Why Don’t We Ever Discuss the Carbon Impacts of Flying?

Cambodia flight

Flights over 1000 miles long are responsible for over 80% of the greenhouse gas impacts of air travel. While environmentally aware individuals worldwide agree that climate change is a proven challenge for our planet, few have changed their travel behaviors.

To avoid overloading the planet with emissions that would change average global temperatures more than 2 degrees, every person should limit their flight emission budget to 5000 pounds of CO2 per year, according to Atmosfair, a German organization. With this useful if parsimonious metric as a guide, it quickly becomes evident that one long haul round trip flight between Munich and New York would immediately exceed a single person’s annual budget, at 5700 pounds of carbon.

While Americans may well view Europeans as ahead of the curve on carbon planning, even Europeans are loathe to sacrifice their long haul travel. And surprisingly, many remain unaware that travel is a high climate impact activity. Studies on consumer climate awareness in the U.K. and Norway found that consumers did not know there was any difference in carbon impacts between taking a train, using a car or flying. For those who did know the difference, traveler guilt over carbon emissions caused by air travel was barely registering. Generally, well-educated travelers were not willing to cut back on their travel, particularly long haul travel.

The importance of travel to the subjects of this study was clear. They wanted to broaden the horizons of their families and considered world travel an important part of their personal identities. None of the subjects planned to postpone their ambitions to travel across the planet, or make their travel behavior consistent with their efforts to cut their carbon impacts at home.

One Norwegian interviewee commented,

“I know it is problematic and I should be concerned more, but my conscience is not bad because of taking flights at all.”

A certain carbon conscious elite in Europe is more likely to condemn frequent short haul travel, perhaps because there are trains and buses available that are high speed, efficient and a much better alternative for those seeking to avoid carbon impacts. But this same elite is not willing to sacrifice their long haul trips to the U.S. or places even much farther such as New Zealand, despite the extraordinary carbon impacts. New Zealand is over 11,000 miles from Europe, making it one of one of the longest trips a traveller can take. Researchers investigated a sample of Europeans to understand how they viewed the carbon impacts of such a trip. Most were not willing to stop flying long distances because they are not willing to forgo these more remote travel opportunities, even while they condemned frequent short haul travel in Europe.

There is almost no social ethic emerging that equates long distance travel with poor environmental citizenship.

This less-than-rational decision making about travel is probably not surprising to any reader. There is almost no social ethic emerging that equates long distance travel with poor environmental citizenship. Environmentally conscious citizens of the world continue to do all they can at home to reduce their footprint, but are really not willing to put air travel into the equation. Outside of Europe discussions about the carbon impacts of air travel are still confined to a very rare minority, although the media is finally starting to incorporate this discussion into articles about travel going green.

One U.K. traveler gives his thoughts on the topic.

“I do see the impact. (sic) I’m not happy about the fact that it’s not particularly good for the environment. But not unhappy enough yet, that’s the truth.”

Some of the subjects in the U.K. were beginning to calculate their air travel emissions using a carbon calculator. This one decision was helping to bring home the substantial impacts of air travel. Could a global awareness campaign help consumers to consider the impacts of flying? Would Americans begin to discuss their efforts to cut their flying habit at cocktail parties, if they started measuring their impacts with each booking? There are few indications at present that Americans are even considering cutting their air travel. Public campaigns dedicated to linking air travel to climate change would also be deeply unpopular with the trillion dollar travel industry.

…the carbon impacts of flying are now reaching dangerous levels with 2 billion travellers annually…

Even as the carbon impacts of flying are now reaching dangerous levels with 2 billion travellers annually, and prospects of a 200% increase in the next decade, very few individuals feel it is their responsibility to cut back. New more creative approaches are needed which will help consumers to grasp that long haul travel is one of the most carbon intensive activities in their lives.

This article was originally published on Huffington Post
Megan Epler Wood travels the world investigating how to make travel and tourism a more sustainable industry that both conserves environments and contributes to local people. You can follow Megan on twitter @Eplerwood