According to this document from IATA, civil aviation is responsible for producing 689 mln tons of CO2 a year, which constitutes 2% of the world emissions. Climate scientist estimate that we need to reduce CO2 emissions by 8-10% to avoid a climate disaster. Governments are not doing much to avert this threat. So I decided to make a few simple calculations to see whether we as individuals can do something that’s in our power to make any tangible contribution to these 8-10%. I wondered whether we can make a dent in the universe simply by flying less than we do.
Let’s do the numbers. Like I said earlier, we are looking at 2% of the world emissions. According to this and this source, that’s 33-37mln flights per year, including cargo. However, looks like cargo contributes only 10%, so most of these are passenger flights, carrying around 3 billion passengers a year. Given that cargo planes are such a small fraction, only 10% of the 2% and in the recent years this fraction has been declining thanks to a slowdown in global trade, let’s make a simplifying assumption that civil aviation is responsible for the entire 2%. Let’s make another simplifying assumption that if the number of passengers dropped, the airlines would eventually reduce the number of flights proportionally. Then the math becomes very simple. If each of us gave up half of our habitual flights, then we could in one swoop cut 1% of the world emissions. Just like that.
What would this mean for us as individuals? If you are taking a couple of flights a year to visit your and your partner’s family, you tell them that from now on you will visit only one family every year, because you have to save the planet. If you are frequently flying for work meetings, you would join half of them via WebEx, Hangouts, Skype, BlueJeans or whatnot, explaining to your colleagues that you need to save your children from natural disasters like droughts, hurricanes and whatnot. If you are a scientist and you attend a bunch of conferences, you just pick a couple to which you will travel and you pass on the rest. Your fellow scientists will understand. If you travel on vacations, you take half of them locally.
This view is certainly optimistic or even utopian. It takes a huge collective conscience to make this change. Most of us either don’t believe in the climate change, don’t realize the gravity and urgency of the situation, or choose to not do anything about it. Further, if people actually started flying less, airlines would go out of their way to make flying more attractive by lowering prices, etc; aviation is a $2.2 trillion business with 57 million jobs. (And somehow we still believe that making money is more important than preserving life.) Oh and we must assume that if we are flying less, we are not making up for that with other bad habits, like driving a lot more. The list goes on and on...
Still, it gives hope to see that we as individuals can do little things, like flying a bit less, to contribute 1% to the 8-10% that we need. If we all did that and then we also found another 7-9 things that had a similar effect, we could actually save the planet!