No Reason to Fly Blind Anymore

Image of more than 100,000 flights globally per day, courtesy of:

Image of more than 100,000 flights globally per day, courtesy of:

Airline emissions are in the spotlight again as Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, recently announced she will cross the Atlantic in a sailboat in August in advance of attending the UN Climate Action Summit in New York in September. She is making waves again with her choice not to fly to draw attention to the high carbon emissions of air travel. 

In our blog of July 19, we explored how the technology needed to radically reduce aircraft emissions is decades away. Here we’ll look at how carbon emissions from flying compare with the carbon footprints of people globally. For example, one trans-Atlantic return flight causes more emissions in a few hours than many individuals cause in a whole year.  

Air travel continues to increase globally and the International Air Transport Association predicts we will take almost 40 million flights in 2019, averaging more than 100,000 flights per day. 


Passengers will fly more than eight trillion — yes, trillion — miles this year, a 300% increase since 1990. At this rate, not surprisingly, aircraft emissions are expected to triple by 2050, and even with radically more efficient aircraft, they are predicted to more than double. 

So, how do we get a handle on the impact of our flight emissions? There is a sophisticated tool to help us figure it out. The Guardian recently teamed up with Atmosfair, a German not-for-profit that develops and finances carbon offsetting projects in developing countries, to showcase their emissions calculator. It provides some useful benchmarks, measures differential impacts and reveals some startling results.  

For example, a return trip from Toronto Pearson to London Heathrow, will emit 869kg of CO2 per passenger.  The calculator shows that there are 53 countries where the average person emits less CO2 in a whole year than the emissions from this one trip. The on-line tool reveals that the 53 countries are mostly in Africa and South East Asia. 

It also lets us see how short, medium and long distance flights between major airports globally compare with the average CO2 footprint of countries e.g., India, the emissions generated by one year of car travel, and the annual footprint of a climate-compatible emissions budget. The tool also allows us to compare the carbon footprints of different airlines and different types of aircraft for the same trip, and we can mitigate our emissions impact by donating to their certified offset program.   

When one sees the unvarnished truth that one long distance flight emits more CO2 than the annual footprints of hundreds of millions of people, it makes one think twice about heading to the airport. It also brings into sharp relief the inequality of the climate consequences of air travel.  While millions of us fly, it is still a discretionary expenditure for a minority of the world’s population.  

So, we could all consider flying less, taking other forms of transportation and, if one must fly, buying offsets from a certified offset program. 

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