Reducing Your Flying Footprint: The Optimists Approach

Sustainable Aviation:
A nice idea bounced around by hippie travel bloggers and big money corporations but with little to no basis in reality

Flying is bloody terrible for the environment. 

In fact, taking one flight can produce so many emissions that all the other eco things you do can be paled into insignificance. 1 mile in a plane produces the same amount of emissions as 4 miles in a car, and one flight can cover more miles than you would in an entire year driving to work every day. Sometimes the facts around flying can seem so colossally terrible that the easiest thing to do is ignore them, or become cynical about what we can actually do.

In some respects, this approach isn’t entirely insane. In fact, it seems to be what the majority of countries are doing at the moment. Air travel is excluded from most countries emissions calculations, and is something there seems to be little political will to change through things like legislation or carbon pricing. After all, the politician who taxes holidays is hardly likely to be popular at the next election. A quick skim of the stances from the major international organisations on air travel emissions reveals the same story: the majority of the long term reductions in emissions from air travel will come from changes in fuel, engines efficiencies and short haul electrification. While I don’t want to be a cynic, considering that in the UK we’re currently struggling with the concept of having 20 full years to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars (despite electric car tech being pretty much good to go) the idea of electric Boeing 747’s whizzing around in the skies feels like it might be quite a ways off. 

There are reasons to be optimistic though. 2019 has been a year of shifting towards the environmentally friendly practices by some airlines. Just a few months ago the worlds first single use plastic free flight made its first trip, followed by a zero waste one a few weeks later. There are also lots of small personal changes you can make, so that while you’re unlikely to be the person to crack zero carbon jet fuel (though idk maybe you are – eco enthusiasts can be fuel engineers too), there are still plenty of ways you can reduce your impact while waiting for the industry to catch up. 

Most emissions are produced when a plane takes off and lands, which means that per mile short haul flights (domestic) flights can be worse per mile than intercontinental ones. This is slightly counterbalanced by the fact that seats tend to be crammed in more on short haul flights (I see u, Ryanair) so per passenger you do get a slightly better fuel efficiency than with luxury long haul airlines. 

But short haul flights are usually pretty easy to avoid all together. In Europe you can get to pretty much anywhere by train, often at a far cheaper cost than flying. Travelling by train also gives you the opportunity to stop off at places along the way that you wouldn’t normally visit (I’ve found some of my favourite places on train stopovers). Keep an eye out for some future blog posts about our fave train destinations.

But not flying isn’t always an option, unless you’re a professional sailor or a VERY good swimmer there aren’t too many other ways to get to far off places like south east Asia or Australia. A great way to minimise your carbon footprint where you do need to take to the skies is to utilise carbon offsetting

Carbon offsetting is offered by most airlines, and involves playing a small charge (for reference, for a recent trip I booked to America the cost was just £3) the company will offset your carbon emissions by investing in money that removes the equivalent amount of carbon from the atmosphere – essentially ‘offsetting’ the carbon released from your flight. Most big airlines like BA offer this option at checkout so keep an eye out! If not there are plenty of independent websites where you can calculate and offset your journeys emissions.

Carbon offsetting is by no means the answer to flying and it definitely has its criticisms. But in a world where flying is sometimes necessary, it’s a small effort that can have a big impact on your carbon footprint. 

Longer term the picture is positive. Cleaner fuels and better utilisation of airspace will help to clean up air pollution eventually, but with these improvements expecting to take years to materialise, and with many large economies like America and China rejecting initiatives like the the aviation carbon trading scheme it looks unlikely that real change is going to come from the industry in time to meet the carbon reductions needed to save our little planet. While we are waiting for bigger initiatives we can support the cause and apply pressure from the bottom or the runway up and make small efforts to change emission outcomes.

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