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We have to talk about flying!

What is the climate impact of aviation?

Flying is the most climate damaging form of transport. Figures and facts.

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How bad is flying for your carbon footprint?

Learn how much flying can add to your climate impact and how it compares to other activities.

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How unjust is flying?

Only a global minority is flying at all. Especially a few frequent fliers heat up the planet.

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Why is offsetting not the solution?

Airlines offer passengers to compensate their emissions by paying a bit more. What’s the problem with that?

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Is green flying possible?

Can’t we fly climate-neutral in the future? Learn what is difficult about technological solutions to the problem.

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Why is aviation’s climate impact insufficiently regulated?

Read, how the industry was allowed to set its own rules and keep polluting.

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Why is flying so absurdly cheap?

The aviation industry is exempt from almost any tax, while others have to pay the costs.

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Which political changes do we need?

Instead of greenwashing the growth of aviation, it’s time to degrow aviation.

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What happens when airports increase?

Worldwide, 1200 airport projects are threatening livelihoods and biodiversity.

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What is the climate impact of aviation?

Stopping the climate crisis is the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced.

If we want to ensure a liveable future for all people on the planet, we have to keep global heating as low as possible and avoid dangerous tipping points. This involves huge and urgent efforts. We must stop burning fossil fuels and change the rules of the system. But currently, we are on a flight towards climate breakdown.

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Aviation is the most climate-harming mode of transport. Today, air travel accounts for about 5-8% of global climate heating. In European countries, home to many frequent flyers, the share is even bigger. Still, the aviation industry wants us to believe that aviation accounts for only 2 % of global emissions. But that’s not the whole picture: aviation’s climate impact isn’t limited to CO2. Due to different emissions other than just the CO2 taking place at altitude, there is an total climate impact of flights that is 1.9 to 4.7 times the effect of the emitted CO2 alone, depending on flight altitude, distance, kerosene and airplane type. 

 

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The industry expects doubling of the air transport demand in the coming 20 years. This rapid growth could mean that by 2050, aviation alone could use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget, which is the amount of carbon dioxide emissions permitted to keep global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. If we take the climate crisis serious, there’s no other way than stopping the plans for growth, and starting to degrow aviation.

How bad is flying for your carbon footprint?

Spoiler: It’s very bad.

For every tonne of carbon dioxide one person emits, three square metres of Arctic summer sea ice disappear. This means that by taking a transatlantic flight, one passenger is responsible for the loss of at least six square meters of ice. With a projected sea level rise of more than one meter by the end of the century, every meter of ice counts …not only for the penguins, whose habitat and population is declining rapidly.

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Taking one long-haul flight generates more carbon emissions than many people around the world produce in a whole year – and more than an average European emits with heating and eating. The difference is that in most cases, heating and eating is perhaps more important than taking a holiday trip by plane. In order to tackle the climate crisis, it is urgent to challenge our way of living in all spheres – be it food or transport. The good news is: There are climate friendly alternatives to flying. A train ride can emit as much as 70 times less emissions than a flight. 

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Changing one’s travel behaviour is an important step in fighting the climate crisis. By telling exciting stories about grounded travel experiences, you can inspire your family and friends to do the same. And if we build political pressure, we can change the rules so that grounded travel will become easier for all, with affordable and comfortable trains and passenger ships, easy booking systems, and attractive “Staycation” options. 

How unjust is flying?

“The jet-setting habits of Bill Gates and Paris Hilton mean that they produce an astonishing 10,000 times more carbon emissions from flying than the average person”, found a recent scientific study. Who flies, who doesn’t – and who cannot fly?

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On a global average, in order to keep global temperature rise to under 1.5 degrees, everyone would have to cut consumption-based greenhouse gas emissions down to 2.5 tonnes of CO2 equivalents in 2030, to 1.4 by 2040, and 0.7 by 2050. One long haul flight alone already exceeds this budget.

Air traffic is a major obstacle to climate justice. While to Western Europeans, it might seem normal to fly, this ‘normality’ has only existed in the last decades, and is still rare on a worldwide scale. It is hard to find exact numbers, but estimations say that about 10%, or between 5 and 20%, of the global population has ever taken a flight. Lots of people cannot afford flying, or are not allowed to do so because of restrictive migration policies.

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Of the few percent of the world population who have ever flown, an even smaller proportion flies regularly. Numbers for England show that 10% of the residents take more than half of the flights abroad. Similar statistics exist for other countries. 

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Few frequent fliers heat up the planet – at the expense of others: residents exposed to noise and particle pollution from planes, local ecosystems, future generations and those in the Global South who are already bearing the brunt of earth heating. 

There’s also a big difference to be made between the reasons for flying. So should a businessman on his monthly flights to his Tuscan villa be treated the same as someone who flies every second year to visit close family on another continent? There are solutions to this injustice issue – find out more about a frequent flyer levy and other measures. 

Why not just offset your flight emissions?

“Flying isn’t a problem if you pay a bit more to compensate the emissions” – that’s the message airlines tell customers. Many organisations trying to implement more sustainable travel policies recur on offsetting. But that’s not all: the only existing international agreement covering aviation’s CO2 emissions, called CORSIA, builds on offsetting. What’s behind these offsets?

What are offsets?

Offsetting projects are mostly located in countries of the Global South. Many of them are hydroelectric projects, claiming to prevent production of energy from fossil fuels. Also forest conservation projects, operators of tree plantations, or organisations that distribute climate-friendly cooking stoves to women in rural parts can sell offset credits. 

What are the problems with offetting?

1. Offsets fail to reduce emissions
Studies show that a majority of projects miscalculate their savings. Öko-Institut investigated the effectiveness of existing offsetting projects of the UN and concluded that only 2% of the projects have a high probability of resulting in additional emissions reduction. This way, emission reductions would have occurred also without paying the offset, for example because a hydropower plant would have been built anyway. In the case of trees, they need years to grow enough to reabsorb the carbon from your flight. It is hard to guarantee they will be left standing long enough to counteract your flight. 

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2. Offsets often lead to ecological and human rights issues
Since it’s cheaper to offset in the Global South, this is where most projects are located. They often lead to local conflicts or land grabbing. This is especially the case with land or forest-based projects like REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation). Often, small-holders and indigenous people are restricted to use the forest in their ancestral way in order to store the predicted amount of carbon in the trees. Ultimately, offsetting is exposed as carbon colonialism by many indigenous groups.

 

3. Offsets are a modern sale of indulgences
Offsetting enables a small share of the world population to fly indefinitely with a supposedly clear environmental conscience. Some therefore compare the trade in compensation credits with the selling of indulgences by the Catholic church. Money could buy absolution from sin – but of course didn’t prevent the sin in the first place. The money could be used to build cathedrals and keep the Vatican going. The current Pope Francis has a more sophisticated view on today’s offsetting. He says: “Aircraft pollute the atmosphere, but, with a small part of the cost of the ticket, they will plant trees to compensate for part of the damage created. …This is hypocrisy!”

4. Offsetting diverts the attention from real solutions
Some have argued that if we make offsetting possible as a ‘last resort’, and try to offset emissions locally, this would be better than doing nothing. However, the fact remains that offsetting then becomes a license to pollute and help preserve the status quo. In this way, offsetting prevents the necessary fundamental changes of our mobility system. 

So if you really want to give money away, rather support this campaign than paying it to offsetting companies  =)

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Is green flying possible?

Faced with growing critique, the aviation industry is getting nervous. In greenwashing campaigns, they announce their intention to make aviation greener in the future. Technological efficiency, biofuels and offsetting play a big part. The problem is: Growth of aviation is not questioned, and the proposed solutions are far from tackling the problem. 

In February 2020, the biggest aviation emitter in Europe, Ryanair, was sanctioned by a court for misleading claims that it’s a green airline. This was a clear ruling – but most of the time, without knowing details, it’s hard to decipher the industry’s myths.

Energy efficiency: Too little 

By using better technology in new aircraft, efficiency gains of around 1,5% in kerosene use are aimed at. However, efficiency gains usually make flying cheaper, and therefore encourage even more people to fly. Given that the industry’s expected annual growth rate is currently 3,7% and recently growing by 7%, savings from efficiency gains barely scratch the surface.

 

Alternative fuels: Palm Oil in the Tank?

The industry plans to replace part of their fossil kerosene with biofuels – fuel made from waste or oil crops. Today, biofuel accounts for 0,01 % of all aviation fuel used. The IATA says the share could rise to 2 % by 2025. This is very little – which might be actually good news. Biofuels can lead to land conflicts and ecological harm, especially if safeguards are basically non-existent, as it is the case for aviation fuel. Palm oil is the most viable option, even though its plantations are a leading cause of deforestation, biodiversity loss and human rights abuses. A study by the European Commission concluded that palm oil biofuels release at least three times more greenhouse gas emissions than the fossil fuels they replace. Another recent study finds that the aviation regulators use very optimistic and questionable calculations for the emissions reductions they claim through biofuels.

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Electric Airplanes: 40 Years Away 

Electric planes in development today are a long way from commercial jets – they might carry up to 9 passengers, but no way it will be the future, with batteries simply weighing too much. “Realistically, hybrid electric and fully electric planes are about 40 years away, says Duncan Walker at Loughborough University, UK.

E-Fuels: A Blue-Eyed Hope

Synthetic fuels made from electricity (Power to Liquid) are technically feasible, but there are almost no facilities to produce them yet. Converting electricity to fuel is an energy intensive process. The electric fuels could in theory be produced by surplus renewable energy and serve as storage technology in times of high wind or solar energy production. The problem is: We are a long way from even producing enough renewables for transport on the ground, agricultural production or heating. If all planes currently were to fly with e-fuels, this would consume more than the existing renewable electricity in the world, leaving nothing for other sectors. Worse still is that the non-CO2 climate effects of flying remain – and these are about twice or three times the CO2 emissions.

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Rerouting flights: Mitigating the effects from contrails
A rather promising approach is to change the routes of some long haul flights: This could mitigate the non-CO2 climate heating effect of contrails, which are cirrus clouds that format in special atmospheric conditions, depending on location and time. It mostly affects transatlantic night flights. Contrails have a similar climate effect as CO2 – limiting them therefore makes a lot of sense. Nevertheless, changing the routes will go at the expense of more fuel burnt. This therefore needs to go along with a reduction of flights.

Offsetting emissions: Shifting the problem instead of tackling it

Given that there are no technological solutions in the near future, the solution presented most often by the aviation industry is offsetting: Compensating emissions through buying offset credits. Find out here why this option won’t solve the problem and leads to unintended either, and could lead to even greater problems.

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Why is aviation’s climate impact insufficiently regulated?

Read, why the industry is allowed to set its own rules and keep polluting.

Compared to other sectors, aviation emissions are particularly poorly regulated. The aviation industry seems to enjoy a special status, which is not only reflected in huge tax privileges. 

In the Paris Agreement, as in its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, international aviation, accounting for about 65% of civil aviation emissions, is not covered, and also domestic aviation not explicitly mentioned either. Instead, the United Nations agency ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) is responsible.

In 2016, 18 years after it received the mandate to do so, ICAO presented its climate plan for aviation, called CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation). This CORSIA scheme is designed to cap aviation emissions from 2020 onwards and allow “carbon-neutral growth”. This is to be achieved mainly through offsets, i.e. by compensating emissions through supposedly climate-friendly projects. Read about the problems involved with offsetting here. 

CORSIA involves several other problems: first, only a small part of the emissions is covered at all. The first years are voluntary, and only 81 states will participate. Second, the programme only covers the growth in emissions from 2021 onwards (until 2035), i.e. the emissions that will be added to the level of 2020 every year from that time onwards. But already now, aviation emissions’s are too high and would need to be reduced. Third, the non-CO2 effects of aviation are not accounted for, meaning that at least half of the climate impact is ignored. Fourth, CORSIA does not include emissions from domestic flights. Fifth, CORSIA could possibly legally impede stronger national aviation regulations. Even further flaws, loopholes and missing safeguards lead to many civil society groups demanding to stop CORSIA

In Europe, flights are theoretically covered by the EU Emissions Trading System. However, a tonne of CO2 costs far too little in this scheme to make a real difference. In addition, airlines are allocated a large proportion of emission rights free of charge. And international flights from and to the EU are completely excluded. 

The lack of regulation of the aviation sector is often explained by the historical importance of the aviation industry for national security. Military equipment sales account for 20% of the turnover of the aircraft manufacturer Airbus and a full 50% of Boeing’s turnover. The two corporations dominate international aircraft construction and airplanes built by them are responsible for as much as 92% of air traffic emissions. 

Many countries justify their refusal to regulate their aviation sector by pointing out that the reduction targets of the UN climate agreement refer to the emissions released within the borders of a country, which would not include aviation. This argument is inconsistent: after all, many of a country’s products are exported and their emissions are still allocated to the country of production. The tanked kerosene in a country could easily be measured and taken into account. The limited regulation is one reason for flights being so cheap in comparison to other modes of transport.

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Why is flying so absurdly cheap?

Fly for € 11.50 to Palma de Mallorca!? Flying has never been cheaper. Some plane tickets cost less than the train ticket to the next city. But how is that possible? Well, flying is not by nature so cheap, it is made cheap. And in the end, someone always pays.

The tax privileges of the airline industry

A major reason for low ticket prices is that tax money contributes to making flying so cheap. Everyone – including those who don’t fly – pays for an incomprehensible tangle of subsidies, tax exemptions and public investments in order that the most polluting mode of transport remains cheap. 

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While car fuel or heating oil is taxed, aviation kerosene is not. In most countries, flight tickets are also exempt from value added tax – while we do pay it for essential products like food and medicine. Moreover, almost no airport pays property tax on their land and facilities. Dozens of billions of Euro are lost in the European Union, which could be used to instead foster alternative travel options. On top of that, aircraft manufacturers benefit from state subsidies, which leads to cheaper planes. In fact, the US as well as some EU countries have been giving their respective plane manufacturers – Boeing on the one and Airbus on the other side – billions of illegal state support and cheap loans.

Exploitation of the crew

While the aviation industry is making ever greater profits, the pressure on its employees is mounting. Quality and safety are decreasing, stress and burnout are on the rise. Qualified staff are increasingly being replaced by inexperienced, cheaper part-time workers. Especially in low-cost carriers, the model goes at the expense of employees. 

The by now largest European airline Ryanair has therefore faced protest by trade unions. The company shops around for the weakest contracts in the EU, outsources labour through agencies and bogus self-employment schemes. Ryanair also uses the strategy of aggressive union busting and hostility to the rights of workers to organise, speak up and seek representation free from victimisation and reprisal. After a big campaign, the struggle against Ryanair was partially successful.

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Which political changes do we need?

There is no infinite growth on a finite planet. Instead of greenwashing the growth of aviation, it’s time to degrow aviation. We need trains, not planes. Let’s travel as if there was a tomorrow and foster alternatives. And let’s stop showering the aviation industry with tax money.

There are numerous ways to tackle aviation. Attention needs to be paid on just measures: It’s not fair to only raise prices for plane tickets, allowing merley wealthy people to fly. How to reduce flying in a just way was the topic of a Stay Grounded Conference held in July 2019 in Barcelona. The results can be read in the report “Degrowth of Aviation”. 

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What happens when airports increase?

It’s not only about the climate. When aviation grows, this also has lots of other consequences on the ground. 

Hundreds of new airports or airport expansions are planned to fuel the skyrocketing growth of aviation. There are 550 new airports or runways planned or being built around the world, plus runway expansions, new terminals etc, totalling more than 1200 infrastructure projects. 

Most of them involve new land acquisition, the destruction of ecosystems, displacement of people and local pollution and health issues. Noise, particles and ultra fine particles are a major issue for residents living nearby airports. More and more airports, especially in the Global South, are becoming ‘Aerotropolis’, or Airport Cities, surrounded by commercial and industrial development, hotels, shopping cities, logistic centres, roads, or connected to Special Economic Zones. Those projects are often related to human rights violations.

Airports represent a main infrastructure for the globalised capitalist economy, needed for the just-in-time production and trade of goods, work travel, the tourism business, as well as the deportation of unwanted ‘travellers’: illegalised migrants. Effective resistance against airport projects can prevent cementing an emissions-intensive, destructive form of mobility for decades into the future.

This map brings together case studies documenting a diversity of injustices related to airport projects across the world. It was developed in collaboration between the Environmental Justice Atlas and Stay Grounded. For more information, or in case you want to contribute with information on a local airport struggle, please contact: mapping[at]stay-grounded[dot]org