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The carbon footprint of flying, and eco travel alternatives

By Stephen Marcus Tuesday 19 January 2021

There’s nothing better than getting away for a relaxing holiday. For many of us, the ideal destination is somewhere warm, with a beach nearby. But the easiest way to get there is often by plane – a mode of transport that’s increasingly associated with climate change. As we encourage everyone to join us in taking their own steps toward zero carbon, it’s important to know all the facts. So how bad is flying for the environment? And how do the alternatives compare? 

We look at the facts about air travel and the climate, and what flying means for your carbon footprint. From carbon offsetting, to comparing the green credentials of planes, trains and cars, here’s all the information you need to make your travel more eco-friendly.

What are aviation emissions?

Aviation emissions are the environmentally-harmful gases released through air travel. Airplanes are powered by fossil fuels – which means that carbon and other harmful substances are released into the atmosphere with each and every plane trip. By the way, you can find out more about this in our guide to how renewables are edging out fossil fuels.

How bad is flying for the environment?

The general picture is: planes release more carbon per passenger than other modes of transport1. So generally speaking, they’re worse for the environment than driving, or getting the train.

While many cars, trains and coaches still use fossil fuels, they release much less carbon per passenger, making them a more climate-friendly option, compared to flying. It’s also important to remember that the number of passengers in a car will make a big difference – so if it’s just you driving, the carbon per passenger will be far higher.

What’s the carbon footprint of the airline industry? 

The aviation industry produces 2.4% of global carbon emissions2 – which, you might be thinking, doesn’t sound like that much! 

But the issue is that, if current trends continue, the airline industry’s contribution to global carbon emissions will only get bigger. This is because other modes of transport are starting to shift to renewables, while air travel will still be powered by fossil fuels. 

To give an idea of the amount of carbon released by air travel, it’s worth looking at the coronavirus pandemic, and how it’s impacted carbon. Researchers estimate that in the peak of the first lockdown in March and April 2020, carbon emissions from air travel fell by 60%3. To put this in context, 2020 saw carbon emissions go down by 7% – the biggest-ever decrease! And according to the report, transport emissions played the biggest part in this dramatic drop4.

The carbon footprint of aviation doesn’t sound that high – is it really that bad for the environment?

We’re sorry to say that – yes, in many ways, it is. With the number of air passengers projected to double over the next 20 years5, air travel will continue to play a bigger part in global carbon emissions.

So what’s the answer? In short, it’s to find more eco-friendly and sustainable options whenever you can. That could mean adjusting your habits, so you take more trains instead of planes. 

In the case of trains, this can have other positive impacts. More demand means more reason for the government to invest in more services, while also making them more affordable for everyone. Lovely!

Want to find out more about how  to reduce your carbon footprint? Read our guide to the carbon emissions generated by household water use, and the climate impact of the internet.

Is it okay to just fly occasionally?

Like with anything, it’s about finding a balance. We know that travel is one of life’s great pleasures, and we’re not saying that you need to give up flying altogether. 

As you know, flying creates more emissions than most other modes of transport – but you could cut your carbon footprint in lots of other ways, and then just very occasionally catch a flight. In which case, you may still be able to reduce your footprint overall.

But remember, the impact of just one flight – especially if it’s long haul – can be significant. To put this into perspective, avoiding one transatlantic return flight would save as much as half the emissions you’d save from living car-free for an entire year6

What about if they make planes more climate friendly?

The airline industry’s taken major steps to make planes more fuel-efficient, so they burn less fuel, and release less carbon into the atmosphere. Some recent impressive innovations include lighter materials, more aerodynamic designs, and newer models of engines7.

Nevertheless, these improvements haven’t been able to keep up with the growing number of passengers taking planes. While fuel-efficiency is increasing by 1% a year, this is far outstripped by flight numbers – which are going up by 6% per year8. This was interrupted by coronavirus in 2020, but the amount of carbon released each year is set to continue rising.

Is the government’s aviation policy part of its carbon targets? 

Up to now, the government hasn’t included aviation or shipping emissions in its net zero targets – but they say that international aviation and shipping will be factored into their plan to achieve net-zero carbon by 20509.

5 ways to fly more sustainably

1. Carbon offsetting

If you do decide to take a flight, it’s definitely worth buying carbon offsets. This is where you give money to environmental projects, to balance out the carbon released when you fly.

While carbon offsetting does help, it’s far from being the most powerful form of climate action. Of course, we each need to find the changes that make sense for our lifestyle – but it’s better not to create those harmful emissions in the first place.

2. Book direct flights

It might sometimes cost more – but booking direct flights is a great way to cut back on the carbon for your journey. The reason is simple. If you travel direct, you’re taking the shortest possible route – which keeps the amount of carbon being released into the atmosphere as low as possible.

3. Pack light

We know travelling light can be a challenge, but how many times have you come home and realised you’ve not even worn half of what you packed? Remember, the lighter the plane, the less fuel being used to get you to your destination. Plus you’ll likely save some money on baggage fees!

4. Pick the most fuel-efficient airline

Airlines can vary dramatically when it comes to fuel consumption – so check out this report on the most fuel-efficient transatlantic flights. You could make a big dent in the carbon cost for your journey, simply by choosing wisely.

5. Fly on a cheaper ticket 

If you book an economy ticket, you’ll be sharing the space in your part of the plane with more passengers – which means that the carbon for each passenger is less than in a more spacious seat in first or business class11. Flying economy does have some perks after all!

Which is better for the environment: flying, trains or driving? 

Generally speaking, catching a train, or driving is much more environmentally-friendly than taking a flight. But there are a few things to consider:

  • The train is almost always the greener alternative to flying – though it depends on the journey, as some train journeys are more environmentally-friendly than others. For example, the Eurostar emits just 6g of carbon per kilometre, compared to 41g on a UK train12.

  • Travelling by coach can actually be greener than the train, as a coach emits 27g of carbon per kilometre – less than the typical UK train.

  • Driving is also usually better than flying. For example, a car journey from London to Paris releases 48.4kg of carbon, compared to 122.1kg from flying13.

  • However you travel, the number of people on board (or in your car) will impact how green it is. The more full your car, train or plane, the lower each passenger’s carbon footprint will be.

When you’re comparing different transport options, bear in mind their full “life-cycle”, not just the amount of carbon released on your trip. For example, trains generally create less emissions on each journey – but there’s more carbon involved in developing and maintaining the infrastructure – such as the rails – they run on14. So even though trains are generally the best option, it’s worth remembering that all forms of high-speed travel come with a cost to the environment.

How to change your lifestyle to travel by train

If you’re thinking of changing how you travel, but don’t know where to start, here are some handy tips:

  • For guidance on how to book holidays by train, the Man in Seat 61 is a great resource for tips and advice.

  • Work norms are changing. With the growth of remote working, the days of travelling a lot for work could change considerably after coronavirus. Remote meetings are increasingly becoming the norm, and the likes of Bill Gates have argued that business travel is set to massively decrease in popularity.

  • Try thinking creatively. This could mean looking at amazing destinations closer to home, or setting aside more time for longer holidays – so you’ve got the time to go further afield by train, for instance.

Other eco alternatives

Whether you’re travelling locally, or journeying further afield, here are a few other great ways to change things up and help care for the planet:

  • Get an electric car – with the government’s recent announcement that new petrol and diesel car sales will be banned by 2030, there’s never been a  better time to think about buying an electric car. They emit zero exhaust fumes, and you can also power your car with 100% renewable electricity.

  • Try an e-bike – if you’re sold on pedal power, but worried about your stamina, an electric bike is a brilliant way to get the best of both worlds! Finf out more in our blog on the wonders of e-bikes for the environment.

For more on how to reduce carbon in other parts of your life, have a read of some of our handy guides:

Want an energy supplier that takes cutting carbon seriously? At OVO, we give customers 100% renewable electricity as standard. And we plant a tree for every year you’re with us. Get a quote now, to see how you could save money while going green.

 

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Sources and references:

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/904215/2019-ghg-conversion-factors-methodology-v01-02.pdf

https://theicct.org/publications/co2-emissions-commercial-aviation-2018

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-020-0797-x

https://www.globalcarbonproject.org/carbonbudget/20/files/UK_UEA-Exeter_GCB2020.pdf 

https://www.iata.org/en/pressroom/pr/2018-10-24-02/

https://www.lunduniversity.lu.se/article/four-lifestyle-choices-most-reduce-your-carbon-footprint

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/urban-expeditions/transportation/green-aviation1/

https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200218-climate-change-how-to-cut-your-carbon-emissions-when-flying  

https://www.carbonbrief.org/in-depth-qa-the-uk-becomes-first-major-economy-to-set-net-zero-climate-goal

10  https://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/holidays/article-7327795/12-simple-tips-cutting-travel-carbon-footprint-without-compromising-adventure.html

11  https://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2010/feb/17/business-class-carbon-footprint

12  https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/904215/2019-ghg-conversion-factors-methodology-v01-02.pdf

13  Calculated using Eco Passenger (http://www.ecopassenger.org/). NB: Car is calculated on the basis of 1.5 passengers, the European average.

14  https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/4/2/024008/pdf