High Flying Carbon Emissions – Rethink Your Next Trip

By Yuanchao Xu 23 December, 2021

CWR's Xu makes the case to adjust our flying habits for the better of the climate

If aviation was a country, it would rank as the 6th largest emitter in the world, ahead of Germany & Korea; yet its 'GDP' only ranks 17th, which makes it not very carbon-efficient
Aviation also exacerbates climate change in other ways e.g. pollution in the atmosphere & emissions of water vapour - the overall contribution of aviation to global warming is 3.5%
Aviation has no real alternatives to decarbonise so we need to make small habit changes e.g. flying economy instead of business already cut CO2 emissions by two-thirds

Again, Christmas is coming. Are you busy preparing for your holiday getaway? If not, you probably wish you were since most of us are still trapped where we are thanks to travel restrictions from the pandemic. However, we all need to think about the climate impacts – all those emissions – of that trip or holiday and decide if it is worth it. 

The last two years have given us plenty of time to think about our lives and how we got here (can read more on this in our past articles) so let’s not just forget about it and jump on a plane or hop in a car and never look back. It is time to change our travelling habits.

Aviation is more carbon intensive than you think & has other detrimental climate impacts

Cars may be the first thing in your mind when it comes to emissions, and they are a major emitter but so are planes. According to Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), road transport accounts for 74% of carbon emissions from all transport sources and aviation accounts for 12%. Globally, the aviation industry emits about 2% of all human-induced carbon emissions. 

If aviation was a country it would rank as the 6th largest emitter in the world…

In 2019, flights emitted about 915mn tonnes of carbon; if aviation was a country it would rank as the 6th largest emitter in the world ahead of Germany, Iran and Korea. But in dollar terms, its “GDP” (691.3bn USD) would only rank 17th in the world, which makes it not very carbon-efficient, i.e., its GDP to carbon ratio is low. 

Private jets definitely aren’t helping with their higher emissions compared to commercial planes; 1.2 tonnes of carbon emission versus only 0.25 tonnes. Given this, it was disappointing to see so many world leaders, CEOs and other attendees at COP26 flying in on private jets; this was the complete reverse of all the messages during COP26. 

…overall contribution to global warming is 3.5%

And flying isn’t just carbon intensive, aviation also exacerbates climate change in other ways, such as through pollution in the atmosphere, short term increase but long term decrease in ozone and methane, and emissions of water vapour and sulfur aerosols. Researchers have shown that the overall contribution (carbon and non-carbon impacts) of aviation to global warming is 3.5%. So, it’s not just carbon that we need to tackle to make aviation more sustainable.

Small habit changes you can make for the better

Unfortunately, we have no effective way to decarbonise aviation for now. Although fuel efficiency has improved, it still cannot offset the increase of flights. Covid has put a stop to this trend, but how about after covid?

Aviation has no real alternatives at the moment…

…so we need to adjust our flying habits

Unlike the power sector, where renewables can substitute part of the thermal power plants, aviation has no real alternatives. Biofuels might be an option and some airlines are already making efforts,  but it needs much further technological developments. But who knows about the future, Elon Musk might invent an electric airplane with an unlimited battery volume sometime in the future?

However, until then, it’s time to re-think our flying habits and that includes all you private jet people. By making some small habit changes you can help the climate, like cutting one short-haul flight (less than 800km) a year, which will save 0.2 tonnes of CO2 (equals over 800km of driving, see infographic below) or flying economy instead of business, which cuts CO2 emissions by a two-thirds.

These are just a couple of changes that you can do to make a difference. CWR is releasing a report early next year that shows what other habit changes you can do to reduce your flying carbon footprint as well as other travel and lifestyle related changes that matter to the climate and will improve the health and longevity of our planet – see more on the upcoming report here. So, stay tuned for that.

Further reading

  • Zoom University – Better for the environment? – CWR intern, Kaspar Ip, has had to enroll in “Zoom Univeristy” as he can’t fly due to COVID-19. With many students like him in HK, he does the math to see which option is better for the environment?
  • COVID & Climate – Make Money Or Save Lives? – Governments are prioritising lives over money but with pressure to re-open the economy, can we use lessons learnt from COVID-19 to prepare for the climate crisis? CWR’s Ronald Leung explores the future of aviation and low oil prices
  • 5 Trends For The Year Of The Rat – Will the rat bring more outbreaks or will we get sunk like a drowned rat by water and climate risks? Or can we stay ahead with our wits and cunning to win the rat race? Find out what the lunar new year has in store for us in our 5 trends

More on latest

  • It’s Time to Tweak Yourself to Save the Planet– CWR’s McGregor gives a sneak peek into CWR’s upcoming report that shows how simple tweaks to our habits from transport to food and shopping to being online matter for the climate
  • Tis The Season To Be Worried: Our Online Habits– Did you know your social media and streaming are exacerbating the climate crises? CWR’s intern Lam shines a light on how we need to change our online habits & cultivate a sustainable digital lifestyle
  • Fast & Furious: Online Shopping’s Toxic Ways – It’s so easy to hit that ‘buy’ button, especially with it being the second year of the pandemic but CWR’s Park reminds us why we need to re-think doing that with hidden toxic costs
  • Takeout Packaging – 3 Wishes For The New Year– Choking on F&B plastic packaging, Hong Kong needs to implement solutions asap. ADMCF’s Vanthournout shares key findings of their research on the most viable options
  • Will MTR Sink With The Polar Express?– Is the MTR prepared enough to avoid going underwater given rising sea levels & stronger typhoons? CWR’s Leung asks 6 questions for the railway to ponder
Yuanchao Xu
Author: Yuanchao Xu
Yuanchao uses his analytical proficiencies towards the assessment and visualization of water risks for China Water Risk. Prior to joining, Yuanchao was based in Europe completing the Erasmus Mundus Master Program where he specialsed in hydro-informatics and water management. He applied his skills in climate forecasting and water resource modelling to the EUPORIAS project with DHI (Danish Hydraulic Institute) which resulted in a conference paper on seasonal climate forecasting. Building on this work, he went on to develop hyfo, an open-source R programme for climate scientists and modellers to analyse and visualize data. Yuanchao’s bachelor degree was from the China Agricultural University where he specialized in heat energy and power engineering. During his time there, he also patented a testing instrument for hydraulic machinery. He has studied and worked in Beijing, Nice, Newcastle and Copenhagen.
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