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Savings Guide

Air travel – the biggest carbon sin?

Reduce flights to save energy

For a lot of people, the concept of their own ‘carbon footprint’ and energy impact is a difficult one to conceptualise. Even if they are committed to making their own lives as energy efficient as possible – with an EcoSwitch on every hub, energy efficient appliances in every room, and a commitment to following all the energy saving tips they can find out about – their sense is often one of inconsequence. After all, how much of a footprint can you possibly generate just living a modest, environmentally-aware lifestyle?

The answer has a lot to do with the answer to another question: How often do you fly?

Taking Your Footprint to the Air

Australia has one of the world’s largest ecological footprints per capita, requiring 6.6 global hectares per person. In fact, if all countries consumed the resources that we Australians do, it would take three Earth’s to support their lifestyle. For the year to June 2012, the average Australian had a carbon footprint of about 24.4 tonnes – more than 4 times the world average! Most people have little context, but we all know that in general we should be reducing our footprint if we can. A lot of this depends on our lifestyle: Those of us who live in small apartments in big cities and use public transportation instead of personal cars have a much smaller footprint than people living in large suburban homes and driving everywhere, everyday.

But no matter your persona lifestyle or your personal efforts to reduce your power consumption, one thing that ties everyone – suburban, city-dweller, old, young – together is air travel. A flight from Sydney to L.A. creates what’s known as a ‘warming effect’ that equals 5.72 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person. When you consider that in the context of the average carbon footprint, it becomes obvious that flying is the major carbon sin people commit in the modern age. For an average Australian, it means a single international flight can represent 20% or more of their yearly carbon production.

The Rising Cost of Flight

Travel emissions currently account for 5% of all warming effects in the world, but air travel is poised to become a larger and larger factor in those numbers. Emissions from other forms of travel are falling as greener and more efficient designs are implemented in cars and public transport. Air travel remains relatively cheap, there are more flights every day, and the fuel efficiency of airplanes is not changing very much over time. As a result the percentage of worldwide warming that air travel is responsible for is going to rise dramatically, making it an even bigger portion of every individual’s personal carbon footprint.

Part of the problem is that the airlines have so far successfully evaded any real regulation attempt. They proposed to regulate themselves, with internal goals and systems in place to reduce their impact. This, naturally, has not been very successful so far. The European Union has attempted to put requirements in place that would have airlines purchasing carbon offsets if they exceed government-designated standards of fuel efficiency, but airlines around the world have reacted so strongly they have so far successfully avoided any attempt to force them to participate. The United States, in fact, passed a law forbidding airlines in the USA to comply.

This doesn’t make much sense, of course, as most analysts agree the steps to comply with these standards and reduce the carbon footprint of most airlines would not be difficult to implement, and the costs would almost certainly be passed on to their passengers. The end result, however, is that each individual needs to be aware of the proportion of their personal carbon footprint that is represented by their plane trips.

It may not be reasonable to never fly again, but if everyone in the world gave up one flight a year, the impact on warming effects would be dramatic and noticeable – not to mention beneficial to the world at large. And the economic impact on the airlines might actually force them to sit up and take notice, and finally change their policies. In this sense, giving up one flight a year can be seen as potentially one of the most effective acts of activism anyone can engage in.