What happened to aviation? The industry has gone from being the hero that brings families together and the force that drives the world’s economies to the bad boy of climate change. Despite only contributing some 2% of all global CO2 emissions, flying has become something we should seek to do less of, to feel bad about… ashamed even.
The trend for boycotting travel by air is showing no signs of slowing down. Many of the more radical campaigners feel that it would be better for the world if all aircraft stopped flying tomorrow. But what are the consequences of this?
I had the pleasure of meeting a tourism expert with strong opinions on this subject at the recent AviaDev Europe conference. Ged Brown is the Aviation Development Director at AviaDev, and is also the founder and CEO of Low Season Traveller. He was kind enough to share his thoughts with us on flight shame:
The rise of flygskam
Flight-shame or “flygskam” has been an expression which we have seen increasingly in 2019. It could nearly be the word of the year.
In Sweden, where the term originated, it has led to a notable decline in people taking internal flights This has been helped by the fact that all government workers now have to travel by train or car for any domestic travel.
The ethos and thinking behind the movement is clear. If we all took fewer flights, then we will do less damage to the environment and our planet.
Simple. But is it really that effective and at what cost?
Aviation is always the bad guy
Aviation is nearly always the first industry sector to be maligned when it comes to environmental issues and I always wonder why this is?
Perhaps it’s because we all see airplanes in the skies on a frequent basis; perhaps it harks back to the days when aviation and air travel were seen as an extravagance; or perhaps it’s the absence of any other target?
But just how big an impact does aviation have on the environment?
Well, to examine this we have to look at some data and this in itself is complicated.
Who holds the data on climate change contributions?
Here’s a question for you. Which body is THE global authority on environmental issues? Which is the organization which holds all of the absolute, undisputed facts on environmental issues like climate change, emissions, global warming etc.?
You’d think that this organization would be well known, but I’m not sure that there is just one. Even just looking for statistics on which industries are the biggest contributors, we have to search through multiple sources to find anything meaningful. Perhaps if this information was easier to find, more people could understand the reality.
For aviation, the best and most trustworthy international aggregator of this sort of information is IATA. According to IATA, aviation makes up just 2% of human-induced CO2 emissions. This can be compared to 17% for road transport and 3% from the shipping sector.
But what about those contrails? All those harmful gasses delivered right into the atmosphere? Well, did you know that between 91.5% and 92.5% of aircraft engine exhaust is normal atmospheric oxygen and nitrogen?
Driving down aviation’s emissions
Despite its relatively small contribution to the overall CO2 pool, as an industry, aviation continues to play its part in further reducing its impact on the environment. This is being achieved through creation of lighter and significantly more fuel-efficient aircraft, as well as a significant amount of research being done in the field of alternative fuel sources.
Since the 1960’s, technical developments mean today’s new aircraft emit 50% less carbon monoxide and 90% less smoke and unburned hydrocarbons than those made 50 years ago. Nitrogen oxide (NOx) levels have also been cut, and modern aircraft now emit 40% less nitrogen oxide than in 1981.
As a result of these technological improvements, aircraft can often have less impact on local air quality around airports than road traffic: in some cases, 95% of the local particulate matter comes from cars, trucks and other ground vehicles, rather than aircraft.
So much work has been done but there is a lot more to do and the aviation industry continues to work hard on further improvements that are well documented on the IATA website. There is a recognition that even 2% of all global emissions is significant and needs to be reduced drastically.
What if we all stopped flying tomorrow?
If all aircraft stopped flying tomorrow, it would have practically no impact on the warming of our planet nor the environment. It would be literally a drop in the ocean. The detrimental effect on other areas of life on our planet would be hugely significant though.
Let’s talk about context when we discuss “flight shame”. Let’s consider the ROE – Return on Emissions. What benefits do we receive globally in return for this particular 2% of global emissions?
We get 3.6% of the world’s GDP: The global air transport industry, at 3.6% of global GDP, is larger than both the automobile manufacturing sector and the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry. In fact, if air transport were a country, its GDP would rank 20th in the world, similar to that of Switzerland or Argentina.
We get 38 million jobs which are supported by the global aviation industry. This figure rises to 65 million if we include tourism jobs, which are also supported by aviation.
Trade. Over a third of all international trade worldwide is sent by air, although in terms of volume of goods, the amount is less than 1% of all goods transported worldwide. However, many of these goods are time-sensitive; things like food and medicine, which would simply spoil if transported terrestrially.
Not bad returns for less than 2% of all global emissions.
What if we cut emissions by half?
So, what if we halved the emissions on aviation over the next 10 years? We would reduce the global emissions by 1%. That would be great, but clearly not a huge difference in the great scheme of things.
Far more could be saved by halving the emissions of the shipping industry (currently 3% of global CO2 emissions) or even reducing the emissions of road transport by 5% (currently makes up 17% of global CO2 emissions).
So, does aviation have a role to play in the environmental challenges ahead of us? Absolutely! Should it always be the number one target for action? Absolutely not.
But why is air travel so maligned?
Does aviation struggle to stand up for itself?
One of the reasons that flight shame has become such a hugely well-known movement this year is down to the mobilization of individuals. The inimitably charismatic Greta Thunberg and he ability to motivate young people en-masse has really given the campaign some legs. Heap on top of that the efforts of highly visible environmental groups like Extinction Rebellion, and it’s impossible not to hear their message
Aviation could stand up for itself too. If even just a small proportion of those who benefit from aviation got together and made some noise, the message would be just as loud and clear. The challenge is that aviation benefits so many aspects of our global society and communities that it would be impossible to gather all of those parties together to lobby successfully.
There are approximately 300 international airlines in the skies today and they benefit thousands of communities globally. Aviation brings people together, engenders cross-cultural understanding, fosters peace and drives trade. In many respects, it is the glue that holds the global community together.
The supreme irony is that the reason for aviation being such a target for the environmental lobby, is because the benefits of aviation are just too broad and diverse; they positively affect too many aspects of our society. As such, the lobby for the benefits of aviation cannot be brought together due to the sheer volume of stakeholders.
As such, flight shame is not only wrong, but it is highly irresponsible and quite possibly one of the most dangerous movements for the environmental challenges ahead of us.
Ged’s take on flight shame is a refreshing rhetoric, and one which needs to be considered most carefully. Making life difficult for our airlines by slapping ineffective ‘green taxes’ on them won’t help the situation, particularly if those revenues are not used to further the development of things like R&D or sustainable aviation fuels.
Stopping aviation is not an option. Until we master the art of teleportation, far too much of the global economy relies on connectivity in the air. People should not feel ashamed to fly; they should feel proud that they are supporting an industry that has done more to drive down its own carbon footprint in the past 30 years than almost any other.
Let’s get behind our airlines and campaign to put in place the support they need to create a sustainable future for aviation.
As always, please do share your own thoughts in the comments.
Simple Flying worked alongside Ged Brown, Founder and CEO of Low Season Traveller, to produce this post. Check out their podcasts for insight on visiting popular destinations at off-peak times.