To fly or not to fly? The environmental cost of air travel

Though air travel is more popular than ever, the vast majority of people in the world have never been on a plane. As that dynamic slowly changes, the environment stands to suffer. Is flying less the only solution?

When was the last time you traveled by plane? As little as 3 percent of the global population flew in 2017, and at most, only about 18 percent have ever done so. But things are changing.

Nature and Environment | 04.08.2017

According to International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) estimates, there were 3.7 billion global air passengers in 2016 — and every year since 2009 has been a new record-breaker.

By 2035, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts a rise to 7.2 billion. Like the planes themselves, the numbers just keep going up. And given the damage flying does to the planet, that is food for thought.

Not just the CO2

Many estimates put aviation's share of global CO2 emissions at just above 2 percent. That's the figure the industry itself generally accepts.

But according to Stefan Gössling, a professor at Sweden's Lund and Linnaeus universities and co-editor of the book Climate Change and Aviation: Issues, Challenges and Solutions, "That's only half the truth."

Other aviation emissions such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), water vapor, particulates, contrails and cirrus changes have additional warming effects.

Beyond emissions made solely in flight, manufacturing effects within the aviation industry add considerably to its overall footprint

"The sector makes a contribution to global warming that is at least twice the effect of CO2 alone," Gössling told DW, settling on an overall contribution of 5 percent "at minimum."

But IATA spokesperson Chris Goater told DW the science behind this so-called 'radiative forcing' is "unproven".

Even if we accept the 2 percent emissions figure as final, if only 3 percent of the world's population flew last year, that relatively small group still accounted for a disproportionate chunk of global emissions.

A few years ago, environmental group Germanwatch estimated that a single person taking one roundtrip flight from Germany to the Caribbean produces the same amount of damaging emissions as 80 average residents of Tanzania do in an entire year: around four metric tons of CO2.

"On an individual level, there is no other human activity that emits as much over such a short period of time as aviation, because it is so energy-intensive," Gössling explains.

The WWF carbon footprint calculator is instructive in this regard. Even a serious environmentalist who eats vegan, heats using solar power and rides a bike to work, but who still take the occassional flight, wouldn't look very green at all.

Just two hypothetical short-haul return flights and one long-haul round-trip in a given year would outweigh otherwise exemplary behavior.

New tech can't solve everything

As awareness of the need to reduce our individual and collective carbon footprints in order to prevent climate catastrophe grows, several industries have come under sustained pressure to find clean solutions. 

The aviation sector made its own promises — in October 2016, 191 nations agreed a UN accord which aims to cut global aviation carbon emissions to 2020 levels by 2035. Another ambitious target of that agreement is for the aviation industry to achieve a 50 percent carbon emission reduction by 2050, compared to 2005 levels.

Goater says there are four ways in which the aviation industry intends to achieve these things: through carbon offsetting in the short-term, the continued development of more efficient planes, deeper investment in sustainable fuels — such as biofuels — and through better route efficiency. 

"Basically air traffic control is very inefficient," he explains. "It creates unnecessary fuel burns and more efficient use would create a 10 percent reduction in emissions."

He also highlights the fact that a number - albeit very few - of commercial flights are now powered with sustainable fuels every day, despite the fact that the first such flight took off less than a decade ago.

"That was something that happened much faster than anyone was expecting," he says. The key now, in his view, is for the industry to prioritise investment in the area and for governments to commit in the same way they have to e-mobility in the automobile sector.

But Gössling and many of his peers remain unconvinced.

A plane launches in front of two contrails in the sky.

"I think that essentially we need price hikes," he says. "We did interviews with industry leaders a few months ago and many of them agreed, secretly — they were anonymous interviews — that if we don't have a major price hike for fossil fuels, then there is no way alternative fuels could ever make it."

Daniel Mittler, political director of environmental NGO Greenpeace, agrees that fossil fuels need to be more expensive. "The first step is to end all fossil fuel subsidies, including those going to aviation and to properly tax the aviation industry," he told DW.

For Goater, that is not realistic. "Fuel is already a significant proportion of an airline's costs," he says. "Believe me, if we could fly without oil we would."

The hard truth?

So what's to be done? Gössling, who has devoted more than 20 years of research to the subject, sees only one solution.

"Do we really need to fly as much as we do, or is the amount we fly induced by the industry?" he asks. In addition to artificially low airplane ticket prices, the industry also promotes a lifestyle, he argues.

"Airline campaigns project an image where you can become part of a group of people who are young, urban frequent flyers, visiting another city every few weeks for very low costs," he says.

Yet for Goater, the idea of dictating who can fly and when is as unrealistic as it is outdated.

Can we look toward simpler methods of transport than jet-fueled airplanes?

"Reducing emissions needs to be balanced with allowing people the opportunity to fly — I believe that's a settled consensus amongst the mainstream for many years," he says. "It's not up to people in one part of the world to take it on themselves to deny people in other parts of the world those opportunities."

For Mittler, it comes down to individual choice as much as anything else and he believes that while efficiency gains are vital, the first step is to reduce the amount we fly.

"We need to move towards a more sharing and caring way of living on this planet," he says, adding that doing without the weekend shop in New York might be one of the least painful ways of contributing to that.

"We need a prosperity that is based on community and based on real wealth of collective vision, rather than one that is based on relentless consumption. Aviation is a symbol of the kind of consumption that we need to leave behind."

Air traffic booming around the world

Crowded skies

More passengers mean more aircraft in use. Asia's fleet for instance is set to be twice as big by 2035 to total about 17,000 planes. North America will have some 9,800 aircraft and Europe's about 7,900 (up from 4,610 today).

Air traffic booming around the world

Pilots in high demand

More planes in use mean more pilots are needed. Boeing reckons that about 617,000 new pilots will have to be recruited by 2035, particularly in Asia. On top of that, there's a need for 679,000 new maintenance staff and 814,000 additional flight assistants, says Boeing. Airbus sees a need for 560,000 new pilots.

Air traffic booming around the world

The biggest hubs

Europe's biggest hubs in terms of passenger numbers are London Heathrow, Paris-Charles De Gaulle and Frankfurt in Germany, handling between 73 million and 64 million passengers. In Frankfurt, over 2 million tons of cargo were dealt with in 2014. The world's largest airport in Atlanta in the US boasted 100 million passengers in 2015.

Air traffic booming around the world

Budget airlines to the rescue

Growth at German aviation hubs is not so much a result of booming German carriers. It's more about the strength of foreign airlines. The number of German carriers' take-offs has shrunk steadily over the past six years. By contrast, no-frills competitors such as Ryanair and Easyjet have seen a 14-percent rise in take-offs from German airports.

Air traffic booming around the world

Largest strike action in history

German flagship carrier Lufthansa was able to log 1.8 billion euros ($1.94 billion) in profit last year, beating results from a year earlier and despite a series of strikes crippling the airline. Industrial action organized by the VC pilots' union since 2014 has cost Lufthansa about half a billion euros. Meanwhile, management and pilots have struck a deal in principle.

Air traffic booming around the world

The biggest earners

Aviation is a lucrative business, but some market players do better than others. While airlines tend to get a 4-percent yield on their invested capital, German airport operators and plane manufacturers secure between 6 and 7 percent. Doing even better are air traffic control, haulers and booking services, which - says a McKinsey study - can get as much as 20 percent in proceeds from capital.

Air traffic booming around the world

What's in store for us?

Here you are: beds for tired travelers, massagers and generous legroom, childcare services and a bar plus shower cabinets to make you feel alright. This is what passengers hope they will see on board in the not-too-distant future. Should this become a reality, passenger numbers are bound to soar further.