Travel / Asia Wide

The climate cost of flying

by Kathy Xu
Length 9 min

In recent times, there is a rising awareness especially among the young and liberal to be more environmentally-aware. The “woke” generation has started to educate themselves about climate change, overuse of plastics, and broader environmental issues. However, few give thought to aspects of life that leave the biggest carbon footprint on the world such as travelling by airplanes.

How does air travel contribute to global warming?

Global warming occurs when too much carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere is trapped within the Earth’s surface, making the planet warmer. This heat can stay trapped for centuries.

A paper identifies the four most effective ways an individual can help reduce greenhouse emissions through making changes in their lifestyle, and they are: having one less child, having a car-free lifestyle, switching to a plant based diet, and avoiding air travel. Air travel is the greatest culprit of the four in producing emissions.

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How does your lifestyle choices measure up in terms of carbon reduction?

With rising affluence and budget carriers over the recent years, regular air travel has become a readily accessible lifestyle choice. AirAsia puts it succinctly in its choice of a slogan for the company: “Now everyone can fly”.

According to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) under the United Nations, the number of air traffic passengers has been increasing by around 5 to 6 percent annually  between the years 2011 and 2015. In 2016, there was a total of 3.7 billion global air passengers. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts that by the year 2035, there will be an increase of 7.2 billion air passengers.

Growing number of total air passengers and global flights

Air travel is considered to be the biggest carbon sin. Airplanes run on fossil fuels and the air travel industry spends about five million litres of oil everyday which also adds around 2.5 percent to the total carbon emissions burden. Over a five year impact measurement period, it was found that the global warming caused by all the cars on the roads globally still account for less emissions than planes.

 

What role does Asia Pacific play in the aviation industry?

As affluence grows particularly in the Asia Pacific region, and especially so in heavily populated China, Asian travelers may be the biggest contributors to an increase in air traffic in the coming decades.

According to an ICAO report, it is predicted that  Asia Pacific will account for 31 percent of  global carbon emissions in aviation by 2020. Asia is projected to show growth in global aviation and  will have 18,200 aircrafts in current flight by 2037. Without visa restrictions and trade protectionism, the demand for air travel in Asia is expected to go up. According to IATA, that says the Asia Pacific region is expected to be the biggest driver for demand for air travel. In Southeast Asia alone, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) anticipates that 7.8 billion people will be travelling by air, making up 45 percent of total global travellers, by the year 2036. In fact, the number of air travellers in India alone has gone up from 2,671 in 1970 to a whopping 139,822 in 2017.

The growing size of aircraft fleets by world regions

In recent years, several Asian airlines have attempted to address the desire for “green” flights. A study done found that China’s Hainan Airlines and Japan’s All Nippon Airways (ANA) were actually the most fuel efficient airlines on transpacific operations in 2016. Since May 2017, Singapore Airlines has introduced flights powered by sustainable biofuels that reduces carbon emissions. The airlines has also said it would use the Airbus A350-900, which is arguably a more fuel efficient plane.

Fuel efficiency comparison of airlines on transatlantic flights

Despite the “greening” efforts of several airlines, there are still a handful of Asia Pacific airlines that are less fuel efficient than the industry average. These are namely Chinese, Singaporean, and Korean airlines, some of which are ranked by Skytrax as the best airlines in the region. China’s growth is also of concern, with China having acquired 424 new aircrafts in 2017 alone. China is projected to purchase about 6,810 airplanes over the next 20 years at a total cost of USD1.025 trillion, as they cater to growing demand for domestic and overseas travel. In a 2017 list of the 50 busiest airports in the world, 10 were situated in China.

Ranking of the world's busiest airports in 2017 according to Airports Council International, https://aci.aero.

In 2016, China’s outbound tourists were responsible for spending one fifth of the total spending by global tourists, which was  two times higher than the U.S. in a list of the top spenders. These figures are astonishing, given that only five percent of the Chinese population have a passport. But that is set to change as estimates show the Chinese government is issuing approximately ten million travel papers every year.

 

Can the damage done be reversed?

For those who have no choice and need to frequently travel by air, preventive reduction in emissions may be achieved by flying economy class, booking through airlines that use biofuels, or only taking non-stop flights. Airlines that use biofuels as opposed to jet fuels also produce less carbon emissions. The more time that a plane spends on the tarmac for passenger boarding and take off for more multiple flights, the more excess fuel these idle planes burn. Taking direct flights has shown to reduce those extra carbon emissions.

The purchase of carbon offsets for flights can also count towards a more sustainable approach to travel. This involves donating a set amount of money corresponding to the environmental damage caused by flight travels, to a non-profit or a company that undertakes environmental initiatives such a afforestation.

 

Buying carbon offsets does not reverse the damage to the climate that air travel causes, but it  gives individuals and companies an incentive to think about limiting their greenhouse emissions. Business class and budget travelers require different types of incentives to offset carbon emissions. Business class passengers pay for the exclusivity and comfort. They have the means and are likely to spend more if they are told their additional contribution goes towards a specific cause (environmental) in a given country. For the budget traveller, incentives to take on carbon offset options can come in shared projects with much lower price points, like contributing to help a project purchase low-energy lightbulbs for distribution to developing countries.

But emission offset costs can be prohibitive. For example, purchasing carbon offsets for a Melbourne-London return trip costs approximately AUD425, which exceeds the cost of many low-budget carrier flight routes to numerous destinations and adds a hefty addition to an already expensive flight ticket.

Ultimately, carbon offsetting is a last resort. Fuel always generates the greatest cost for the airline companies. Achieving fuel efficiency would therefore benefit both airlines companies and the environment.

 

Are there measures for the aviation industry to reduce their carbon footprint?

The United Nations has proposed a voluntary scheme under ICAO—it’s civil aviation arm —to cap the aviation industry’s carbon footprint by 2021.The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) will  address any annual increase in total CO2 emissions from international civil aviation. It pilots in  2021 , and Singapore in one country that has agreed to be a part of the voluntary carbon footprint cap under ICAO, whereby all Singapore airline carriers need to offset emissions. Under the CORSIA scheme, airlines will track their CO2 emissions between 2019 to 2020 to form a baseline for carbon neutral growth. Thereafter, should airlines release emissions higher than this baseline, they have to purchase carbon offsets to support environmental projects in industries other than the aviation sector.

Timeline of ICAO's scheme for aviation industry to go carbon neutral

Efforts to reduce the aviation industry’s carbon footprint is largely driven by incentives surrounding cost. Even CORSIA is a voluntary scheme that is entirely up to ICAO members to implement. The incentive in this instance is the high cost of jet fuel. In 2012, the European Union (EU) put in place a carbon emissions tax for airplanes, that spurred carriers to choose more fuel efficient planes.The long haul Airbus A3250-XWB, amongst a few others, now use lightweight composite materials to cut carbon emissions and be more fuel efficient. ASEAN’s International Airport Association is also a part of the ICAO, and they are setting up an environmental working group (EWG) to focus on greening air travel and environmental management of airports in ASEAN.

Asia has many burgeoning societies and economies that will see advances in income and technology in the coming years. However, the region (especially Southeast Asia) is also the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. This will be a constant challenge for Asia. How can it achieve developmental growth and play catch-up to the rest of the world, while also keeping in mind environmental concerns?