Until earlier today, I thought I was doing all I could to minimize the impact of my use of air travel on the environment. I fly as seldom as I can.. Most often, when I fly, it is for work, which helps me rationalize it, even though of course that does not affect the carbon emissions it generates. My one big non-work flight every year is to Mexico, for my escape from the cold of Ontario winters. Last winter, I stumbled onto a deal with Aero Mexico that got us first-class tickets for a little less than the price of Air Canada economy seats. We thoroughly enjoyed the extra legroom and all the other perks, including free checked baggage and speedy check-in, and I was planning to hunt for a similar deal for our trip this winter.
First class finishes last
Maybe I won’t, though, because I have just come upon a 2008 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) showing that, among the many evils of flying, flying first class is the greatest.
I am only 5’4” tall and find the cramped seating in economy pretty uncomfortable; I can’t imagine how people like my brother, who is 6′ 4 1/2″ tall, possibly manage in those seats, even on the aisle. But, all that lovely first-class leg room means fewer seats, which means the carbon impact per seat is higher: the carbon emissions for a first-class seat are two to four times what they are for a seat in economy class.
I guess it’s time to fold ourselves up and hunker down in the cheap seats.
That UCS report led me to another, where I learned that one flight from eastern Canada to central Europe produces the same amount of carbon emissions as driving a fuel-efficient car 25 kilometres a day for an entire year.
Young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg does not fly. She has made the term “flight shame” – flygskam in Swedish – common parlance as she speaks out about saving the planet from global warming and climate change. Europe’s excellent train systems have allowed her to move around that continent fairly efficiently on the ground, but she has been challenged to find a way to get to North America and other parts of the world without boarding an airplane.
It appears she may have come up with a plan. Last week, she left Plymouth, England, in an 18-metre yacht outfitted with solar panels and underwater turbines to generate zero-carbon electricity to travel to North and South America. While on this side of the ocean, she will travel by bus and train to participate in meetings as well as the United Nations climate summit in Chile in December.
A dearth of options
Most of us don’t have access to an array of travel options, either on land or on sea. Ontario’s train system is shameful. Buses go to fewer and fewer communities. As a result, we default to driving or, if the distance is great, flying.
The UCS report contains a chart describing the environmental impact of various methods of travel over different distances, also taking into account the number of people travelling. Travel in large SUVs or in first class air flights ranks as the worst across all distances and regardless of the number of travellers. Travelling by bus has the least negative environmental impact across all distances. When one or two people are travelling less than 1,000 miles, the train is the second best choice, but when there are four travellers, a fuel-efficient car ranks second.
Even these suggestions are not practical in some situations. For instance, last winter, I had to travel to Edmonton from Kingston and then on to Saskatoon. I had only one day to get from Kingston to Edmonton, so any kind of ground travel was not an option, and I had only a few hours between my last commitment in Edmonton and my first commitment in Saskatoon. I did the best I could, taking the train from Kingston to Toronto, then the LRT from the train station to the airport, and the same in reverse, but the fact of the matter is that in five days I took three flights.
Can we make flying green-er?
While the reports I came upon this morning begin by saying we must fly less, most of them also provide some suggestions for those situations where we feel we must fly.
Top of the list, as discussed above, is to fly economy.
Other suggestions include:
- Take direct flights, because proportionately more fuel is burned in take-off and landing than in the rest of the flight
- Fly during the daytime, because the contrails and clouds generated by airplanes that trap heat and cause extra warming occur mostly at night
- Fly in newer, larger planes, which are more efficient
- When flying short distances, use airlines that use turboprop planes, which have fewer emissions than jets
- Before booking your flight, check out the International Council on Clean Transportation, which issues reports on which airlines offer better fuel efficiency
My concern for the future of this planet notwithstanding, I will continue to fly, although maybe not first class again. Perhaps I could be convinced to give it up if I felt that governments and corporations were doing everything possible to address climate change.
In the meantime, I will, as my friend Joan says, learn to live with my contradictions.