long distance flights: 113 g/km CO2 or 114 g/km (6.5 oz/mile) CO2e
For the sake of our calculation I’ll stick to the long distance number. You can easily adjust the numbers for a different travel pattern.
The distance between NYC and Frankfurt is 3852 miles (shortest route).
A return flight would amount to 7704 miles or 12400 Kilometers.
This adds up to an output of 1.4 tons of CO2 per passenger.
That might already sound like a shocking whopper for a quick flight across the pond but since these emissions happen in high altitude they are more harmful than emissions at ground level and therefore need to be multiplied by a factor of 3.
That leads us to a true 4.2 tons of CO2 impact for rather short transatlantic flight.
As per the objectives set in the Paris Climate Agreement the average allotment of CO2 output for a German citizen would be 1 ton. One flight across the Atlantic already quadruples that number.
These numbers are for passengers traveling in coach class. For business class and 1st class travelers you can add another multiplier due to the additional space they are taking up on a plane (nearly the same amount of emissions but fewer travelers).
This calculation does not even touch on the considerable other short term environmental impacts of commercial air traveling.
- If we want to continue to travel as is and accept an annual 5-7% increase in global miles traveled our world will come to an end. There is no way new technology developments can offset the impact we are creating.
- Many of us that promote a green lifestyle are also affluent regular travelers. We’re actually the bad guys, not the guy with his old truck without catalytic converter.
- We have to find ways to reduce our total miles traveled unless they can be truly CO2 neutral.
I was only thinking that only a portion of the gas I’d burn during my travels would end up as CO2. WRONG!!! A gallon of gas burned creates about 20-24 pounds of CO2 per gallon of gas. I’d imagine that I’m not the only one that slept through Chemistry class and let this small little detail slide by. But if you keep this number in mind and understand the pressing issue of limiting our CO2 output then you ultimately come to the conclusion that our current ways of moving around are not sustainable.
I’ll soon write quite a bit about trains (large and passenger) and the benefits that a more rail oriented lifestyle could provide to all of us.
Ultimately we’ll need some regulation limiting our access to flying. Jet fuel ought to be taxed higher round the globe and CO2 certificates ought to be priced into the flight tickets.
For now, let’s just all tone down the bragging about our world travel plans and understand the burden we are creating. It comes with a big responsibility to be global ambassadors for a more environmental friendly lifestyle. We can just fly to a remote island, hear the truths about rising ocean levels, bronze ourselves at the beach, just fly home again and then plan our next trip around the world.
I’m a big aviation fan myself. I visit airshows including Oshkosh, I travel to aviation museums around the world, I take factory tours. By no means do I want to disregard all the fascinating aspects about the aviation world, then and now. But the big looming shadow described in this post can not be ignored. Electric or hybrid planes will not solve the riddle in the foreseeable future.
Yes, of course I’m guilty as heck as well. I already have 3 long distance return trips scheduled for this year plus a dozen 1-5 hour flights. I’m part of the problem. Yet, I’m open to solutions. This is not something any one of us can solve alone. We’ll need a mindset shift on a societal level. We must travel less collectively.