I used to love flying, being able to travel and see different parts of the world, to explore, relax, and visit people (and sometimes I had to work too). I had a childish pleasure from accelerating and taking off. As a child I liked making Airfix model planes, and I can still remember feeling awed watching Concorde.
So when climate change came along, I was in no hurry to focus on flights. I’m not alone in this, I find it’s one of the things wealthier people are least keen to change. But it’s very important we do. Flying has the biggest climate impact most of us can have in our everyday lives – one passenger’s share of a long haul flight emits more than an average year’s car driving. Flying high up in the atmosphere increases the plane’s greenhouse effect.
I’m not talking about piloting light aircraft as a hobby, or island hopping. Big jet planes are the issue, and there won’t be a technological solution any time soon. We can swap fossil fuel cars for electric cars; we can swap fossil fuel power stations for renewables (with batteries); we can swap meat for fish, nuts, beans, and much else. Planes are harder. We can swap planes for trains or ferries when the distances aren’t too big, and most freight can go by ship, but from Britain to the US, for example, it’s pretty much fly or don’t go.
There are many people working on electric planes. There already are electric stunt planes. 2019 saw the first commercial electric flight, a 6-passenger seaplane for short journeys in Canada. I hope in 20 years or so we’ll have electric short-haul flights in Europe, or Sydney to Melbourne, that kind of distance. Long-haul will be more challenging, and I’m not sure it’ll be in my lifetime.
We can shave a bit off the emissions with more efficient planes, but we’ve already had a century of aircraft design and they’re pretty efficient already. We can add some biofuel from crops into aviation fuel, but it means not using that land for food, or trees which would absorb more carbon.
At the moment if you fly you can offset. This usually means paying someone else to plant trees to absorb enough carbon to match the extra emissions of your flight, or possibly to provide a fuel efficient stove to someone who’d otherwise cook on an open fire. Check it’s with a gold standard outfit, such as Climate Stewards, and if you can’t avoid the flight it’s worth doing. But it’s going to get harder for there to be any carbon-cutting to add that wasn’t going to happen anyway. It’s much better to avoid the flight.
Many countries are now aiming to reach net zero by 2050; every part of the economy will have to decarbonize, but few countries have planned aviation’s share of that. For example in the UK, aviation’s current target is just to cut emissions back to what they were in 2005, and rely on the rest of us to take enough carbon out of the atmosphere to make up for it. The industry is hoping to grow at the same time, which seems heroically optimistic to me.
So I think it’s vital not to expand airports like Heathrow. Currently, more flights mean more climate disasters like the bushfires in Australia, and expanding airports reminds me of building new cigarette factories 20 years ago – people still wanted cigarettes, there were jobs to create and money to be made, but the demand was about to fall and the cigarette companies were about to lose legal actions for billions of dollars of damages.
So let’s plan how to fly less. There’s also a pledge for a flight free (rest of) 2020 at flightfree.co.uk if you’re interested.