Why is Flying Out of the Sustainability Discussion?

Air travel entails 600 percent higher CO2 emissions and double the primary energy use of travelling by train or car. Yet the heavy subsidies for airlines and exemption from carbon certification enable them to offer extremely low ticket prices. Soren Andersson elaborates on flying and sustainability.

We live in a global society where people and products continuously criss-cross the planet, but we seem to constantly exclude, or at least forget to mention, one of the means for this transportation in the sustainability discussion: air travel.

Here are some quick facts on flying (taken from the Web sites of the Air Transport Action Group; UNWTO, the United Nations World Tourism Organization; and the International Air Transport Association): There are 1,700 airline companies in the world, 23,000 airplanes and 3,750 airports. In 2012, the airlines carried over three billion passengers. Fifty-two percent of all international travel — 538,200,000 international airplane rides — was for leisure. Between 2011 and 2012, there was a five percent increase in air traffic. The airline sector accounts for two percent (689 million tons) of global CO2emissions.

But air travel is still excluded from sustainability discussions.

Is it because globalization is yet another thing we should not talk about too much when we discuss sustainability, since the airline industry is an important economic driver?

Or is it that, as Conscious Travel blogger Anna Pollock writes, in  “Six Reasons Why Mass Tourism is Unsustainable” (The Guardian, 21 August 2013): “Technological connectivity and price comparison engines have shifted purchasing power to consumers, who have been convinced, by repeated discounting, that cheap travel is now a right”?

Flying: a high-pollution activity

During summer and at vacation time, the media is full of flight travel bargains that promise to enable people to go farther and cheaper with air transport. And these offers are made not only by low-cost airlines, but almost all airline companies.

How is it that one of the most polluting means of transportation receives subsidies and is also, to a large extent, liberated from taxes, carbon emission-reducing programs and similar regulations?

Is this how governments and the market even out barriers to unequal competitive opportunity? To get a picture of how flying compares with other means of transportation, I made a comparison for a journey from Copenhagen, in Denmark, to Genoa, in Italy. For the calculation I used the Web-based tool www.ecopassenger.org, which appears to be one of the most accurate and easy-to-use among those currently available in Europe. (A version is also available for freight calculation, at www.ecotransit.org.)

For this analysis, it turned out that the CO2emissions for train and car (assuming four passengers) are exactly the same and that the consumption of primary energy is lower in cars. (There are three other indicators which, although important, are smaller in their scale of impact.)

However, interestingly, one transportation mode — air travel — was quite off the charts. It entailed almost 600 percent higher CO2emissions (including high-altitude greenhouse gas impact) and almost double primary energy use. Flying is simply an unsustainable alternative.

It is incredible that this means of transportation is still heavily subsidized and excluded from the carbon certificate system, thus enabling airlines to offer extremely low ticket prices, while being the most polluting travel option.

Feeding the tourism sector

It’s not only about the emissions, it’s also about the habits air travel promotes.

UNWTO estimated, in their Tourism Highlightsreport that, in 2012, more than 1.035 billion international tourists had traveled and that most air travellers travelled for leisure purposes.

We already have seen the data on international leisure travel; the number rises when we add national flights to it. Then add a five percent growth rate for every year: that’s at least 27 million airplane rides. The UN forecast is that international tourism will almost double to 1.8 billion travelers within the next 17 years. The latest news on the UNWTO home page shows an increase for the first four months of 2013 of 12 million travelers, compared to 2012.

UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai stated, “The 4.3 percent growth in the number of international tourists crossing borders in the first months of 2013 confirms that tourism is one of the fastest growing sectors of our times,” and then used superlatives like “positive in all regions” and “star performers” to refer to air travel in glowing terms.

Travelers love the low prices

And, still, hardly a week passes without news being featured about some airline or other having financial problems… of the competition pushing prices down so low that airlines are finding it hard to achieve any profitability… of pilots being forced to work unreasonable hours…and of new security flaws detected…. And, all the while, we are flooded with advertisements for even cheaper flights….

Today, it isn’t unusual to hear people say, “We flew to Paris over the weekend at a price tag of €24.95 one-way! We just couldn’t refuse it!” I’m a little bewildered: Why is the fastest but most energy-consuming and ‘carbon-dirty’ form of transport quite often also the cheapest? It doesn’t make sense even from a purely capitalistic viewpoint!

Dire consequences

Let me think aloud: Should self-inflicted low pricing then be a reason to continue to avoid taxes and make it cheaper to pollute our atmosphere? And, because customers are repeatedly offered discounts, should people be convinced that cheap travel is a right, not a privilege? Should public opinion thus be in the airlines’ favour?

Maybe we should fuel the planes with bio-oil from the Jatropha curcas seeds, Babassu nuts or the coconut palm and clear an area larger than the size of France (547,000 sq. km.) somewhere in the tropics for such plantations? Maybe we can cut down rainforests, too, to keep pace with the increase in air traffic?

What about the world’s climate? Remember George Orwell’s words [in his 1941 essay, “The Lion and the Unicorn”]: “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.”

Soren Andersson


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