Flying and the environment – reasonable flying is not an environmental crime

Flying, including all passenger and freight traffic as well as airport infrastructure, globally causes about 2.5% of carbon dioxide emissions. Traffic causes 24-27% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (Our World in Data; EPA). Of this, 3/4 is road traffic. Car traffic causes about 20 % of global climate emissions, in Finland and the USA 22-27% of the consumer’s carbon footprint is due to driving. The average carbon footprint of a Finn is about 10 t CO2/year, of which driving accounts for about 2.25 t (Sitra). My own carbon footprint is about 4 t/year, or about 40% of the average in Finland, and I sometimes fly mainly in Europe. You can imagine your annual carbon footprint as 1m x 1m x 1m carbon cubes, which the average Finn has in 10 years. Even this seems very large, but in gaseous form, e.g. as carbon dioxide combined with oxygen, this amount of carbon is of course still vastly larger, thousands of cubic meters.

Finland is a rare country a country where the distances outside the city centers are long and quite a lot of traffic and infrastructure are needed (electricity, heating, telecommunications, water, etc.). Because of this, our energy consumption is more extensive and per inhabitant higher than on average in Europe. So our average carbon footprint is 10 t CO2/year and in Europe an average of 6.5 t/year. The world average is about 4 t/year and in the ”promised land” of high consumption and motoring in the United States it is already over 16 t/year. On the other hand, in Africa, whose emissions are less than 1% of global emissions, In Mali, the carbon footprint is only 0.09 t CO2/year. The globally sustainable level is estimated to be 2.5 t/year. If we want to maintain a settlement in Finland, we have to accept that our emissions are slightly above average, otherwise life in Finland would not be possible. more heating is needed than, for example, in Britain or Italy. We need more traffic and built infrastructure (roads, link masts, water pipes, power lines).When it comes to flying, we need to have connections to the rest of the world and especially to Europe. Finland is also such a long country that domestic flights are needed. On the other hand, even though our emissions are higher, we also have the largest carbon sinks in the EU region, because our vast forests. However, the carbon footprint of Finns should be below the level of 2.5 t/year. This goal will be reached in particular by transitioning to completely renewable energy, wind and solar power and hydrogen technology, complete electrification of transport + transition to hydrogen, transition to a vegetarian diet, soft forestry, minimal industry and agroecological carbon-negative farming. These are also for the consumer the three most important questions, how to reduce your own carbon footprint: 1) do I buy renewable energy? 2) how do I move? 3) what do I eat and consume? I buy renewable energy myself, drive and fly a little and eat mostly vegan food, no meat at all. I consume little and ethically and ecologically, and e more experiences and services than goods.

Then to flying… Today it has become a bit of a fashion phenomenon to oppose flying. Others wonder if it is possible to publish photos from trips on social media. However, the share of flying is very small in total climate emissions and total traffic emissions, the share of sea traffic and telecommunications are as large. Reasonable flying is not harmful to the environment and the climate. Other causes are much more significant sources of climate emissions and therefore should be prioritized. As said, road traffic’s share of carbon emissions is 3/4 of total traffic emissions, i.e. 20% of all climate emissions. It is much more essential to reduce car traffic than air traffic.

Maritime transport, like air transport, produces about 2.5% of climate emissions. Considering that maritime transport is by far the largest volume of all freight transport, its emissions are quite small. In the same category as the previous ones are the data communication emissions, about 2%. Telecommunication, on the other hand, requires a lot of infrastructure, such as servers, cables and link towers, and consumes a lot of electricity. However, e.g. Google uses renewable energy. However, the manufacture of devices requires industry and large mines. According to some estimates, telecommunication emissions are even much higher than air traffic (about 4%). On the other hand, telecommunications reduces the need for people, mail and goods to move, and makes our lives easier in numerous ways, improving health, safety and comfort. I will write a separate post about this later. Another thing that separates flying from driving and other traffic is that people usually fly a little, 1-2 times a year and mostly shorter flights than intercontinental flights. Airplanes also transport a lot of cargo at the same time, so they would still fly and there are a large number of passengers on board, even hundreds of people. These reduce the carbon footprint. It should be noted that flying does not release toxins into the air (jet kerosene burns quite cleanly at high temperatures), but mostly carbon dioxide and water vapor, some (less than 1%) nitrogen and sulfur oxides, soot, particles and carbon monoxide. Much more of these are released from the car. Although kerosene is harmful, like all fossil fuels, it is less harmful than e.g. gasoline, diesel, coal, peat and other fossil fuels. Jet fuel is made more ecological by mixing it with biokerosene, which is obtained from biomass, for example sugar cane or even frying fat by fermentation. The use of biokerosene has been growing all the time. The emissions of biokerosene are only about 20% of conventional petroleum-based kerosene.

Many people do not actually know that the carbon emissions per kilometer of an airplane are lower than when driving a car: the average emissions of passenger cars in use are around 150 g/km, while the emissions of airplanes are around 90-100 g/km. Airplane emissions are therefore less than 66% of car emissions per kilometer. The flight distance to Amsterdam (about 1500 km) is less than 150 kg on this basis and, for example, on the basis of this ICAO calculator (which takes all factors into account) 130 kg. When going to Amsterdam by car, the emissions would be enormously higher, which is further enhanced by the fact that you can go directly by plane, but by car you have to go around a lot. According to Finnair, round-trip flights to Tokyo have approximately 500 kg of carbon emissions. When flying to New York and back, on the other hand, carbon emissions increase to 700 kg. Even when flying to the Canary Islands and back, the emissions are 647 kg. However, the emissions of the trip to Amsterdam are only 260 kg. So there is a significant difference here, whether it is an intercontinental flight or, for example, a relatively short flight within Europe. However, the route and fuel consumption of airplanes are also affected by e.g. the spherical shape of the earth and the prevailing planetary winds. Tokyo, for example, is a surprisingly short trip due to the northern location of Finland and Japan and the roundness of the earth. Not only the length of the journey has an effect, but also the altitude of the aircraft, winds, etc. Takeoff and landing require more fuel. Due to these, when flying to Singapore, the carbon footprint, 636 kg, is smaller than to the Canary Islands. It should be noted that the emissions of a single flight are large, but quite small on a short flight. The average carbon footprint of a Finn from driving is 2.25 t/year. Taking into account that not everyone has a car, the carbon footprint of each car driver is on average 3 t/year.

This corresponds to four round trips to New York (0.7 t) and 12 round trips to Amsterdam (0.26 t). So if you compare a person who drives a lot and a person who drives very little or not at all, but flies for example 2 times a year, then the carbon emissions of the driver are much higher. Some people drive up to e.g. 25,000 km a year and the emissions of an SUV can be up to 200 g/km. This becomes 5000 kg or 5 t of carbon footprint per year. The annual carbon footprint of someone driving this much is equivalent to about 25 round trips to Amsterdam. Large-scale autpiling is therefore a bigger problem than low flying. I’m not trying to downplay the problems caused by flying, it’s very important to reduce air traffic emissions as much as possible, but I’m trying to relate to the whole. 1-2 short flights a year is still not a problem, especially if you are otherwise an ecological person and e.g. buy renewable energy and eat vegetarian food. A person can compensate emissions from flying in many ways with their own lifestyle and choices, e.g. by buying wind electricity. You can also compensate by donating money to climate projects, e.g. planting trees in developing countries. Many airlines offer this kind of compensation service, and they are not even expensive. Airlines also have different equipment, some with lower emissions. Often, people can also have breaks in flying of several years, if they occasionally fly to another continent, for example. So I don’t think it makes sense to blame people for all flying, or to demonize flying and demand it stop. People may have family and friends living in different parts of the world, work or study may require travel, but even as a tourist, travel is allowed and good for a person. Travel expands and refreshes, gives experiences and enables interesting hobbies. At the same time, you learn new things and get to know new people. People have always traveled. Tourism makes many things possible: innovations spread, cultures meet, people learn new things and gain experiences, globalization and cooperation progress.

Flying becomes a problem when it is excessive. A Finnish celebrity model recently said in Iltalehti that she is very upset when she can’t fly dozens of times a year due to corona restrictions. This kind of luxury is harmful to the earth. Even when it’s like 5 intercontinental flights per year. Often these flights are on top of a lot of driving. The majority of Finns who travel and fly are wealthy people who also often have a car or two. Often tourists also cause ecological problems in the destination country. For example, limited water resources are used for swimming pools or waste is supported a lot and not recycled. What if everyone did this? It would lead to a dramatic increase in climate emissions and worsening of climate change and other environmental problems. It will also be very damaging if Chinese, Indian, African and other people from growing economies and developing countries start flying in the way they are used to in Western countries. The earth could not stand this, at least with the current aviation technology, which causes large emissions. In this case, air transport’s share of climate emissions would no longer be 2.5%, but perhaps even closer to 10%. The aviation industry has also begun to pay a lot of attention to its climate and environmental impacts. The use of biokerosene is a simple example. In the future, there will also be completely new types of ecological airplanes: for example, Europe’s largest airplane manufacturer Airbus is developing a new generation of electric and hydrogen engines. Airbus’s ZEROe project strives for completely emission-free machines, only water vapor is emitted from a hydrogen-powered jet engine. In 2019, the Israeli start-up Eviation introduced the first fully electric passenger plane ”Alice”, which can fly over 1000 km on a single charge. These and other new innovations will change the whole of aviation in the 2030s. If you think about how quickly aviation and airplanes have developed since the Wright brothers’ first airplane in 1903, the Flyer 1, you can firmly trust that hydrogen and electric airplanes will also make their mark in the 2030s. Hydrogen technology in particular has made great strides in recent years.

You can also travel ethically and ecologically, compensating for flying, recycling waste, saving water, ecologically staying, consuming and eating, and even so that tourism further improves the nafure of the destination country. For example, tourists and the resulting income often improve the lives and living standards of people in developing countries. Schools and hospitals are established. Democracy and human rights are generally progressing. As the economy improves, there is also room for nature conservation and environmentally friendly technology and infrastructure, e.g. solar panels and water cleaning, as well as water-saving technology. Tourism and the money from it encourage the establishment of nature reserves and national parks and the protection of endangered species. Many large mammal species, e.g. the elephant, would probably have disappeared from Africa without the nature conservation that followed from safari tourism. Tourism has always been one of the biggest reasons for establishing nature reserves. The island of Mallorca in Spain was known in the 70s and 80s for the problems resulting from overtourism. However, with the money received from tourism, the problems were fixed, the waters and Swimming beaches were cleaned to a top quality, and now up to 1/3 of the island is a nature reserve with valuable biodiversity. In various parts of the world, ecotourism has also encouraged e.g. turtle and dolphin protection and tree planting projects, etc. Often many, especially young people, travel just to participate in these projects. A tourist who travels ecologically therefore not only deserves absolution, but also tourism (ecologically) is generally very recommendable.


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