During my adult life I have been a frequent flyer. After finishing high school, I moved to a city nearly 4 hours flight away to start university. That year was 2008. I had of course taken some long distance trips prior to leaving school, but there was a step change when I left home.
It began with several trips home every year. Later I took an exchange semester overseas. For the past three years I have been living in Northern Europe, half a world a way from where I grew up.
Ever since first using a carbon footprint calculator in my early university days, I have realised that flying makes up the lion’s share of the emissions that are directly related to my personal choices. Flying is not inherently inefficient, but it carries people great distances. Distances that would often not be taken in a world without planes. CO2 emissions from flying are actually comparable to a single occupant car per passenger kilometre (and in the developed world the average occupancy is only marginally more than 1 most of the time making this worse per kilometre than flying!).
I don’t travel by car very often but I do fly a lot. More than 10 individual flights a year over the past 5 years probably counts. How does this compare to others? That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer since information regarding per capita flying levels is scarce. We can get a rough idea using the total numbers of flights, their distances & average passenger occupancy. Divided by the population of the world. In 2008, this figure came to 298 km per person (Gilbert & Perl, 2008, p. 67).
So a couple of years ago I began charting all of the flights I had ever taken, and all of the long distance trips that I could have flown, and put them all into a graph, something that I found out recently is termed a life trajectory.
The columns show distances in kilometres that I have travelled. The stacked columns show air kilometres travelled, whilst the green columns have been taken with ground transport (train mostly). To give you an idea of scale, the yellow bar in 1993 is the equivalent to a return flight from New York to Paris (12000km). The later years from, 2011 onwards have numbers in the yellow columns that indicate how many return New York – Paris equivalent journeys I made that year. Quite a lot!
Meanwhile, the purple line shows my ecological footprint that results from this in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (the vertical axis on the right – with data from ICAO). The purple double-ended arrow represents the equivalent of a return flight from London to New York (722kg). Which is to say, just a bit less than the amount of CO2 represented by this balloon (photo: Meg Lowman).
Strangely enough I think this crazy level of travel (and its associated CO2) is not atypical for my peers. I would be really interested in finding out more information regarding average levels of flying to begin to scope out the extent of this issue. Airline travel is extremely unevenly distributed between the developed and developing world. Which makes the aviation industry’s carbon footprint (about 2-3% of global emissions) easy to ignore for those of us who live in the developed world.
If you have good attention to detail you may have seen the small green column representing ground travel is on the way up. This has been my attempt to avoid flying in recent years. It’s only a small percentage of total journeys, but I am trying both avoid longer journeys and substitute as many of the shorter flights with trains where possible. And indeed since 2013 my levels of short haul flying (defined as less than 785km) has been comparable with my slow travel alternatives.
I make a noticeable exception to my trip avoidance target (which clearly could be doing better) to see my family and friends in Australia once every 12-18 months. I may paint a little bit of a bleak picture, but I hope to show that demand reduction is absolutely a key component in reducing our environmental footprint, and it doesn’t necessarily come at the cost of enjoyment.
I have been taking some pretty interesting trips in recent years in my attempts to avoid flying. And I see more and more people are thinking about travel experiences closer to home in response to this issue. In the meantime, fingers crossed for some technological advancements like Hyperloop and other cheaper forms of high speed land (and sea) transport.