“Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your captain speaking, welcome to today’s flight from Hamburg to Munich. Please fasten your seat-belts, and get ready for a most uncomfortable trip, where we will be crediting 175 kg of CO2 to your climate account.”
This could well be the voice of the captain on a short-haul flight sometime in the near future.
The extent to which air-traffic is responsible for man-made climate change is highly disputed, and the figures deviate between 3.5% and 10% as a result. One fact is clear, however, only few people are privileged enough to be able to fly. That being said, the volume of air traffic is growing by some 5% a year, which means that a lot more CO2 is being put out into the atmosphere.
The following video made by the Zurich School of Engineering in 2007 simulates air-traffic throughout the world during a single period of 24 hours.
And here are a couple more facts you should skim over:
Flying damages the environment more than any other form of public transportation: CO2 emissions on the stretch between Hamburg and Munich using various forms of transport look like this:
- Air: 175 kg per person
- Road: 110 kg per person
- Rail: 62.5 kg per person
For the climate balance however, a lot more needs to be included than just CO2 emissions: when you fly, it’s the vapour trail that the plane leaves in its wake that damages the climate and causes an increase in greenhouse gases. Then there’s the nitrogen oxides, which also damage the environment, and cause serious harm, because they are emitted mainly at high altitudes (30,000-43,000 feet) where they contribute to the formation of ozone.
The climate balance for cars and trains is affected negatively by the amount of effort and expense required to build and maintain road and rail networks. In harmless contrast to this seen relatively are aircraft that simply need airports to be built to be able to fly.
All in all, one can average out of a rather rough “climate damage ratio” of
Air 6 : Road 2 : Rail 1
which, of course, is highly dependent on a lot of factors and therefore varies. Particularly damaging to the environment, for instance, are short-haul inland flights, since the take off phase uses a great deal of fuel, which figures as a larger factor for shorter flights.
So what do we need to do if flying fails the environment test?
Rail links in Japan, France and Germany are very good. The almost 500 miles between Hamburg and Munich take some 5.5 hours by train. Companies with offices in countries with good rail links should make sure they swap to using trains.
Travelling by train and not by plane provides so many advantages, because even though the train trip takes longer, you can use the time more effectively: lots of trains these days offer wi-fi, allowing you to work, and using your mobile is also easy now.
One of the many CO2 calculators available on the web to help calculate the impact your flying habits have on the environment is provided by Carbon Footprint Ltd: CO2 Calculator.
Short-haul flights should be avoided for the sake of the environment; for long-haul flights there are hardly any alternatives however. Conference systems do allow conferences to be held over the Internet, without actually having to set foot on the other side of the world. You can also offset the carbon footprint you leave when you fly and compensate for the emissions you contribute using a variety of methods. We will be dealing with these topics in our next article to be published.