Flying has been in the news a lot lately. Not because of the usual stories like delays, staff strikes or excess luggage fees, but because of a more fundamental problem: aviation’s huge carbon footprint.


We’ve recently learned of Prince Harry and Meghan’s penchant for private jet travel, and Sir Elton John has raised the idea of buying offsets as a way to fly ‘carbon neutral’. Elsewhere, environmentalists like Greta Thunberg and thousands of her followers are giving up flying completely. But is air travel really such a big problem?

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Unfortunately it is. The aviation industry consumes five million barrels of oil every day, contributing around 2.5 per cent of global carbon emissions. If considered as a country, its carbon footprint is similar to that of Germany. The vast majority of flights are taken for leisure – around two-thirds in the UK – and just 15 per cent of passengers account for 70 per cent of flights.

And aviation is growing, fast. Thanks to growing affluence and affordable fares – helped by a long-standing zero-tax regime for international jet fuel – demand keeps rising. Passenger numbers doubled over the last 20 years, and are predicted to double again from around four billion annual journeys to 8.2 billion by 2037, according to the industry body IATA.

As things stand, air travel could account for 22 per cent of all emissions by 2050, putting huge strain on other vital sectors to decarbonise even faster. Some question whether it is fair to demand deep cuts in sectors like agriculture or energy, which are fundamental to human survival, while exempting aviation, which isn’t.

Under pressure, the industry’s regulatory body, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has come up with the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, or CORSIA, to deal with the industry’s carbon emissions. The scheme has two key assumptions. First, that aviation can continue to grow. Second, that there can be ‘carbon-neutral growth from 2020’, by making flights more efficient, and by purchasing large-scale carbon offsets. Some argue that these goals are mutually exclusive, and the scheme won’t kick in fully until 2027.

Flying neutral?

A few individual flyers take matters into their own hands by offsetting their flights. Offsetting means compensating for one activity that produces carbon, like a flight, by paying for another activity which removes an equal amount of carbon, like planting trees. Sir Elton John claimed that because he bought offsets for the royal couple’s flight, their air travel was therefore ‘carbon neutral’. However, this claim may be too good to be true, for several reasons.

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Time-wise, a flight taking off today emits its carbon today. Waiting for trees to mature to the stage when they can remove that carbon takes many years – time which we may simply not have to spare. Furthermore, offsetting isn’t always effective: a recent EU report concluded that 85 per cent of offset projects examined didn’t deliver their promised carbon reductions. Incidentally, the most robust offsets involved industrial processes like capturing methane from landfill sites, rather than more ‘photogenic’ projects like tree-planting or installing green energy.

At a societal level, carbon offsets, either at an individual passenger level, or at a CORSIA-style industry level, may seem like a way to avoid taking responsibility for our own behaviour. So perhaps we ought to view offset schemes as a well-intentioned form of charity, not a scientifically-grounded way to be ‘carbon neutral’.

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Individual action

Critics of offsetting argue that aviation demand urgently needs to be constrained, perhaps by applying a carbon tax to all flights, or a frequent flyer levy whereby passengers who fly more, pay more. Yet so far, governments and politicians are reluctant to go anywhere near a ‘flying tax’ – despite the huge revenues that could be generated and used to fund lower carbon transport alternatives.

The single best way to reduce one’s own carbon footprint is to fly less, as a growing movement of non-flyers is finding out. I’m one of them. Having pledged to give up flying in 2019 and 2020, I’ve found other ways to have holidays and do international work, even travelling by train from Southampton to China to conduct fieldwork earlier this year. It took almost two weeks each way, but contributed only 10 per cent of the carbon emissions of equivalent flights.

Such individual actions often seem small, but can lead to collective change. If we want politicians to make brave choices and regulate aviation properly, then travellers can signal their support by skipping flights where possible and supporting campaigns to tax flying properly, rather than simply passing the buck by buying carbon offsets.

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