Air Travel’s Impact on Climate Change

Just one return flight from London to New York produces a greater carbon footprint than a whole year’s personal allowance needed to keep the climate safe.

Our carbon footprint is the estimated amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) given out as we travel, buy food, heat our homes and enjoy our usual lifestyles.

The average personal footprint in Britain is 9.5t. To get down to a fair share of the world’s total; this must be cut by 87%, leaving 1.2t. On every flight to New York and back, each traveller emits about 1.2t of CO2. If we fly, air travel overshadows all our other impacts.

We need to cut emissions by 90% by 2050, or better still, by 2030.

The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research says we need to cut emissions by 90% by 2050 – they believe this can be done, provided that a programme of work is started in the next four years. Others, including the ETA, believe the descent needs to be steeper, to achieve 90% in developed countries by 2030.

To keep the climate safe we need drastic cuts in air travel. Efficiency savings such as more direct flights shave off small fractions but are dwarfed by planned growth.

Surely air travel cannot be this damaging?

On every flight to New York and back, each traveller emits about 1.2t of CO2, using Department for Transport figures. This compares to an average British personal total of 9.5t. To get down to a fair share of the world’s total, this must be cut by 87%, leaving 1.2t. Air travel is really worse than this because it puts out more pollution than just CO2. For example water vapour at high levels forms thin clouds that have a warming effect. We can see trails visibly blanketing the earth. This and other effects mean that air travel has more than twice the warming effect of the carbon dioxide alone. So each flight adds more to climate change than we should be emitting altogether.

What about short-haul flights?

They emit 150g of CO2 per passenger kilometre. A one-way journey from London to Manchester (185 miles) emits:

  • Plane – 63.9kg per passenger if the plane is 70% full, and 44.7kg if the plane is completely full.
  • Car – based on the average car 19.8kg per person when carrying an average 1.56 people and 7.7kg when carrying a family of four. A fuel-efficient car with an emissions figure of 100g/km produces 11.8kg and 4.6kg respectively.
  • Train 5.2kg per passenger if the train is 70% full
  • Coach – 4.3kg per passenger if there are 40 people on the coach.

Five return flights to Manchester in a year would create 639kg: the extra climate impacts would more than double this to at least 1.3 tons.

It is difficult to believe this kind of thing when it is so normal to fly – but with the likelihood of climate change reaching a tipping point and becoming irreversible, we must begin to act. Every step we take is a vote for a better future, and we already have choices. We have to demand the right to ensure our safety.

What is the ETA?

The ETA provides motorists and cyclists with green breakdown cover and green insurance products. The ETAexists in order to campaign for sustainable transport – when you buy our services you help fund our charitable work.