Any basic guide on how to reduce your emissions or live more sustainably will tell you to drive less, or drive vehicles that use less gas. Whether the solution offered is walking, biking, public transit, or hybrids, the mainstream of environmental thought has definitely made it clear that burning fuel in vehicles is bad, and you should do whatever you can to do it less. But if driving to work is worthy of some degree of green guilt, how am I supposed to feel about a trans-atlantic flight?
The carbon dioxide emissions of a roundtrip flight between London and New York are estimated to work out to roughly 1.2 tonnes per person. To put this in perspective, that’s roughly equal to the total emission amount a single person in an industrialized country would be allowed in an entire year, if national quotas were set to control global temperature increase. In 1996, emissions produced by the global aviation industry were equal to the sum total of emissions from all industry in Canada, and the aviation industry has only grown since then. Add in the fact that airplanes deposit carbon dioxide directly into the upper atmosphere, and that the other substances released by the burning of jet fuel make aircraft emissions 2 to 4 times more harmful than carbon dioxide alone2, and the prospect of flying across the world in a plane begins to weigh heavily on anyone with even the slightest environmental conscience.
As a result of strict weight and volume limitations, there are no low carbon aircraft fuel options that look like they could be adopted anytime in the near future. The current structure of international law makes it impossible to apply a fuel tax to international flights. As long as the demand for air travel exists (and especially if it continues to increase in its current pattern) there will continue to be significant and damaging jet fuel emissions released into our atmosphere. Is it at all possible then to reconcile a desire to travel with concern for the environment?
The difficulty with flying is that there is no easy “green alternative”: for travel plans involving air travel, there is often no feasible form of alternate transportation. You can’t walk or bike across a major body of water, public transportation connections aren’t going to get you to another continent, and you have no say in the fuel efficiency of the plane you ride on.
The decision to fly encompasses a difficult dichotomy between environmental and global consciousness. At its base, environmental consciousness seems to warn against flying, but global consciousness is greatly enhanced by travel that is often possible only with the use of flight. However, as is almost always the case, when you dive deeper the issues become progressively tangled and muddled. Travelling to natural wonders may lead to greater environmental appreciation, but environmental tourism can become a self-eroding industry as higher numbers of travellers place increased strain on the very environments that inspired them to make their trips in the first place. Decreasing flight prices makes air travel more accessible, but this accessibility increases emissions drastically without ever reaching the populations of the world who are most immediately vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
The struggle to reconcile travel with environmentalism is not one I can provide any sort of easy solution to. There is no apparent win-win situation where you get all the benefits of travel with none of the resulting environmental damage. But, as in any difficult decision, conscious action is infinitely preferable to ignorance. I am not about to suggest that anyone give up on the notion of world travel all together. Though air travel may be resistant to attempts to decrease personal emissions, the value of travel experience is not something that should be immediately or easily surrendered. Instead, we can all make choices that increase our sustainability on the ground both at home and in the places we travel to. We should be aware of the impacts of flying, without allowing the sobriety of statistics to stop us from pursuing important life experiences.