Fight or Flight

Could flying be okay for the environment

I’ve always heard that travelling by plane was one of the biggest offenders when it comes to climate change. It’s estimated that the aviation industry’s contribution to total GHG emissions reaches up to 4%. So I decided to travel less by plane. And then I researched some more, just for fun, and I came across some interesting points.

For instance, the emissions released by planes have a bigger warming potential because they are released at high altitudes, where they cause more damage. It’s hard to estimate how much more, but the scientific consensus settles around 2 to 4 times more impact than on surface (the estimate of 4% total GHG emissions takes this effect into account).

Another good point: a full train and a full plane are easy to compare in terms of GHG emissions: the train will release less. But what happens when the plane is full and the train is half-full (or half-empty, depending on how you see the world)?

And while we always imagine that trains are clean, it really depends on how they are fueled. Is it by fossil fuels, or by electricity? And, even if they are powered by electricity, how was the electricity actually produced? For example, as this article claims, Eurostar, while running on electricity, is more accurately powered by nuclear power.

Nevertheless, I still thought travelling less by plane was the right thing to do. Then I read about the European Union emissions trading scheme.

The EU emissions trading scheme (ETS) was launched in 2005. Several industries that have a global warming effect now operate under this “cap and trade system”, including, since 2012, the aviation industry. It sets a maximum amount of allowed GHG emissions per country, i.e. a cap. When this cap is exceeded, allowances must be purchased to offset the extra amount of emissions released.

The point has been made that, since the European flights are included in this scheme, and since their GHG emissions are offset if they go over the cap set by the EU, then there is no point in trying to avoid flying. Actually, some said, it might even be counterproductive to try to travel using other transportation modes, since the emissions from train or bus trips do not count under the EU ETS, and therefore would just be extra emissions on top of the maximum allowed for planes, that would not get offset.

I remember first reading this, and feeling disheartened, and angry. It’s hard to try and feel like there are obscure mechanisms that are actually getting in the way of your efforts. But on second thought, I began wondering if it wasn’t a bit simplistic: if everyone still made an effort, there would be a lot less GHG emissions due to flying, which would definitely have an impact on the goals set for this cap and trade system, and would be a clear message sent to authorities, governments and the industry. It totally makes sense economically too: the price of carbon credits, much like on a stock market, follows the rule of offer and demand. If people fly less, meaning there are less emissions to offset, and therefore less carbon credits being bought, then their price will go down. And if the prices go down faster than expected, it becomes politically easier to justify reducing the cap, since it mean there isn’t much demand.

So… I’ll keep taking the bus.

P.S: This article is full of thoughts about the initial research that stated that not flying in the EU was a waste of an ecological fight.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4.


Fight or Flight

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