In the midst of crammed revision, packed studying and substantial doses of procrastination, many of us will be motivating ourselves with thoughts of the warm light at the end of the tunnel. Summer. As you may have discovered, Warwick is not a renowned hot, sunny destination and if rays are what we are seeking it will, for many, involve travelling a significant distance, most likely on a plane.
Planes are known to bad for the environment, but we rarely hear just how bad. The heavy reliance of our globalised lifestyles on aviation means it’s not something we want to think about. Therefore, it is often ignored by governments and NGOs, particularly when coupled with fears of accusations of hypocrisy (see the previous director of the UN’s Environment Programme).
So exactly how bad are they? It’s all to do with multiplication…
Firstly, of all conventional forms of transport, planes are the worst emitters of carbon dioxide per passenger and devour approximately 5.8% of the world’s oil (equivalent to 680 million litres a day, or 272 Olympic sized swimming pools). They are also the main transport method for covering large distances. Combining these two factors is analogous to choosing a mid-study session snack. You’re in Tesco’s Canon Park with the aim of eating a little healthier than usual. You can choose between an apple and a glazed doughnut. Now imagine the same scenario where the choice is one apple or sixteen doughnuts. It is obvious which option is worse for your health and it is obvious how planes have a detrimental impact on the environment.
Airline companies like to quote that aviation only accounts for around 2% of the world’s carbon emissions. This is misleading as the reality is not that simple. Planes emit large quantities of nitrous oxide, soot and water vapour which interact with the upper layers of the atmosphere. These vapour trails dotted all over our skies make it harder for light to leave the Earth’s atmosphere and leads to further warming, particularly at night. This introduces an aviation multiplier of around 2, essentially meaning that the total contribution to global warming is twice that of the carbon emissions.
So, what can we do?
The most straightforward option, achievable at an individual level, is to cut back on flights, particularly short haul flights. Planes are far more fuel efficient when covering larger distances as cruising requires less fuel, meaning that it is better to travel by train or bus if possible. Companies and governments may encourage this by increasing the cost of flights to reflect their external cost as well as, in recent times, the price of rail and bus has risen significantly whilst flights have remained unscathed. According to the IMF and World Bank, aviation remains undertaxed compared to other types of transport due to the Chicago Convention. The document was written in 1944 when the aviation industry was much smaller, and one later interpretation has prevented significant increases in taxes for many years. However, there are ongoing discussions about increasing this taxation and including airplanes in emission trading schemes (such as the EU’s ETS) to account for the total impact of aviation. Whilst there has been some success, these ideas still face pushback from nations such as Australia and the USA.
Secondly, airplane manufacturers and flight planners can increase fuel efficiency. Increasing passenger capacity and using new computer programs to plan low-fuel usage flight routes and improving aerodynamics will reduce carbon emissions by as much as 50%. It is also possible to check and compare how efficient certain airlines and flight routes are and choose the eco-friendliest option (see Atmosfair for more details). However, this is still reliant on the old ways of burning kerosene and the emissions involved in the production of this fuel are a problem.
An exciting alternative is the ‘greenification’ of planes. The popularity and reach of the electric cars industry are growing in leaps and bounds which is great news. “Surely the same can be applied to planes?” one might ask. However, electric aviation is a different beast altogether. The technology is not nearly as well researched, tested, or implemented as it is for cars and the unsupportable weight of batteries with adequate capacity and the inability of current electric motors narrows the options down to biofuels.
Biofuels are nothing new. They rely on the left-over products of the breakdown of plants and waste to produce fuels such as ethanol…yes, the same thing in your pitcher at Spoons. In the early 1900s, Henry Ford designed his Model T to run on gas or ethanol (a biofuel) but new discoveries of oil and gas have resulted in biofuels being pretty much left behind. That was until the reality of the threat of global warming began to sink in. Commercial use of biofuels began in 2011, first flying 171 passengers from Amsterdam to Paris on waste vegetable oils.
Biofuels provide a growing sense of hope for the plane industry. A prime example is United Airlines, who partnered with AltAir to fuel all their flights in and out of LA with low-carbon biofuels, which is predicted to cut carbon emissions by more than 60%. From non-consumable oils to sugar cane to gas waste, there are numerous options for the future of biofuels. Whilst there are still environmental and ethical issues with biofuels, depending on their derivation- the destruction of habitat, prioritisation over food production in developing countries, the tendency to a monoculture- they seem to provide a good path moving forwards.
It’s a lot to consider, particularly when all you want to do is book a trip abroad with your friends whilst on a student budget. But before embarking on a summer as a fulltime jetsetter, calculate your emissions and think about the alternatives available to you first so that the biggest footprint you are leaving is in the sand.