We had a great speaker visit our final marketing lecture. A semi-retired head of marketing from one of the major US airlines. He now spends his time touring business schools talking about his experiences. The airline industry sounds like a tough place – a startling fact he told us is that since its beginnings, airlines have in total made an overall loss!
However when it came to answering a question about carbon emissions he was a bit disingenuous. He began by saying that we should “separate fact from rhetoric” and asserted that aviation only contributes 1.8% of global CO2 emissions. He then went on to ridicule climate change hypocrites who preach about climate change but keep flying. I’ve been googling to try and find the provenance of the 1.8% figure and can’t find it. I vaguely remember it being the figure used in one of the IPCC reports, or maybe the Stern report. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who can find the origin. I don’t doubt the truth of the figure but much more important is what it represents and what future trends are.
Everything I’ve read about this shows that this is a very complicated issue. Because planes fly so high, calculating the simple emissions may not be useful as at that altitude climate change emissions have a much bigger impact.
It is estimated that flying is responsible for about 13% of climate change emissions from the UK. Also flying accounts for a very high proportion of the typical Imperial student’s climate change contribution. I’m guessing that as a group we fly more than most – I just calculated that a return trip to New York, and a couple of trips in europe (to Rome and Madrid) come to about three tonnes of CO2. That’s about a third of the average UK emissions per person in 2005. So by this speaker’s logic, no one else in the world should be allowed to fly, to allow the ones who fly now to continue.
So the problem with flying is that they account for a very large proportion of our CO2 emissions and over the next 30 years will account for a similar proportion of the rest of the world’s carbon footprint; flying is increasing massively with development; and there doesn’t seem to be any prospect of major technological methods of reducing the climate change impact.
The speaker ridiculed the Bishop of London who said a while ago that flying should be considered a sin. I think that was a bit ostrich-like on the part of the speaker. There are billions of people around the world who have never flown and if they are ever going to get the chance to fly, then per capita flying needs to go down. It’s simple arithmetic. The Bishop of London may have been using dramatic language, couched in his own world view, but the fact remains that flying and climate change is going to be one of the big issues over the next few decades at least.
I’ve been trying to cut my flights down to only those necessary – for me that means weddings. We’ve taken a few overland holidays over the past couple of years where we would have previously flown. Using ChooseClimate I calculated the total warming effect of the flights I’ve taken since I graduated in June 2000. It’s the only carbon calculator I’ve found that takes into the extra effect of altitude:
Sorry about the resolution – wordpress doesn’t like me today. The table below shows the numbers and the actual holidays this involved (I’ve excluded my one and only work flight!)
I went to Morocco a lot! Five of these flights were for weddings. As you can see we have reduced our flying quite considerably – but we have the massive advantage of living near our immediate families. But even then we have had to make special efforts to miss out on all sorts of nice trips. Please, somebody, come up with a clean fuel for flying!