But is flying really so bad?

I sometimes wonder what my small group of readers think of my blog musings. And since they don’t tell me, I have to speculate. I think that most people try to do the right thing by the environment. Especially when it’s easy to do. And I think most people are interested in doing more, again if it’s easy to do.

Unfortunately I don’t think I can make being a green citizen easier for everyone. But I can reason what I try to do and explain my motivations.

Whilst I believe I am relatively environmentally conscious, I am quite far from being environmentally friendly. In a nutshell, reducing that impact is the theme of this blog.

I saw a great visualisation last year of what 1 tonne of CO2 looks like. Here it is:

Brown University, 2013. Earth Day.

Using calculations from ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, a bit over a tonne of CO2 is released by every passenger flying from Australia to Europe. One-way. This was a bit of an eye opener for me. Especially since the world average emissions is 5 tonnes which includes all industry that may not be easily attributed to individuals.

I did a small assignment in my second year of uni, when I tried to estimate what my carbon footprint was. Back then (2009), 90% of my total energy use was associated with the 3 return flights I did between Perth and Melbourne in the previous year. So a total of 6 flights at 3.5hrs each (total distance of 16,220km). So a fairly substantial amount of flying, but certainly not on par with frequent flyers.

In 2014, I have flown 58,469km. This included:

  • 7 medium haul Ryanair flights
  • 6 short haul flights around Scandinavia
  • 1 return trip to from London to Canada (at least it was direct)
  • 1 return trip to Australia from Oslo (via Dubai)
  • 1 return trip from Norway to Amsterdam

For your reference, that’s more than the circumference of the planet (40,075km).











Given I have nearly quadrupled my 2008 flying distance, you can begin to see how big an impact flying makes on my personal carbon footprint.

Perhaps a third or a half of the emissions were elective. (Of course I could have avoided all flying but I do try to see my parents once a year now that I live in Europe).  So the aim is cut back on the elective emissions as much as possible, to offset what remains.

To illustrate what’s happened to my flying impact, I made a spreadsheet with all of my flights I’ve ever taken. It totals a whopping 108 flights with an average distance roughly equal to flying from LA to New York. Highlighted in purple are my 2008 emissions, that were the subject of my aforementioned uni assignment.

Flying Emissions

This methodology for calculating CO2 is not the only one, and I haven’t concluded why there are differences between different methodologies. But I’ll save that question for another day. Taking the values in this graph, it can be seen that my past four years of air travel alone has roughly equaled the per capita emissions of the planet before the rest of my lifestyle is taken into account. And I definitely want to be a below average contributor to the world’s carbon crisis.

Thankfully not everything about my life is as tragic as my carbon output from flying. I’ve never owned a car, I walk and bike when I can and generally take public transport for the remaining time. I’ve stopped eating beef (nearly) and I’m eating less meat than I used to.

So flying is the one very substantial outlier in my life that I am trying to deal with for the moment. Despite making up only a few percent of global emissions, I would suggest that flying emissions are likely the largest individual contributor for most of my readers too. Detailed examination of my energy consumption is something that I’d like to do with the help of a recent book that I got called Sustainable Energy.

Click to read the book online. (It’s much nicer to read a paper copy, so check your library if you want to read on).


It makes for quite easy reading, and has technical chapters at the back if you’re interested in delving deeper into the calculations that are made in this book. Mackay firstly quantifies what he considers to be a typical British lifestyle in terms of energy used. Taking in a discussion of technology options and policy measures, he projects forward to how this could look in some years time. Specifically this has got the aim of kicking the fossil fuel habit, but is as much to do with demand reduction as technological change.

You can read through the book by clicking on the image above.

I think this is really a terrific read for anyone interested in how our energy future could look. I’ll certainly be using it a fair bit as I try to better understand what my energy consumption is like now and what I can do to reduce it.

Lastly if reading mini textbooks isn’t your thing, you can have a look at a TED talk he did on renewable energy technologies below:




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