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Why we don’t need to stop flying to save the planet, according to science

A new study says that the impact of aviation on warming could be halted by reducing the number of flights every year by 2.5 percent

Ed Cunningham
Written by
Ed Cunningham

Flying is bad for the planet. We all know that by now. Airplanes blast out loads of pollution, all the time, making them far worse for the environment than trains, boats, coaches and even private cars. But it’s also unrealistic to expect everyone to suddenly stop using planes. At the moment, there simply isn’t the infrastructure to support eco-friendly intercontinental travel everywhere in the world. 

That’s why recent scientific study from Oxford University, Manchester University and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory is so interesting. It suggests that we might not need to stop flying completely to save the planet. We just need to reduce the amount of flying we do.

The article is called ‘Quantifying aviation’s contribution to global warming’, and it’s full of numbers, variables and equations. It analyses different rates of global warming over different time periods, and also accounts for changes within the aviation industry. It’s thorough and complicated stuff.

But boiling it down to the very basics, here are a couple of the conclusions. One is that the aviation industry is definitely terrible for the environment, and will likely continue to contribute significantly to global warming. Aviation affects global warming more than people think because of its mix of pollutants – contrails (those cloud-like vapour lines that follow planes in the sky) contain CO2 but also other greenhouse gases like nitrogen oxides.

Since humans have started observing climate change, aviation has contributed to 4 percent of all warming. By 2050 the industry will have been responsible for a 0.1C rise in temperatures around the world, which is huge considering that it’s only one industry.

But the paper also has another, slightly more optimistic conclusion. It says that it might take only a small decrease in air travel to make aviation’s contribution to global warming more sustainable – or halt its damage entirely. If there was a 2.5 percent decrease in air travel every year from now on, the study says the aviation industry would cause no further global warming at all. The effects would be immediate.

In other words, we don’t need to stop flying completely to save the planet. And even more positive is that the study’s model is based on continued use of current fuels. If airplanes switched to use low-carbon, zero-carbon or renewable fuels, the industry’s effect on the environment would be reduced even further. Just last month British Airways ran a commercial flight using recycled cooking oil, showing that a future with more sustainable plane fuel is well within reach.

The alternative is that the airline industry continues to grow at a rapid pace. The impact of aviation on the environment would balloon, becoming an even more significant contributor to rising temperatures.

So how do we, on a daily basis, work on achieving that 2.5 percent decrease? We can consider flying shorter-haul and holidaying closer to home, but it’s much more important for people who fly a lot to reevaluate their need for frequent long-haul travel. Why should you forsake your yearly getaway when there are billionaires and businessmen jet-setting around the world several times a week? We’re looking at you, Bill Gates.

Of course, this paper is only one study and there is doubtless much more to figure out about the impact of aviation on global warming. If you want to find out more about the paper and its conclusions, or want to read its methodology in more detail, here it is

Now read about why we’re changing how we cover travel – starting now.

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