Air Travel and the Environment
With the price of global air travel becoming increasingly affordable it’s commonplace for some of us to jet off across the country or the globe for work or pleasure. From April 2014 to April 2015 there were more than 2.7 million international flights taken from Australian airports and 4.9 million passengers boarding domestic flights across the country. While we all know how good it feels to explore new destinations many of us are unaware of the possible effects that air travel has on global warming. For those of you who are a little perplexed about how the greenhouse effect works and what us pumping gases into the air has to do with the planet warming up here is a simple explanation in under two minutes or alternatively you can go to uni and study that for a whole semester (the video is the cheaper and more time friendly option).
The IPCC (A.K.A. the gods of climate change reports) developed a report on the aviation industry in 1999 due to concerns about the potential damage that planes cause by depositing emissions directly into the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere or (if you want to work out what these terms mean watch this short video). When planes fly they emit gases and particles directly into these layers of atmosphere impacting the airs composition. According to the report these gasses and particles include greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide, ozone and methane. These plane emissions can trigger the formation of condensation trails, and may increase cirrus cloudiness (one of my favourite types of clouds to look at) all of which contribute to climate change. While we still haven’t quite worked out the best way to measure the damage that aviation is causing, we know in the years since this report was published that air travel is becoming increasingly more popular.
While there have been some technological advancements in fuel efficiency through engine developments with planes being up to 70% more efficient than they were 40 years ago the industry still relies on fossil fuels to power their engines. Many companies are researching the idea of switching to renewable energy options like bio fuels but there are still issues associated with using land to grow crops for fuel that could otherwise be used to feed the Earth’s growing population.
Clothing Consumption and air transport.
Another important factor to remember is that any item you purchase that doesn’t specifically state that it was 100% made in your country is likely to have taken a journey at some stage of its life. While shipping remains the most cost effective and preferred way for items to arrive on Australia’s islands shores and make their way into stores air freight is still readily used. The special order items you purchase online from overseas (like eco-or ethical clothing items) are often sent via air as it cuts back the time you spend waiting for your goodies to arrive and the trend for air freighted goods is steadily on the rise in Australia. There is a great report that you can access here that looks at Life Cycle Carbon Mapping in the apparel industry. It’s findings have suggested that the laundering process or ‘use phase’ is usually the most carbon intensive part of a item of clothing’s lifecycle. However, it also states that many of the assumptions of the report were based on garments being shipped, and that if air transport was used then GHG emissions for this phase of a garments lifecycle dramatically increase. The moral of the story? Try to opt for shipping for overseas items or regular delivery (not express) if purchased in Australia. If air is the only possible way then make sure you buy right the first time and wear it forever.
So what does this mean for my air travel adventures?
The world is a fascinating place that beckons us to travel to its remote locations, and as business becomes global many of us have to travel for business. There is an interesting article here that looks at the issues associated with being a climate scientist and having to travel for work. For these folk their study is global and they often need to travel but it can seem hypocritical or unethical to study the effects of climate change then fly all over the world to disseminate your findings. Scientist and author for this article Brian Kahn puts it in perspective by stating that:
‘Globally, air travel accounts for 2.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. If air travel were a country, it would be roughly on par with Germany in emissions. And if air travel by climate scientists were a city, it would be a one-stoplight outpost’
So I know what your thinking…’all well and good but I’m not a climate scientist’ (unless of course you are one). But you can put yourself in a category of choice; mum of three kids and a chihuahua fur baby, football fans who like tacos on Wednesdays, women who like to eat pop tarts standing up over the kitchen sink, whatever category, you as an air traveller are a small part of the big picture of global climate change (perhaps part of the pedestrian crossing button on the stoplight in the analogy above?). With annual air travel increasing from 2 billion to 3 billion passengers between 2005 and 2013 we are all playing our own small part. To put it in perspective a round flight trip from London to New York would emit 3.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide which is the equivalent of two and a half times the annual emissions of the average person living in India
What can I do to decrease my impact?
The obvious answer is to travel less. Which is the basis behind the July theme of being a tourist in your own backyard. Too often we lust over images of remote destinations and forget that we have beauty in our own locality. However travel is sometimes unavoidable either due to work obligations or a gypsy soul. In which case here are some tips on how to reduce your overall carbon impact, as unfortunately it’s quite difficult to directly reduce the emissions associated with air travel.
- Buy carbon offsets for your flight: There is a great article outlining the issues associated with carbon offsets here and another here that explains the idea of offsetting emissions. Many airlines offer you the opportunity to offset your carbon at the checkout.
- Join 1 million women: Who offer tips on how to reduce your carbon footprint
- Changers app: Use this app to help you cut back on your carbon emissions in daily travel. Every little bit counts and you can offset your emissions through the app.
- Reduce your onboard waste: While this doesn’t help directly with contrails and emissions in the stratosphere it does decrease the amount to waste you output. For tips on traveling with waste reduction in mind check out the fabulous Erin from the Rogue Ginger.
- Work out your eco footprint: Doing this can help give you an awareness of areas of your life that could be improved. Improving in one area allows for more’ breathing space’ in others.
- Maximise your travel: If you do have to fly (like I do at the end of the month) try to fit in as much as you can while you are there. This minimises the amount of times you have to fly. Instead of taking several short breaks a year and several flights, go for one long one. If you need to travel for work see if you can extend your stay to maximise what you can get done, or perhaps squeeze in a holiday. When it comes down to it not many people actually like being on a plane. So it’s better to reduce the flying time and increase the fun!
To be honest I am pretty lucky to call Queensland’s Sunshine Coast home as it is a tourist destination with an ‘endless summer’ lifestyle. It can be difficult to leave at times because the lifestyle here is so relaxed that you don’t need to go far to feel refreshed. The photos above are from my favourite little beach destination just south of Coolum Beach. The best part is that it can be assessed easily by public transport or bike for locals! No need to stress about eco-footprints. The last photo is from the top of the popular walking trail at Mt. Coolum. As you can see there are some winter bush burn offs happening at the moment which made for pretty spectacular skies.
Do you have any tips on greening air travel?
We would love for you to share them with us below!