Climate Killer Flying - How harmful is flying really?

Climate Killer Part 1 – How much damage does flying really cause?

Esther Nestle
3 pictures
5 minutes

In times of worldwide student demonstrations and threatening climate forecasts, one climate killer is particularly pilloried: the airplane. More precisely, flying as a mass phenomenon. I just had my personal ecological footprint calculated. With my current lifestyle, I would need a second earth in petto and even parts of a third. One of my biggest environmental sins: Flying.

Flight fascination versus flight shame

What I want to do as an average passenger

I want to underline my emotional conflict between flight shame and “Smygflyga” (*) with facts. I found what I was looking for in many respectable sources – the German newspapers Süddeutsche Zeitung, Zeit, FAZ, Handelsblatt, the Swiss Zürcher Zeitung, as well as the website of Atmosfair (here you can find the ten most climate-friendly airlines 2018 – according to Atmosfair) and the knowledge platform But please: ZERO claim to completeness – the topic is almost inexhaustible.

Every minus point that is peeled out is immediately followed by a plus point, i.e. always nicely alternating.

(*) Swedish trend word, meaning secretly (?) yet still flying

– I’m flying, so I’m harming the climate.

Two years ago, I flew from Stuttgart to the Seychelles, a round trip with two stops in Amsterdam and Dubai. This long-distance trip was reflected in my ecological assessment at about 14,000 kg CO2 (calculation according to Atmosfair). With this, I have squandered as much CO2 as the average German in half a year – living, eating and driving included. With the same CO2 emissions, I can drive 12,000 kilometres by car for seven years – annually! That’s pretty gross.

+ Only global measures have a noticeable effect

As for me, air travel accounts for a considerable proportion of the personal ecobalance of many Germans. Therefore, flight renouncement? Of course, an individual flight waiver is anything but wrong, as is the waiver of meat, driving a car, flown-in pineapples and plastic bags.

But there is much more that society as a whole needs to do to limit global warming to the 1.5 percent laid down in the Paris Climate Agreement. Overarching measures are needed, for example in energy supply. In industry. In agriculture. In the planning of transport. Everything must be poured into a major climate protection plan. Nationwide, Europe-wide, worldwide.

Even if none of us has a carte blanche for his individual actions with this realization: Responsibility for global developments cannot primarily be imposed on individuals. (Zeit)

– Rapid growth in passenger numbers

120 million air travellers took off from German airports in 2018 alone. Passenger numbers in Germany have doubled within twenty years. The German Aerospace Center predicts that by 2030 there will even be 170 million passengers.

The number of passengers worldwide rose to 4.1 billion in 2018, an increase of 7 percent compared to 2017 (Süddeutsche Zeitung). Depending on the source, air traffic currently accounts for 2 to 3 percent (Handelsblatt) or up to 5 percent (Zeit) of total climate-relevant emissions worldwide.

+ Who is responsible?

For comparison (Neue Zürcher Zeitung):

Question: Why is air traffic so one-sidedly pilloried?

– CO2 and more

It is not CO2 alone that damages our climate. CO2 is joined by other substances such as nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. Emissions of nitrogen oxides and water vapour lead to condensation trails, altered cloud formation and more ozone: which in turn slows down the emission of heat from the earth and thus contributes to global warming.

If all pollutants are taken together, experts believe that the actual damage is two to four times greater than that caused by CO2 alone.

+ Fuel consumption almost halved since the 1960s

The aircraft industry is not remaining inactive. Constant technical developments in aircraft and engine construction, the use of the most modern, kerosene saving aircraft fleets possible, and consistently high capacity utilization are reducing the kerosene consumption per passenger.

In fact, German air traffic has more than tripled since 1990 and kerosene demand has only just doubled over the same period. Fuel consumption has even been almost halved since the 1960s. The rule of thumb among experts is: with every new generation of aircraft, kerosene consumption drops by 15 to 25 percent. The current average is 3.64 litres per person and 100 kilometres.

In addition, completely new technologies are being researched comprehensively. New Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury, for example, recently issued the slogan “emission-free flying” (more on the topic in this WingMag article) – whether he wants to achieve this ambitious goal by electric propulsion or by means of CO2-neutral aviation “power-to-liquid” fuel or in a completely different way – we will hopefully (!) see it.

An average passenger draws her conclusions

The aircraft industry, therefore, seems to be doing its climate protection homework: But how do I convert the results for myself? Black-and-white thinking is not enough, I can see that now. As an average passenger, what concrete conclusions and behaviours do I draw from the results? More about the topic in the second part of this article.

by Esther Nestle

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