Aviation is a significant and growing contributor to the climate change that is driving the red alert for heat in the UK – the first such alert ever in this country.
But, world-wide, the aviation industry is aiming to continue expand significantly – the UK government is right on trend in this respect.
Mile for mile, flying is the most damaging way to travel for the climate. A return flight from London to San Francisco emits around 5.5 tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per person – more than twice the emissions produced by a family car in a year. Even a return flight from London to Berlin emits around 0.6 tonnes CO2e – three times the emissions saved from a year of recycling.
Emissions from planes are rising rapidly – they increased by 32% between 2013 and 2018, most of this arising from aviation’s growth in volume. While improving fuel efficiency is gradually reducing the emissions per passenger, it is not keeping up with the rapid increase in total passenger numbers, which are projected to double in the next 20 years.
Fuel efficiency improvements are of the order of 1% per year but flights are increasing at around 6% each year. Efficiency gains are not even close to reducing that gap. Electric powered flight won’t happen at a viable commercial scale in time to address climate change, assuming that it can ever be made to work.
Sustainable aviation fuels from crops will still produce emissions when burnt. They will have to use vast amounts of essential food-producing agricultural land to produce the energy concentrated aviation fuel needed. None of this will happen in time, the Met Office and others are warning us to expect more and longer red heat alerts in the coming years.
And it’s not just CO2. Other substances, including mostly water in the form of contrails, as well as soot and nitrous oxides emitted from jet engines, all trap additional heat at flight altitude.
A single passenger travelling on a domestic flight in Britain, for example, can lead to climate impacts equivalent to 254g of CO2 for every kilometre they travel, according the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). The same calculations estimate a long-haul flight can release the equivalent to 102g of CO2 for every kilometre – a lower figure on average per kilometre because of the huge amount of emissions given off especially during take-off and full throttle and on landing.
Can we afford aviation if the cost is climate change that will produce multiple red heat alerts and deaths in the years to come?
Can we afford for airports like Newcastle Airport to continue to fly aircraft in growing numbers?
Should we be cutting back on aviation as fast as we can?
Shouldn’t we be using alternatives?