Air travel and climate change

A picture of an airplane taken from the ground

What’s the problem with flying?

Flights are energy-intensive and depend on fossil fuels. Subsidies from fuel taxes give the airline industry an unfair advantage over other transportation modes. Consumers don’t see the true environmental costs of their air travel because low flight prices don’t reflect their environmental impact. Emissions from flights stay in the atmosphere and will warm it for several centuries. Because aircraft emissions are released high in the atmosphere, they have a potent climate impact, triggering chemical reactions and atmospheric effects that heat the planet.

A quarter of all emissions could be from flying by 2050

While many sectors are beginning to reduce their emissions, aviation’s have continued to grow. Carbon emissions from the airline industry grew by 75 per cent from 1990 to 2012. It’s expected they will continue to grow rapidly until 2050. If left unchecked, they could consume a full quarter of the available carbon budget for limiting temperature rise to 1.5 C.

Do new technologies make flying sustainable?

Requirements around biofuels and electrification could help. Because of battery weight, electrification fits for flights under 1,500 kilometres. That’s a problem since 80 per cent of flying is for flights longer than that.

Choose individual airlines carefully

Some airlines are taking voluntary steps to reduce carbon pollution. Choose airlines that have an efficient fleet and fly their planes with few empty seats. (Atmosfair.de has a ranking of emissions by airline.) Many airlines offer offsets to consumers. Some airlines that fly short distances, like B.C.’s Harbour Air, are switching to electric fleets.

Climate aviation facts

  • One return flight from Montreal to London emits as much carbon emissions as heating a European home for an entire year.
  • If the aviation sector were a nation, it would be among the top 10 global emitters. It is responsible for 12 per cent of transportation emissions.
  • The global tourism industry is responsible for eight per cent of global emissions — more than the construction industry!
  • Airline flying is going up five per cent a year but efficiency improvements have only increased by one to two per cent.
  • Airline emissions make up a little more than three per cent of total emissions in Canada.
  • The total carbon impact of a single flight is so high that avoiding just one trip can be equivalent to going (gasoline) car-free for a year.

Think twice before you grab that great flight deal for a weekend away in the sun. It’s not so great when you think about the emissions that will continue to warm the planet for centuries.

Tom Green, climate policy analyst, David Suzuki Foundation

What’s the best climate response to flying?

01

Go all the way

Take a page from Greta Thunberg and the David Suzuki Foundation’s Gideon Forman and commit to stop flying altogether.

02

Take some steps

Fly only when necessary and stay longer. When flying for work, group meetings together. Take direct flights when possible. Or, skip the flight and use video teleconferencing.

03

Make a small change

If you must travel, offsets are a partial solution to lowering your impact.

Five ways to reduce your carbon footprint

Here are some meaningful decisions you can make to reduce your carbon footprint when you fly.

Fly economy

Fly economy instead of business class to improve efficiency.

Take direct, non-stop flights

Take direct, non-stop flights to avoid high emissions during takeoff and landing.

Take daytime flights

Take daytime flights (due to heat-trapping effect of contrails and cirrus clouds at night, sunlight reflecting during day).

Choose airlines carefully

Choose airlines carefully. (Some airlines do a better job of ensuring they have a full passenger load and fly more efficient planes.)

What does bold climate action on aviation mean?

Changing the way the aviation industry operates will make a bigger climate impact than individual choices. The airline industry is not accountable for its climate impacts. The industry needs carbon-pricing regulations to drive down pollution.

Five actions you can take to hold industry accountable

01

Ask airlines to do their part

Ask airlines whether they are buying carbon offsets themselves (not just offering them to you).

02

Demand more from the industry

Demand climate action from the International Civil Aviation Organization.

03

Make aviation accountable

Demand that international aviation be included under the Paris Agreement.

04

Elect climate-friendly governments

Elect politicians who are serious about reducing emissions and who have meaningful climate plans supported by science.

05

Price flying pollution

Demand that aviation industry regulators remove the unfair tax-free status of jet fuel for international flights and apply carbon pricing.