In my lifetime, I have taken two long-haul flights. One was a trip to New York, USA and the other was a holiday in Bali, Indonesia. These flights have increased my personal carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 11 tonnes.

Flying plane leaving contrails
Flying plane leaving contrails
© Sergey Kustov (cc-by-sa/3.0)

The IPCC has calculated the total amount of greenhouse gases that humanity can contribute to the atmosphere and still probably prevent more than 2°C warming. To avoid overshooting this, a steep rate of reduction is required.

In the next 12 years, we must reduce our global emissions by 25%. By 2070, humans need to have completely stopped contributing CO2 and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Once this deadline is reached, humanity must offset all of its CO2 emissions using carbon capture techniques, like regularly planting large forests. However, it isn’t possible to offset greenhouse gases at the rate we are currently emitting them.

Reducing global emissions is a burden we must share as a species. Following the IPCC’s recommended rate of reduction, a person born in 2017 would only be able to emit 123 tonnes of CO2 over their lifetime. Under this budget, the two long haul flights I have taken in my life have used up my entire annual carbon budget for over 7.5 years.

Climate change is already happening. The Earth is currently 1°C warmer than pre-industrial levels. The Arctic is melting. There has been an 8-inch rise in the global sea level. Coral reefs are dying due to acidification. Entire species of animals are abandoning areas where they used to live to avoid the effects of climate change.

If no changes are made to combat climate change then the Earth may warm by 4.8°C. We are currently on track to reach at least 3.1°C. If the pledges made during the Paris agreement are kept, then warming may reach 2.6°C. Many scientists think we should aim to keep warming to 1.5°C, but it is likely to reach 2°C.

Graph of global greenhouse gas emission scenarios showing the level of reduction required to hit 1.5°C & 2°C.
Graph of global greenhouse gas emission scenarios showing the level of reduction required to hit 1.5°C & 2°C.
© Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (cc-by-sa)

At 2°C, there will be more frequent, more extreme temperature levels. Some areas will receive more rain and rivers are more likely to flood. The risk of droughts is also higher, particularly around the Mediterranian. The Arctic will melt completely during the summer. The sea levels may rise another 4 feet by the end of the century and some models predict an eventual rise of 36 feet.

This will have a massive impact on human life. Thousands of people are already being displaced due to climate change and this is going to get worse. It’s predicted that 140 million people by 2050 will be forced to move from their homes due to climate-change-driven crop shortages, water shortages and rising sea levels.

Polar bear standing on an ice-sheet reaching out to touch the water
Polar bear standing on an ice-sheet reaching out to touch the water

Many animals will be at risk of extinction, including polar bears, African elephants, Asian rhinos, tigers, orangutans and snow leopards. 18% of insects and 16% of plants will lose at least half of their habitats. 99% of coral reefs will die, which are the home and source of food for many other species.

Activists, including some of my friends, are currently protesting around the world, glueing themselves to buildings in London and climbing on top of planes. They are fighting to convince people, companies and governments to take action to avoid even worse levels of ecological catastrophe.

In 2010, humanity contributed 268 billion tonnes of greenhouses gases to the atmosphere. The vast majority, almost 50%, of this was from energy production. This can be reduced by swapping from fossil fuel to renewable energy sources, which already produce more than 20% of the UK’s energy. Transport, which includes planes, trains and cars, was the next highest cause of 2010 global emissions at 11% and, by 2014, this had risen to 14%.

Planes individually contribute 1.5–2% of global emissions. This figure is slightly misleading because the emissions from planes are released higher in the atmosphere which increases their impact on climate change at least two-fold. These emissions are also shared between fewer people: only 20% of the world’s population has ever been on a flight. If everyone on Earth took the same two long-haul flights as me, we would have produced more than 1.5 times the current annual global emissions.

Plane on the runway at Sydney airport. The image has been tilt-shifted.
Plane on the runway at Sydney airport. The image has been tilt-shifted.
© Jetstar Airways (cc-by-sa/2.0)

In countries with richer populations, plane travel represents a greater percentage of the country’s emissions, such as the UK where 6.3% of emissions are from flights. Even within the UK, this amount is contributed by only a small number of people. In Great Britain in 2014, 70% of flights were taken by only 15% of adults and 52% of the population hadn’t flown at all in the last year.

The small number of people who are travelling first class are contributing 6 times more CO2 than those travelling in economy. This is because these seats take up more space and are less likely to be filled on every flight. For the same reasons, business class is also 2.5–3 times worse than economy.

Sign showing a aeroplane crossed out with an out-of-focus plane in the background.
Sign showing a aeroplane crossed out with an out-of-focus plane in the background.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Choosing to fly less often is one of the few ways individuals can make a real impact on global emissions, but giving up flying doesn’t mean that you can’t have holidays abroad. Since my last flight, I’ve been to several different European countries using coach, Eurostar and electric rail, which are some of the greenest ways to travel. Travelling to Berlin by train releases 5 times less CO2 as the same journey by plane and is also much better across all other emissions related to climate change.

Giving up flying won’t solve climate change, but we can’t solve climate change without drastically changing the way we travel.

Freelancer writer and software developer based in Oxford, UK. https://kbarrett.github.io/

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