2019 is coming to an end and by December 31st I will have been on 81 flights and 274 hours in total this year. The 210,493 kilometers I have flown in 2019 does not include one helicopter ride I took after an avalanche looked me in a valley. I would have probably also circumnavigated the earth more than 5.25 times if the Eurostar wouldn’t be such an excellent connection with the Eurostar on my 15+ trips from London to Brussels.
And while many of my frequent flyer friends would chuckle about the fact ‘that I didn’t even hit the 100 flights a year’, many concerned environmentalists think that we should stop flying at all and the few private trips my statistic include were unnecessary.
So should I be ashamed of flying?
Looking at the facts might be a better way to navigate one through the flight shaming debate than just parroting the claims and allegations of environmental activists.
If you care about the environment better fly!
Flying has actually overtaken car rides nearly 20 years ago as the more fuel (and hence carbon-) efficient means of transportation. Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute calculated that driving in 2010 was even about twice as energy-intensive as flying commercially.
Comparing train rides to flights, trains will look often much better than flying. However this also depends always on where the electricity of the train is coming from (or if the train is even Diesel-fueled). Wired writes:
“It also makes a big difference whether the train is diesel-powered or electric, and – if it’s the latter – how that electricity is generated. In France, for instance, where a lot of energy comes from nuclear power and trains are mostly electric, travelling by train is greener than in the UK, which has delayed electrification plans indefinitely – although even a journey by diesel train still produces 84 per cent less carbon than flying.
More than half of the emissions related to rail come from infrastructure activities such as building stations, laying tracks, lightning stations and powering escalators. Of course, that’s not enough to bring train emissions close to those of passenger flights, but it’s something to bear in mind when high-speed rail is touted as a greener alternative. If the routes don’t already exist, there will be a carbon cost to building them – and the rise of electric cars may change the equation further.”
If you want to feel good that you take the train you first might want to check if it’s fueled by a carbon neutral energy source such as nuclear energy. Hence the likelihood to feel environmentally conscious is higher when you take a TGV through the nuclear nation of France than an electric train or diesel train through Germany where 50% of the energy generation comes from fossil fuels and similar CO2 emitters (coal, gas, oil).
Andre Gocavles writes on youMatter.world about how flying is more economical and better for the environment than taking the car. He also spends a good amount of time criticizing the average numbers shown by the European Environment Agency (EEA) that are usually quoted to show how bad flying is for the environment. The EEA uses very high load factors for cars, does discount the change these cars get stuck in traffic or use air conditioning. At the same time they take below industry-average load factors for planes to put them in a (apparently politically motivated) worse light than cars. At the same time evidence tells you another story:
“In the end, a journey by plane is often environmentally better than one by car for long journeys. All other things being alike, choosing the plane increases the occupancy rate of the planes – which will take-off anyway whether you are in it or not. Doing it also reduces traffic congestion and, therefore, optimizes the overall transportation networks. Most times, if you’re carrying less than 4 people in your car, choosing the plane will give you a lower CO2 footprint. And the longer the distance, the more this logic is true. Why? Because a plane’s CO2 emissions are higher during the take-off and landing phases. So the longer the flight is, more kilometers or miles the plane will have to soften the impact of these 2 phases.”
A lot of the comparison numbers do not take into account the CO2 footprint of actually building train tracks and maintaining them. Poor occupancy rates of trains are also not mentioned.
And if you still feel bad about your (relatively low) carbon footprint caused by flying you might want to follow some of the policy suggestions offered by Reason Foundation’s Bob Poole
- “Massive Forest Restoration: A number of recent papers in peer-reviewed journals have found that there is room, on land areas adjacent to existing forests, for huge amounts of carbon-absorbing trees to be planted. A widely noted paper in Science by Jean-Francois Bastin and others estimates that reforesting 2.2 billion acres of such land could absorb 205 gigatonnes of carbon. There are a number of other scientific papers along these lines and an overview article in Scientific American.
Agricultural Land Restoration: Bloomberg News reported that for an estimated $300 billion, about 2 billion acres of worn-out farmland could be restored to productive use, sequestering carbon in the process. It cited research by the UN Food & Agriculture Organization and others. The Wall Street Journal discussed a start-up company, Indigo Ag Inc., that is setting up a market for carbon credits based on this idea.“
Planes have become at least 4 times more carbon efficient compared to where they were in the 1970’s. The rise of low cost carriers have brought more narrow setups of seats on planes and occupancy rates of 90% and above due to better route planning. So the next time you hear an environmentalist complaining about flying being too cheap, feel free to respond that especially those who made flying cheaper also helped to bring down its per passenger carbon footprint. These developments are highly encouraging and also a faster improvement than with any other technology. Flight shaming and ban of this great way of transportation would kill innovation that could make flying even less noisy and less polluting.
With that I wish you all very Happy Holidays and a good start into 2020.
Consumer Choice Center
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