Flying & Climate Change


Flying and Climate Change 

Air planes deposit their emissions at various levels of the atmosphere with impacts on climate change different from ground level depositions. In 2006 air traffic controllers in the USA handled 61.1 million takeoffs and landings. This is expected to increase by 1.4 million every year until 2020. Global annual airline passengers are predicted to double to 9 billion by 2025.

Five million barrels of petroleum are used per day for transport of people and freight by air. For short flights (London - Manchester) carbon emissions per flight passenger is double that for car passengers and some 13 times higher than for train or bus passengers. A round-trip flight between New York and Tokyo emits some 2.4 tonnes of carbon per passenger.  

The British Carbon Neutral Company calculates a return flight from London to Bangkok, Thailand, at 2.1 tonnes of carbon dioxide per passenger, which it charges around 30 Euros to offset.  Swiss-based Myclimate arrives at 3.6 tonnes and 86 Euros for the same flight, and the German Atmosfair reckons 6.9 tonnes and 139 Euros. The figures differ because the Carbon Neutral Company calculates only the extra carbon dioxide emitted per passenger on a given route.  Other providers multiply that impact by a factor of 2-3. This is because aircraft emissions, including nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide and planes' vapour trails, have a more complex effect on clouds, ozone and climate than do those from earthbound polluters

Edenhofer (economist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research in Germany) estimates that including aviation in European Union emission-trading schemes would make flights 50 - 80 % more expensive. Only such a move would force people to reconsider flying, he says: “Carbon dioxide must have a price - full stop." (Nature, 28 December, 2006 page 976 - 977). 

Emissions trading for airline companies or passengers may help in controlling greenhouse gas increases and fly carbon neutral. This would impose carbon caps and require purchases of credits from other industries if the caps are exceeded.  The first problem, as seen above, is simply calculating the amount of carbon that needs to be offset.

“The growth in aviation and the need to address climate change cannot be reconciled” (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,2006). 

Klaus Jericho
Southern Alberta Group for the Environment
April 12, 2007