If global aviation was a country, it would rank in the top 10 emitters, according to the EU.
Whatever the other reasons behind Norwegian diplomat Erik Solheim’s departure as head of the United Nations Environment Program, there was one problem that’s shared by millions of people: traveling by air.
Solheim was a frequent flyer at UNEP – and to his credit, highly visible because of his global presence – but that contributed to his replacement, with Tanzanian acting director Joyce Msuya stepping up on November 23. People who rack up the air miles create an enormous carbon footprint because of jet-fueled emissions, and the expensive and excessive air travel seemed inconsistent with UNEP’s mission on climate action.
Those decisions about whether one should fly or not, or feel guilty if one does instead of taking a train or intercity bus, or whether to assuage the conscience with carbon offsets, affect more climate-conscious people every day.
Air travel seems unavoidable especially at the holidays because so many travelers are headed home to see family, and what Scrooge would argue against visiting Mom while scratching CO2 calculations in their head? It’s also a critical decision year-round for people who do business or study abroad, for scientists whose research needs to be done on site, and for many an academic conference. Some views on that are changing though – even getting a little political – as experts question the impact of flying, which varies widely but is almost always a less climate-friendly choice than trains, buses or even personal driving.
“If global aviation was a country, it would rank in the top 10 emitters,” says the European Union. “Someone flying from London to New York and back generates roughly the same level of emissions as the average person in the EU does by heating their home for a whole year.”
Dr. Peter Kalmus is a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, where presumably they know a thing or two about flying. He’s also the founder of “No Fly Climate Sci,” an online community for scientists and academics who have stopped or dramatically dialed down their flight miles. He keeps a list on the site and bios from people like Sara Rebecka Ivarsson, a doctoral candidate at the University of Gothenburg.
“I stopped flying last year and try to reduce my footprint as much as possible,” Ivarsson said. “I think that the academic world still has a huge responsibility to speak up, show the facts, be part of the discussion of how we can change society.”
Sometimes that voice is a climate journalist who realizes that a prestigious flight to South Korea for the October unveiling of a special United Nations climate report is a little too antithetical to the mission when you can participate via livestream. Sometimes it’s a climate activist – like Rob Hopkins of the UK-based Transition Movement – who quit flying years ago. He’ll be your keynote speaker but only by telecom, breaking that rule just once in 11 years until in 2017, when he agreed to fly but made a highly visible message of it.
Universities themselves have taken up the no-fly banner. Ghent University in Belgium announced in June that about 15 percent of its overall CO2 emissions were tied to work-related travel, and it would no longer pay for air travel to some 60 cities within a range reached by a six-hour bus or train ride instead.
Airlines too are working to become more efficient and offer meaningful offset programs, yet ultimately the decision comes down to the consumer. Probably the best strategy is to become intentional about travel, make informed and mindful decisions about when and how and why you fly – and know what the cost is to the climate and your fellow planetary travelers.