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Week Six - Flying

Cut international flights by two-thirds to save 741 kilograms CO2e per person per year

· Weekly experiments


- What was the best thing about our trip to Fiji?

My preschooler

- The airplane snack.

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Flying is the fastest way to fry the planet

My preschooler has terrible judgment. She loves aeroplane food.

I have bad judgment, too. I took an overseas holiday while trying to cut my carbon footprint.

It doesn't matter how far you go, you can never get away from yourself

Or from another Australian. We're everywhere. Whether we're propping up the bar, serving behind it or slumped in the gutter outside, we love to travel. Last year we took almost 11 million overseas trips, collectively flying over 150 billion kilometres. All that flying made for a lot of carbon dioxide and equivalent emissions (CO2e).

How much CO2e?

By international agreement, flights aren't included in national carbon inventories. I'm not sure why, given their massive impact. I assume it's because airlines hire good lobbyists.

While they don't officially track it in their inventory, the Department of the Environment and Energy told me that fuel emissions from international aviation accounted for around 12.5 million tonnes of CO2e for Australia in 2016. That's about half a tonne per person.

I ran the numbers and came up with double the government figure. The discrepancy turns out to be because our government is running a production-based invenetory and only tracks half the flight (and doesn't even include this in the official inventory). Government tracks the fuel bought in Australia, but not that bought overseas for the return flight. This means an Australian who bought their return ticket in Sydney and flies from Fiji to Sydney on a QANTAS plane isn't counted in our figures.

Both my figures and government figures omit all the overseas hops an Australian takes while on a trip overseas. This means that if you fly from Sydney to Paris to Berlin to Portugal and home again:

- I count the flight from Sydney to Paris and the flight from Portugal to Sydney, but not the rest; and

- Federal Government tracks Sydney to Paris, omits everything else and then removes even the Sydney-Paris section from Australia's official carbon inventory because apparently plane emissions aren't real...?

However you count it, flying adds a hefty chunk to our average annual 20-tonne footprint. And that only counts international flights. I'm covering domestic flights elsewhere in this project.

Flying isn't fair

Flying is not spread evenly across the population.

Some people fly business or first class. These trips emit three or four times more than an economy trip, because the seats use more space, meaning that fewer people can fit on the plane. The same argument would apply to flying in a plane that's only half full.

Duplo plane flies through a blue sky

Those chunky business class seats take up more space so they're responsible for more of the plane's emissions.

Some people fly dozens of times per year, or take long trips to the other side of the planet. My return flight to Fiji generated a fairly modest 930 kilograms of CO2e. A return flight to Washington would generate six times that amount. If you did it first class, it jumps to a whopping 17 tonnes. How you fly and where you fly matters.

At the other end of the scale, some people can't afford to fly. Others have decided to cut back for environmental reasons or quit flying entirely.

Why does flying cause so much CO2e?

Aviation uses fossil fuel. Unlike other forms of transport, there is as yet no practical alternative. If aviation remains excluded from carbon inventories and trading schemes, it's unlikely anyone will develop one.

Flying is also efficient. It lets you cover much more distance than you otherwise would. I've heard arguments that it's not high-carbon per kilometre, but it lets us cover a lot of kilometres. We don't drive, ride or scoot to America, but over a million of us fly there every year.

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New York or bust?

Why do we fly?

Cheap flights have only been available for the last generation or two, but they're entrenched in our lifestyle. The overseas gap year is a rite of passage. Conferences get more attendance in Bali than Brisbane. Holiday bragging rights don't apply until you cross an international border.

Like a lot of consumerist behaviour, I believe flying is more about social prestige than actual pleasure or need. Australia has great beaches and mountains, fascinating cultures, amazing cities and delicious fusion food, but it's not a real trip unless you use a passport. We love visiting the world. More than that, we love telling each other we did. Unless this changes, there may not be a world left to visit.

Changing this behavior may be hard. It affects all sides of politics. Those who are worried about the climate might ride to work, eat vegan and join a green lobby group, but they still love to travel. I'm a prime example. Of Australia's 23 most-visited countries, I've been to 15. I was delighted at the time. I'll be less proud when I have to explain climate change to my daughter.

How much CO2e will I save?

My economy flight to Fiji cost 930 kilograms of CO2e. The entire holiday would have cost more, given our other carbon-hungry pursuits like eating out, staying in hotels and buying souvenirs. I bought offsets for my trip, but I haven't counted these. Whether offsets help is a complex discussion for another day. Now that I see the damage of flights, I've decided to cut back my overseas travel by two-thirds. I'll go overseas for a holiday once every three years.

How can the average Australian cut back?

Similarly, the average Australian can save at least 741 kilograms CO2e by cutting back on overseas flights by two-thirds. For the reasons stated above, they'll likely save even more than that.

How can I cut back?

- Don't fly except in an emergency. This is one of the most powerful climate statements you can make. It slashes your footprint and undermines the cultural prestige of flying.

- Fly less. If it's for work, could you teleconference instead? If it's a holiday, could you visit somewhere closer, or fly less often? I'm yet to quit, but I've happily switched from an annual overseas trip to one every three years. I have more fun surfing and diving at my local beach than I ever had in an airport.

- Fly economy. It's great when the cattle class troop past in envy, but is it worth four times the climate pollution?

- Don't brag. Next time you talk about your overseas trip or admire someone else's, spare a few words about the carbon impact. Social hierarchies respond to individual comments. Let's bring in a world where we get prestige from solar panels instead.

Spreadsheet calculations, data sources and references in 'Notes' section, Week Six.


Author's Note: I updated this post at the end of my Carbon Diet.

Spreadsheet calculations, data sources and references in 'Notes' section, Week Six.