Explained: How Much Pollution Is Caused By Air Travels & How It Contributes To Global Warming
A recent study commissioned by the environmental group Greenpeace has found out that more than one-third of the busiest short-haul flights in European countries have usable train options, which would reduce pollution.
Furthermore, the group has asked European governments to increase train travel in order to reduce pollution generated by flights.
"There’s one rather simple way Europeans could lower their CO2 emissions: favour the train instead of the plane when travelling within the continent, and make it easier and cheaper for people to do it. Europe’s rail network is dense and relatively fast in many countries, and it already offers a reasonable alternative to about half of the most popular short-haul air routes," the statement read.
Does air travel contribute to climate change?
Yes. As the aviation industry has been developing at a breakneck pace, it has also become one of the fastest-growing generators of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the environment.
Throughout the mid-twentieth and early-twentieth centuries, aeroplanes have become indispensable to the economy in a variety of ways, including imports, exports, tourism, and business. Everything we do, from the food we eat to the products we buy to the way we travel, emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and thus has an effect on the climate of the planet.
Similarly, airlines contribute to global warming, pollution, and leave a significant carbon footprint. Airplanes run on kerosene fuel, which when burned emits a large amount of carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere, having a significant impact on the climate system. And the high rate of combustion of the fuel increases the amount of carbon emission, which directly affects the erosion of the ozone layer and therefore leading to global warming.
Many estimates put around 2.5% of global CO2 emissions coming from aviation. That's the figure the industry itself generally accepts. However, 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. When all of these gases are combined with CO2 emissions produced by aeroplanes, the percentage quickly rises to roughly 5%.
So, in simple terms, the amount of carbon footprint left on the planet by just a single flight does stay in the atmosphere and warm it for several centuries. Because aircraft emissions are released high in the atmosphere, they have a potent climate impact, triggering chemical reactions and atmospheric effects that heat the planet.
The danger ahead
While many industries are starting to cut emissions, aviation has continued to expand. Between 1990 and 2012, the aviation industry's carbon emissions increased by 75%. They are likely to continue to rise significantly, with researchers predicting that by 2050, flying will account for a quarter of all emissions.
If left unchecked, they might absorb a full quarter of the carbon budget set aside to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
According to previous studies, only 5 to 10% of the global population used to fly each year. However, in the aviation industry, things are constantly changing. Because, according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), there were 3.7 billion global aviation passengers in 2016, with each year since 2009 breaking the previous year's record.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) forecasts a 7.2 billion increase by 2035. The numbers, like the planes themselves, continue to rise. And, given the harm that flying causes to the environment, that is something to consider.
But as public awareness of the need to reduce our individual and collective carbon footprints in order to avoid climate disaster develops, pressure on numerous businesses to find sustainable solutions has grown.
The aviation industry made its own promises: in October 2016, 191 countries signed a UN agreement aiming to reduce global aviation carbon emissions to 2020 levels by 2035. Another ambitious goal of the agreement is for the aviation industry to reduce carbon emissions by half by 2050, compared to 2005 levels.
According to experts, the aviation industry expects to meet these goals in four ways: short-term carbon offsets, continuous development of more efficient planes, more investment in sustainable fuels such as biofuels, and improved route efficiency.
What's the 'flying shame' movement?
Prior to the pandemic, Greta Thunberg, a Swedish climate activist, was leading a global "flying shame" movement to discourage air travel in favour of greener choices like rail. The “Greta effect” stirred up a new sense of urgency over airlines and climate change when Thunberg brought attention to the issue by taking a racing yacht to a climate summit in New York to avoid flying
The movement initially began in Sweden, where the term flygskam (flight shame) was coined in 2018 to describe the unease about flying experienced by environmentally conscious travellers. The hashtag #jagstannarpåmarken (which translates as #stayontheground) came into use around the same time, as groups sprang up to share tips.
It did not, however, remain confined to Sweden. According to a survey conducted by the Swiss Bank UBS of over 6,000 people in the United States, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, 21% have reduced the number of flights they have taken in the past year due to environmental concerns.
But then came the Covid-19 pandemic. And during the lockdown a mass grounding of flights reduced CO2 emissions from aviation by up to 60%, as per the Global Carbon Project. As a result, even though the worst of the pandemic appears to be over, the airline industry started facing another looming crisis: an accounting of its contribution to climate change.
The travel industry has since then come under increasing pressure to reduce and eventually eliminate emissions from travel.
Undoubtedly, this is not going to be an easy process for the airlines, however investors have started pressuring companies to reveal more information about their lobbying efforts on climate issues.
In addition, some multinational firms, whose staff travel over the world and occupy luxury business class seats, are reconsidering travel budgets in order to save costs and emissions. Short flights that can be substituted by train travel are also being considered by French lawmakers.
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