The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Grounded for the Climate
A month ago, right after the release of the amazingly challenging report from the IPCC about what must be done to stabilize climate change, a friend wrote to me. She said,
Did you notice that the NYT editorial on the IPCC report couldn't bring itself to mention flying less as something 'we' need to do? Unbelievable to me ... it's apparently the 3rd rail.
As you might recall from my short summary of the IPCC report, the climate challenges we face are dramatic. Two of the key statements in the report, for me, were these:
Limiting warming to 1.5 C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics, but doing so would require unprecedented changes.
Big changes have to happen, very soon, in all sectors. These will take government policy changes, technological transformations, and innumerable shifts in behaviors. Is flying -- both as a personal choice and as a major global industry -- worth naming in that long list?
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When airline travel is compared with other personal choices in terms of our contribution to climate change, it turns out to be a very big factor.
An infographic making those comparisons appeared in 2017 in the journal Environmental Research Letters. A study compared a wide range of options, ranging from upgrading light bulbs (a little tiny impact), through recycling and replacing a typical car with a hybrid (both in the "moderate impact" section, and into the high impact choices. Four actions that most substantially decrease an individual's carbon footprint are eating a plant-based diet, avoiding air travel, living car-free, and having one fewer child.
The choice for a smaller family has about 20 times the climate benefit as living car free -- this is clearly a profoundly important decision for those at a stage of life to be considering such things. But I was amazed at how air travel fit into the sequence of options.
The actual label on the chart ranks "avoid one transatlantic flight" as having twice the benefit of eating a plant based diet for one year. Or, there's more carbon savings from avoiding one flight than from buying green energy for a year. That is for just one flight (maybe round trip?).
Lots of studies agree -- eating a plant based diet is a really significant thing to do as a way of reducing your contribution to climate change. But all of the good that you do for the climate with two years of that healthy behavior would be wiped out if you spend 16 hours in the air with a jaunt from Chicago to Paris and back.
The David Suzuki Foundation tells us that aviation accounts for four to nine per cent of the total climate change impact of human activity. "Compared to other modes of transport, such as driving or taking the train, travelling by air has a greater climate impact per passenger kilometre, even over longer distances. It's also the mode of freight transport that produces the most emissions."
Clearly, flying is a sector of human activities that should be singled out for a hard look as we try to make fast and dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
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It turns out that this is a good season to think about the impacts of flying. The industry group Airlines for America has put out their air travel forecast for this year's 11 day Thanksgiving travel season (November 16-27), and it reveals how much we fly.
They are expecting 30.6 million passengers to fly during that period -- an average of 2.55 million passengers per day. Airlines for America seems to consider it exciting good news that this year's travel is a 5.7% increase over last year. Their graphic shows Thanksgiving figures going back to 2010, when there were "only" 24.3 million passengers -- 26% less than this year.
Thanksgiving is a very busy season for air travel -- which means that it is a season with an outsized impact on the global climate -- and much of that travel is discretionary. All those folk taking a quick trip to visit the relatives are causing enormous amounts of CO2 and other climate-warping emissions to go into the stratosphere, where they have a much larger impact than the same emissions at ground level.
The climate impacts of air travel happen year round, of course, and the total volume of air travel continues to increase year after year. Newer aircraft do provide more efficient travel, with less CO2 emissions, but those technological improvements are nowhere near adequate to the deep emission reductions that are needed.
Another industry group, IATA, has a fact sheet on the aviation industry's targets to mitigate CO2 emissions. They're looking for average improvement in fuel efficiency of 1.5% per year from 2009 to 2020, a cap on net aviation CO2 emissions after 2020, and a reduction in net aviation CO2 emissions of 50% by 2050, relative to 2005 levels.
That's nowhere near good enough. The IPCC report, in describing the sort of reductions in carbon emissions that are required under the most responsible pathways to a stable climate says that the planet needs a 93% reduction in emissions by 2050 relative to 2010 levels. A 50% cut from more efficient planes contradicts realistic climate action.
Nothing in the IATA sheet suggests that reducing the volume of air travel as a climate change strategy. Indeed, the Association predicts that passenger numbers could double by 2037. But without an actual reduction in the number of flights, aviation will continue to have an unacceptably large impact in warping and damaging Earth's climate.
What is to be done?
Air travel does seem to be an unspoken "third rail" in strategies for climate action. The suggestion that we fly less challenges deep seated notions of personal freedom, threatens the profits of powerful industries, and is a threat to tourist-dependent communities.
If we are to stand any chance of making the necessary reductions in climate damaging emissions, though, air travel is a sector that must change. Many of those passenger and freight miles don't serve an essential purpose. We need to stay home or travel on the ground for the sake of a livable climate.
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