Recent headlines of “US braces for record-breaking temperatures”, “Hundreds of sudden deaths in Canada Heatwave” and “Dozens killed after record rain in Germany and Belgium” are a strong indication of the state of crisis the climate is currently in. In spite of mitigation strategies, such as those outlined in the Paris Agreement, and the growing concern over climate change, global temperatures continue to climb and sea levels continue to rise.
As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, radical habit change occurred on a global scale almost simultaneously. Previous standards, such as the need to work in offices, were overridden. In addition, the opportunity to travel was almost entirely taken away. Amidst multiple national lockdowns and border closures, international flight traffic fell by 74% and domestic air traffic by 50% in 2020.
As we look towards the easing of global travel restrictions and lockdown measures, and given the crisis state of the climate, is it really ethical to return to our previous consumption patterns without significant reflection? More sustainable alternatives to air travel include simply reducing the frequency of our air travel, using alternative forms of transport and carbon offsetting.
The carbon footprint of a domestic flight is 255g per person per kilometre, the highest of any transport form. Short and long haul international flights are similarly high at 156g and 150g respectively. Scientists hypothesise an ‘aviation multiplier’ of around two, which states that the environmental impact of a plane is double its total carbon emissions due to, amongst other things, the formation of contrails that prevent heat from leaving the earth and the formation of ozone from nitrous oxide emissions.
In comparison, the Eurostar has a carbon footprint of travel per kilometre of 6g per passenger and taking a ferry as a foot passenger is similarly low at 19g per passenger per kilometre. National rail comes to 41g per kilometre but over long distances can become worse if sleeper carriages are present. However, all are more sustainable travel alternatives to flights. In limited situations, such as when travelling on long-haul international travel economy class flights, air travel can be less emitting than a solo petrol car journey. In most cases, however, air travel is the most polluting option.
Carbon offsetting is, “the action or process of compensating for carbon dioxide emissions […] by participating in schemes designed to make equivalent reductions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere”. Many airline travel companies now give the option for customers to carbon offset their journeys; in 2019, Easy Jet became the first major airline to offset the carbon emissions on all flights. Whilst this may seem like a good option, carbon offsetting is controversial.
Many carbon offset schemes do not work; tree planting schemes, for example, estimate using a one hundred year life span for every tree, which is optimistic in the face of disease, deforestation and natural disasters. The impacts of these schemes largely occur 15-20 years into the future, giving time for the tree to grow and sequester carbon, whilst the emissions of air travel are occurring today. The distraction from innovation and emission reduction is a dangerous one. Whilst a step in the right direction, it is not a long term solution.
Perhaps the best way to reduce emissions from air travel is to reduce the frequency with which it occurs. In the digital age, firms can try to reduce corporate air travel to a minimum, which many have successfully been doing during the pandemic.
Additionally, Google searches for the term ‘staycation’ were at a five year high in the week of the 26th July-1st August 2020, and have remained high throughout 2021. If the rising popularity of holidays closer to home can be maintained, and a change in preferences to the staycation occurs, air travel could be significantly reduced.
Whilst the government’s Transport Decarbonisation Strategy relies upon innovation such as sustainable aviation fuel in order to make both domestic and international travel emissions-free or carbon-zero by mid-century, it is clear that at least in the short term and in its current form, air travel cannot be sustainable.
To keep emissions at their reduced pandemic levels, largescale habit change from life pre-pandemic will have to occur. It is, however, up to individuals to evaluate the impacts of their own carbon footprint and choose how they travel.
Illustration: Anna Kuptsova