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"Flying Shame" and the CO2 savings when choosing alternative travel

AirFlight-flightshame Flight Shame - Reducing CO2?

In addition to new regulations for reducing energy use and CO2 generated as a result of operating existing buildings,  air travel is also attracting a  lot of attention so much so that the term "flying shame" has been coined recently with pressure for consumers to reduce flying. Whilst we usually consider CO2 reduction in buildings  - in the name of populist environmentalism we take a quick look at the emissions generated from flying, technology and forecast increase in air passenger numbers by 2037.

A long haul flight uses around 100 tonnes of fossil fuel, and although efforts are underway to reduce the carbon footprint of air transport, it will be some years before technology will make a serious dent in it. This is having an impact on our attitudes towards flying and has spawned a whole new movement. Originating in Sweden, "flygskam", or "flying shame", is having a significant impact on the way we travel. So much so that a survey of 6,000 people from the US and Europe found that 21% had cut down on their flying compared to a year ago just to reduce their impact on climate change.

So, why is flying so damaging to the environment, what impact can we make by using alternative modes of transport, and can new technology offer to make flying more environmentally friendly?
​​Aircraft greenhouse gas emissions
As we all know, burning fossil fuels creates carbon dioxide (CO2), a primary greenhouse gas that accelerates global warming and climate change. CO2 emissions from aircraft account for 2% of the total human-induced CO2 emissions and 12% of CO2 from all modes of transport. Unfortunately, the problem with aviation is more severe than these figures suggest. Aircraft also produce additional greenhouse gasses including NOx which at high altitude can have an even greater effect on global warming. Water vapour from burning fossil fuels and contrails also impact on global warming.
Together, all these factors contribute around 5% to global warming. 
CO2 savings from alternative t​ravel
​The transport choices we make can make a real impact on greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, emissions for economy class passengers are a quarter of those for first-class passengers. The table below compares emissions from passengers flying economy on short and long haul flights with alternative modes of transport.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​
Reducing CO2 emissions

Clearly, choosing to travel by any other mode of transportation than flying is beneficial, though a car with just a driver is only slightly better than flying. Travelling by rail or coach generates the lowest emissions and travelling by efficient electric trains such as Eurostar has the smallest carbon footprint, especially when the electricity is generated from renewable resources. 

Although we can make a difference, our world depends on air transport, so does technology have a long term solution?

How technolo​gy can reduce the environmental impact of flying

The aviation industry is working hard to reduce the environmental impact of flying. Some of the technological advances that promise improvements include:

• More efficient engines – A new generation Ultra-Fan engine is being developed by Rolls Royce and will be ready by 2025. This will be 25% more fuel-efficient than current models and will reduce total greenhouse gas emissions by a quarter, a massive improvement.

• More efficient aircraft - There are several ways to improve the efficiency of current and next-generation turbojet aircraft. New designs are focussing on drag reduction; new construction materials can be used to make aircraft lighter, and weight can be reduced by replacing heavy seating with lighter. 

• Alternative fuels – Aviation biofuels can drastically reduce aviation's carbon footprint. Mostly, they are carbon-neutral, but some potential downsides include the possible destruction of forests and using land that would be far better used for food production. Thus, only sustainable biofuels are now being considered. Currently aviation biofuels production is being accelerated an is likely to make a significant impact in the future. 

• Electric aircraft - While the weight of current generation batteries is too much for fully electric aircraft, the first generation hybrid-electric planes will be in the air by 2025. Already the viability of various prototypes has been demonstrated. In the near term these will be suitable only for short to medium-haul flights, though future battery technologies are being developed which could extend the range.

• More efficient air traffic control - Planes waste vast amounts of fuel when stacked waiting to land. This waste could be almost eliminated with much better air traffic control systems. Artificial intelligence is likely to have a massive impact on air traffic management resulting in significant emission reductions. 

The case for flying shame

Flying shame is understandable. Many people are rightly concerned about the impact of flying on the environment, and there is no denying that personal choices regarding the mode of transport can make a difference. But, for many journeys, there is no alternative; flying is the only choice and the IATA forecasts air travelers to double by 2037 to 8.2 billion.

The only realistic solution is new technology, and, as we have seen, there are many technical developments in the pipeline that promise a significant reduction to the impact of aviation on the environment. The aviation industry must continue to pursue these vigorously so that we no longer feel ashamed to fly.

More information on the 20 year forecast figures is available by watching the video below.
Improving air quality in urban areas