24 May 2010: Opinion

Toward Sustainable Travel:
Breaking the Flying Addiction

Flying dwarfs any other individual activity in terms of carbon emissions, yet more and more people are traveling by air. With no quick technological fix on the horizon, what alternatives — from high-speed trains to advanced videoconferencing — can cut back the amount we fly?

by elisabeth rosenthal

In most departments I have excellent green credibility, and my carbon footprint is small. I have not owned a car in more than 20 years and commute to work by subway. I walk to the market and generally no longer buy produce flown in from far away. I recycle. I have an air-conditioner, but use it only on the hottest of days. I have gone paperless with all my bills.

But my good acts of responsible environmental stewardship are undercut by one persistent habit that will be hard to break, if it is possible at all: I am a frequent flyer, Platinum Card. Last year, I traveled nearly 100,000 miles of mostly long-haul travel. And that figure puts me in the minor leagues compared to legions of business consultants, international lawyers, UN functionaries — and even climate scientists — who certainly travel much more.

Flying, particularly on long-haul flights, is so highly emitting that it dwarfs everything else on an individual carbon budget. Many climate groups have calculated that in a sustainable world each person would have a carbon allowance of two to four tons of carbon emissions annually. Any single
The number of aviation hours will grow an average of 2.5 percent a year through 2030.
long-haul flight nearly “instantly uses that up,” said Christian Jardine, a senior researcher at the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University.

Despite the fact that most governments have vowed to reduce carbon emissions by a significant chunk by 2020, most of us are flying more and more. So while emissions from most other sectors are falling, they are relentlessly rising for aviation and will continue to do so.

According to various estimates, emissions from aviation currently represent 2 to 3 percent of CO2 emissions and are likely to double or triple by 2050. The United States’ Federal Aviation Administration projects that even after the air travel slowdowns caused by 9/11 and the recent economic collapse and the rise in fuel prices and the bankruptcy of several major carriers in the past few years, the number of general aviation hours will grow an average 2.5 percent a year through 2030, according to the latest projection.

While jobs and housing and car sales are only slowly recovering from the economic crisis of 2008-9, airline travel has rebounded with a vengeance: In March, international air travel, measured in paid passenger miles, was 10.3 percent higher than a year earlier, according to the International Air Transport Association. Airfreight, measured by the weight of goods flown, was 28.1 percent higher. In fact, current levels of air travel and freight are only 1 percent below their early 2008 highs. Can the stock market replicate that?

The current vogue of canceling out the emissions effect of plane travel by purchasing carbon offsets to support activities like tree-planting in Africa
When do we really need to fly on an airplane, and can or should we change that?
has come under fire as a feel-good illusion and, anyway, cannot be scaled up to cover the amount of flying going on. Although the airline industry is working hard to improve efficiency with more direct routes and less idling time on the runway, it acknowledges such activities yield limited, one-time gains. There is no quick technological fix, like fully renewable airline fuel, on the horizon.

Given the math, it is easy to feel all is lost. George Monbiot concludes in his book, Heat, that to meet current environmental targets set by the British government for 2050, almost all flying will have to stop and the current fleet of planes grounded. “I recognize this will not be a popular message,” he writes.

Many of us by now have adjusted our land transportation habits — buying hybrid cars, revisiting public transportation, or biking to work, for example. But few have addressed what I call the “flyers’ dilemma”: When do we really need to fly on an airplane, and can or should we change that? With business and life so dependent on air travel, it is hard to even imagine how to do with less. In 2005, Allianz employees flew 490 million kilometers a year — 12.5 thousand times around the world, according to the company’s filing with the Carbon Disclosure Project, whose corporate members agree to report their carbon emissions, with an eye ultimately to reducing them.

Anyone who cares about a future with lower emissions and less fossil fuel must face the problem and some, like Paul Dickinson, executive director of the Carbon Disclosure Project, say change is inevitable: “I’m absolutely,
‘I’m sure people like you and me will be flying a lot less in 5 to 10 years,’ says one expert.
definitely sure that people like you and me will be flying a lot less in 5 to 10 years.” Last month the European Environment Agency started a series of workshops with representatives from all over Europe assembled in Copenhagen to think about how Europe might function in the future without air travel — or with much less of it. (Participants, ironically, flew in.) But how to reduce or eliminate an activity that has become as reflexive as hopping in the car?

High-speed trains will steal market share from flying — they are already doing so on some short-haul routes in Asia and Europe. Emissions estimates of train versus plane vary tremendously, depending on the how you do the calculation. Christian Jardine notes that estimates for airline travel range from 98.3 to 175.3 grams of CO2 per kilometer for each passenger, depending on things like aircraft type and whether the warming effect of airplane contrails is added in. Reasonable estimates for trains depend a lot on the source of electricity the train is using (coal versus nuclear versus renewable). Jardine says he uses a per-person estimate of 17.7 grams per kilometer for international train rides and 60.2 for British national travel. (Much of Britain’s electricity comes from coal, while France’s is from nuclear.)

Where there is very high-speed rail and the distance is less than 350 miles, such as Barcelona to Madrid, train is a no-brainer, quicker than flying. Once you’ve ridden Spain’s AVE on the 2 ½-hour ride between those cities, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would fly the route.

Some of the reason, perversely, is price: The explosion of low-cost airlines on routes like Barcelona to Madrid and Paris to London means that it is often cheaper to take a flight than a train, regardless of the emissions consequences.

For businesses, Dickinson of the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) believes that high-quality video conferencing, like Cisco-AT’s Telepresence, will displace a huge amount of flying. (Full disclosure: Dickinson has financial
If airline fuel or emissions are ever taxed, ticket prices will rise and travel will decline.
interest in a company that sets up conferences). Video conference? I know. Videophones have been on display for decades at Disney’s EPCOT Center but, in real life, the concept has never quite gelled; it long had the feel of those telephone chats with astronauts floating in the Space Station. But with Broadband it can really be different, with images and sound so clear that it appears that the people you face on a large screen are actually in the room.

Indeed, even though Dickinson has been promoting the idea for several years, he, himself, continued to fly a lot. But when a volcanic ash cloud recently turned London into a no-fly zone, he was forced into a serious road test: On April 18 he was scheduled to interview candidates for the job of CDP’s China director in Beijing. When his flight was canceled, he decided to nonetheless proceed with the interviews, virtually. “I interviewed three candidates and chose one — it was unbelievably good,” he said. “Next time I won’t buy a ticket.”

I think this attitude will spread, and is embedded already in the generation now emerging from universities and graduate schools. While people of my generation feel the need for eye contact to negotiate or a handshake to seal a deal, this new generation is far more comfortable with the reality of virtual presence. My two teenagers happily do group school projects and debate team preparation over Skype, MSM or Google chat. When I (50-something) suggest they should meet up in person, they roll their eyes. What would be the point of schlepping across town for tasks like this? You schlep for fun things, like movies and parties.


What Makes Europe
Greener than the U.S.?

Green Lifestyle
The average American produces three times the amount of CO2 emissions as a person in France. Elisabeth Rosenthal, a U.S. journalist now living in Europe, explains how she learned to love her clothesline and sweating in summer.
Price pressure, too, I think will force us to rethink this flying habit. In 2012, airlines enter Europe’s emissions trading scheme. If airline fuel or emissions are ever taxes or traded — and I’d guess they will be — ticket prices will rise, and travel will decline.

Of course all this won’t be enough to totally solve the aviation emissions problem, and will not be the solution that airlines want. I can’t imagine my job — or many jobs — getting done with one long-haul flight each year. But we could reduce our flying and emissions from air travel an awful lot. Whatever gains can be achieved through behavior, policy, and technical changes in different sectors will be important.

So now a challenge for 2010: Last year more than 40,000 people flew to Copenhagen to attend the United Nations Climate Conference, COP-15. There were scientists, negotiators, students, journalists (myself included), as well as politicians, many with 20-person retinues in tow. They were there because they cared passionately about climate. Perhaps, as COP-16 in Cancun approaches this year, each of us should ask what we add, or take away, by being on site? Do we really need to fly there?

POSTED ON 24 May 2010 IN Climate Energy Urbanization Antarctica and the Arctic 


I went a year without flying (or traveling more than 100 miles from my house). It was much, much easier than I expected. In fact, it was one of the best years of my life.

I wrote about my experience in the current (May/June) issue of Mother Jones magazine. The story is not online yet, but the printed issue is on newsstands.

The year I spent within my hundred mile habitat was a life-changing experience that I will continue to write about.

My year without travel is over, but I don't have any plans to fly. I don't miss it!

Posted by Christie Aschwanden on 24 May 2010

One thing I imagine is the return of slow travel. If "virtual office" technology such as video conferencing continues to improve, why should it be tied to a single location? For example, a future sailing ship might take 10 days to get from London to New York, but it won't matter if you can work on the way. The wind doesn't play nice, and the trip takes three more days? Not a problem. To keep costs down it can't be luxurious, but it would hopefully be nicer than economy class or a youth hostel ...

Posted by brian thomson on 24 May 2010

There is research going on in this area. An article in today's Boston Globe featured an MIT team's new airliner design that that would cut fuel consumption by 70 percent and reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by 75 percent. The present environmental impacts of air travel can be mitigated.

Posted by Richard Smith on 24 May 2010

This topic seems to be staying alive and the commentary seems to be staying the same about it.

If something accounts for 2-3% of emissions, it's a pretty good bet it's not the most damaging activity that humans do to the climate. It is energy intensive in terms of amount consumed per unit of time, but the fact is that long-haul jet travel is far more fuel efficient, in terms of btu per passenger-mile, than many forms of transportation, particularly on the newest generation of jets. They are efficient mostly for the same reason most forms of mass transportation are.

With respect to that, I find it odd that mass transit is somehow considered green, and that
we consider our incremental use of it to be insignificant in terms of marginal carbon output,
but when it comes to airplanes, the focus tends to be on emission averages per passenger, not marginal emissions that come from the small extra weight on the plane.

Then to take airplanes and compare it to rail can also be misleading. First and foremost, since intercity buses are far more carbon efficient in the US, but this never seems to get mentioned.

This notion that it's 18-60 grams of CO2 emissions per passenger-mile of train travel really doesn't hold water in the US. It's actually 154 grams for Amtrak's diesel trains, compared to 208 grams for domestic flying. Plus, given the scarcity of Amtrak routes, the distance for a given segment is likely about 1.4 times that of air travel. So, given two points that are 1,000 miles apart as the crow flies, the average domestic flying emissions would be 208 kg, compared to 218 kg via Amtrak.

This doesn't even cover the fact that the distances are pretty substantial and thus the
time to cover them is widely different between non-stop flying and Amtrak.

To give further perspective, per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the US are around 23,000 kg CO2 equivalent. So that 1,000 mile journey is around 1% of that. Given that very few people actually have 100,000 mile travel schedules, or anything even approaching that (at least half of Americans don't fly in a given year), it's not really a major concern for normal people.

Posted by TW on 25 May 2010

As was mentioned here, governments are loath to really tackle this issue because it offers limited opportunities to reduce emissions without actually going to the tricky business of changing people´s behaviour. This has made it a taboo for a lot of governments, including ones which claim to be ensuring real measures to reduce GHG emissions. Often the accusation is that people who want to reduce emissions from travel seek to exclude the poor, but I´m not so sure this argument stands up. Even within developed countries, there´s a massive inequality in the people who actually fly significantly, and it would definitely be possible to reduce flights without prejudicing against the poor. The real challenge would be to make it politically viable, and get ´buy-in´from populations. Maybe this could be achieved by imposing air taxes above a certain number of air miles (thereby not affecting infrequent flyers), and then returning some of the proceeds to people who don´t fly at all. At Due South (http://www.iied.org/sustainable-markets/blog/due-south) we´re looking a lot at the effects of climate change on people in the Global South, and anyone interested is welcome to come along and let us know what you think!
Posted by Due South on 25 May 2010

'According to various estimates, emissions from aviation currently represent 2 to 3 percent of CO2 emissions...' I think this is a figure from 1992 and the real emissions amount to quite a bit more than this now.
Posted by Jackie MacDonald on 25 May 2010

Elizabeth, perhaps you could add some information on radiative forcing. It's my understanding that a pound of CO2 emitted in the stratosphere is not the same as a pound emitted at ground level?

Thanks, good article.

Posted by Mike O'Brien on 28 May 2010

Sustainable flying is an oxymoron. Like so many other things which didn't exist for 99.9% of human history, it is somehow something we can't give up.
There is simply no need to fly, except to fulfill an anxiety created by the pressures of conspicuous consumption and marketing that we are somehow missing out on something.

Most of us have no knowledge or connection with the places we actually live in, and if we had the awe and humility to focus on learning where we are and becoming engaged with where we are and the community -- of all life, not just one species -- with which we interact we might wake up and realize that we don't miss flying, or the nicotine patch of "video conferencing".

I am disturbed that the historical circumstances of my life now require me to routinely travel distances of more than 50 miles; while I do occasionally travel farther by surface transit, I find that I prefer not to, and look forward to the time when retirement or more effective disengagement from the cash economy will allow me to reduce my travel even further.
Posted by Jerry Silberman on 28 May 2010

The effects of Peak Oil and global financial collapse will force many to break the flying habit without exerting any willpower.

Airplanes won't go away. Flying, however, will just be a mode of travel for the extremely wealthy.

Posted by John Andersen on 29 May 2010

While it's true that aviation produces fewer carbon emissions than some of the other big carbon sources, aviation emissions create disproportionate harm.

At Atmosfair.de you can calculate your flying emissions. They also offer a breakdown on the environmental impacts from aviation:

Most of the earth's inhabitants will never get on an airplane. As George Monbiot states in his book, Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning, "If you fly, you destroy other people's lives."

More about why I stopped traveling here:

Posted by Christie Aschwanden on 31 May 2010

And you haven't discussed the electricty in the Aluminium the aircraft is made with. I have a two word answer - Carbon Tax.

And a 3 word answer - Bigger Carbon Tax.

The only way to shift public behaviour is to hit them in the pocket, individuals and businesses alike. An international carbon tax is the only answer as it internalises the cost of the carbon into the purchasing decision.

Posted by mark robson on 31 May 2010

"I can’t imagine my job — or many jobs — getting done with one long-haul flight each year."

Until we come up with a vision for a future where we have locally based economies, flying will continue to part of our way of life. But once we start to see that we do not need a global economy, then our imaginations will help us to see that flying around the world in a matter of hours is simply something we no longer need to do. The places we live will be the source of what we need, rather then the current paradigm where our insatiable wants leave us traveling more and more in search of what we can only find at home.

Posted by Tom Jablonski on 01 Jun 2010

I think the one real solution to this “sustainable flying” is to increase the price. Of course this would require further taxation and I do not foresee any government or the people that represent that government fully supporting this initiative. But if the cost of a flight was tripled, I think we can all agree that it would suddenly go from a necessary part of life to, “Hey maybe I don't have to go on that weekend trip”. Take southwest for example, $49 each way...I'm not going to say I don't enjoy this deal. But if it was $150 each way, I know for a fact those flights would not be fully booked. Just my two cents.

Posted by Mike on 13 Jun 2010

I would expect that most of the air travel done today is "holiday" travel as compared to "business" travel.

I've never had the priviledge of having cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. living locally, so every other year or so I travel to Europe to see those that are still alive. I also like to visit, about once a year, countries with different cultures to see how those people work and live. By exchanging homes we reduce the cost of the visits and use local modes of transport to get around once there. Our holidays are not working holidays, but one would consider them "cultural exchanges."

It is difficult to change this life style and I am aware of the consequences for the future, but I'm also desperately hopeful, as I believe millions of other people are, that our children and grandchildren can be rescued by innovation and invention from the destruction we are heaping on their heads. I'm ashamed, but like a lot of addicts, can't seem to do much about my addiction.

Posted by Jackal on 21 Jun 2010

Elizabeth I like how you are starting to think about this incredibly important issue.
However one of your comments just blows me away. "I can`t imagine how I could do this job without flying."

You are a journalist. Use your imagination!

Totally agree that a massive global carbon tax is the only way that this issue will be resolved.Just read that China is about to drop its present tax in the hope that airline traffic between the mainland and Taiwan increases 20% in the next 3 years. This screams to me that they have no plan whatsoever to lower their carbon footprint as a country.

Posted by michaelqtodd on 28 Jun 2010

I have not been taking a plane for ten years. But won't boast about this: I am a physicist and I am not sure that my frequent flyer colleague really like my growth resisting behavior. However, I think it is an amazing exercise for the brain to buy cheap train tickets in Europe, find good connections and organize your trip, it is far more challenging than with flying. Basically everything is intended to make international trips expensive and difficult in Europe, I guess to protect a powerfull lobby.

But i must recognize that, nonetheless, one start very fast to develop a taste for slow travel: you have in Europe the opportunity to visit many places on the way, see other people in their own habitat, forget about the stress, take time to read and think, talk to a neighbor that will sit next to you for four hours, and may be meet love on the way! So that one really does not
miss travelling in a claustrophobic atmosphere where each trip to the next town looks rather
like a venture in space with a possible attack by terrorist alien on the way.

Posted by kerlerouge on 14 Jul 2010

One other important issue to consider is "class". A first class passenger's emissions are about 3 times higher than an economy class passenger, and business classe approximately twice as high. See for example:


Many of these major frequent fliers travel at least business class. The system also rewards frequent travellers with special lounges and special treatment. I used to receive Christmas presents from British Airways at the time I had a gold card. The client who booked my flights and many others using a single credit card received so many mile credits that he took his wife on a round the world trip. These kind of perverse rewards in addition to a tax system with write offs for travel expenses encourage more emissions. I am sure if many people could not have a huge seat they would immediately fly less.

Posted by dschaffr on 20 Jul 2010

I normally am able to put at least a little positive spin on a given subject, but in the case of air travel, I don't see much in the short-to-medium term to inspire much confidence that the situation will change appreciably anytime soon.

However, even with that rather glum take, I do see signs of hope if we look at the overall picture rather than focusing on air travel in isolation, though of course it's necessary to try to know just how much any given factor weighs in our overall energy consumption and the resulting environmental impact.

Ms. Rosenthal mentions using video conferencing instead of depending on face-to-face meetings.

That's true, though an attitude shift is necessary for many people. I'm older (59) and grew up in a setting -- rural Texas -- where nothing could quite replace looking another person in the eye. Today, I've become much more used to, and accepting of, electronic communications (and not just video conferencing, but instant messaging, texting, e-mail, etc.) than I was when such communications began developing, though of course I've had phones all my life.

For business purposes, there is a major stumbling block to relying solely on electronic communications: the law. My bank in the U.S. -- I live in Asia -- doesn't accept e-signatures, for example. They *could* accept them -- but lose much of the protection the bank has, and understandably needs. I can do certain things by going to the embassy and having a form notarized, but a number of things I cannot, such as closing or opening an account. For those, I have to be physically in the presence of a bank officer. Yes, some banks are much more flexible, but mine's not, as many others aren't. If institutions become more flexible, and if the laws evolve, maybe we can reduce the need of face-to-face meetings more.

Considering that air travel is just one relatively small part of the equation, we can take steps in other areas to help. For instance, in the past 20 years of living in Asia, I've made only 8 trips back to the U.S. -- and 2 of those were emergency trips. I haven't owned a car in 16 years, and don't need one, as I rarely need to travel even as far as a kilometer, one-way, for anything. And when I say "rarely," I mean once or twice a year. Further, over the past few years I've reduced my electricity and water consumption by about 2/3rd's without having any significant effect on my life-style, let alone any irksome effect. I don't know how much my choosing a place to live where I don't need a car has reduced my carbon footprint, nor how much it's been reduced by my cutting how much electricity and water I use, but I suppose it's significant, in the context of one person.

One area in which I am hopeful is advances in fuel efficiency, what fuels we use, and so on, including in air travel. I read just a few days ago that an upcoming passenger airplane will be about 17% more fuel-efficient than the plane it's scheduled to replace. If anyone ever comes up with a way to make fuel from algae in a cost-effective way, that will be a huge plus.

These advances aren't only in airplanes, as we see with the soon-to-hit-the-market electric vehicles. I know there's work being done to make sails practical for even the largest ships, reducing their fuel consumption over time, though wind is intermittent and variable. Alternative energy sources hold enormous potential, especially as storage technology improves (to handle those times when the wind isn't blowing or the sun isn't shining).

Several people here have supported the idea of a carbon tax. So do I -- but just try selling people on the idea, particularly, it seems, we Americans. The same is true of ending the various subsidies we provide for fossil fuels -- I've read that if every form of such subsidies in the U.S. were eliminated today, the cost of fuels would double or triple at the pump tomorrow. Ditto electricity, given that we get a very large amount of our electricity from coal-powered power plants.

I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for a carbon tax, cap-and-trade, or the like, however, *especially* in the U.S., the gorilla on the block when it comes to energy and, per capita, pollution/GHG emissions.

An interesting article, Ms. Rosenthal -- thanks.

Posted by Mekhong Kurt on 02 Nov 2010

I retired as a commercial pilot in 1993 after 20 years flying. I now think air travel is no longer needed at all.

When you look at what aircraft have caused compared to their advantages it is amazing they
still exist. I concede that the aviation industry employs a lot of people, but then other industries
have gone and employment has recovered.

Allows people to see the world quickly

Spread of diseases
Wasted business time - use video confrencing
Delicate small remote communities become contaminated by visitors
Local growers or produce/manufacturers lose out to overseas suppliers

Posted by Clive Sinclair on 28 Apr 2011

This is probably a dumb question, but here it is: are the costs for airline travel calculated on a per capita basis? I know a plane uses a lot of energy, but I am never the only passenger on the flights I've taken.

Posted by Cris Cristoffer on 01 May 2012

Comments have been closed on this feature.
elisabeth rosenthalABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elisabeth Rosenthal has covered international environmental issues for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune for the last three years, traveling extensively to report on environmental projects. Before that, she was a correspondent in the Times’ Beijing bureau for six years. In an earlier article for Yale Environment 360, she reflected on why Europeans tend to have greener lifestyles than Americans.



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