Yes, flying less can help tackle climate change

Into the sunset. Image: Getty.

“Flyskam” – the Swedish word for “flight shame” – describes a phenomenon that has taken off around the world, as travellers face growing pressure to reduce their carbon emissions by switching to alternative modes of transport. Climate activists have denounced air travel, settling for boats, trains or, at a pinch, paying to offset the carbon emissions from their flights. Celebrities face criticism for flying by private jet – and Germany’s Green Party has even put forward plans to ban domestic flights within the country.

Yet according to our calculations based on the the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019 (which we both contributed to), CO₂ emissions from aviation fuels account for a mere 3 per cent of global CO₂ emissions and 8 per cent of worldwide oil consumption. This may not sound like much, but in the past 30 years, aviation fuel consumption has almost doubled, consistently contributing to the growth in global oil consumption.

To see whether the efforts of individuals to cut down on air travel can make a meaningful difference to global emissions, we took a closer look at how fuel consumption by the aviation industry has changed over time, and what trends are set to take hold in the future.

Fuelling demand

A common way of estimating CO₂ emissions for individual passengers is to take the aircraft type and distance travelled into account. This is the method used by carbon offsetting organisation atmosfair, and the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s carbon footprint calculator.

By contrast, our approach to quantifying CO₂ emissions from flights involves looking at the consumption of aviation fuel. This eliminates the need to rely on estimates of passenger numbers, aircraft type and how full or empty planes are, and can easily be compared to other means of transportation.

An important caveat is that our method ignores the effects of condensation trails or nitrogen oxides (NOx) emitted by planes. Including these in the estimates is challenging because their effects only last for a matter of minutes, hours or days. But research suggests that the warming effects of aviation can be much larger, depending on where in the atmosphere NOx are emitted. So our approach only gives a conservative estimate of the emissions from aviation.

Global oil consumption by fuel type. Consumption measured in million tonnes of oil equivalent (mtoe) on the left axis, and share of aviation in global oil consumption on the right axis. Image: Jan Ditzen/author provided.

The figure above shows global oil consumption, measured in million tonnes of oil equivalent (mtoe). Over the past 30 years oil consumption has risen continuously, amounting to a 50 per cent increase since 1990. Over the same period consumption of aviation fuel almost doubled from 185 mtoe to 343 mtoe.

Compared to other means of transportation, such as road and rail, aviation accounts for a relatively small but growing percentage of oil consumption. In 2018, aviation was a major driver of the 1.2 per cent global increase in oil consumption.

Global growth

A large share of aviation fuels are consumed in developed countries. In 2018 the US alone accounted for more than 20 per cent of aviation fuel consumption. In the same year half of all aviation fuel consumption took place in OECD countries – a club of mostly developed countries which represent about 15 per cent of world population.

Aviation fuel consumption by country. Image: Jan Ditzen/author provided.

Meanwhile, China, Russia and non-OECD countries in Europe and Asia, which account for almost 60 per cent of world population, consumed 32 per cent of all aviation fuels. Given that the populations of these countries are forecast to grow, we can expect air travel passenger numbers to increase. In fact the International Air Transport Association estimates that China will replace the US as the biggest aviation market by the mid-2020s.

To put things into perspective, if China, Russia, non-OECD Europe and the rest of Asia were to fly as much as the OECD countries, total aviation fuel consumption would almost triple from its current level of 343 mtoe to about 935 mtoe. It would further increase to 1,560 mtoe, if the entire world flew as much as OECD countries. This amounts to more than the current global consumption of gasoline and diesel.

It’s worth noting that consumption is normally attributed to the country that represents the “point of sale”: for example, if a Norwegian plane refuels in Iceland en route to the US, this counts as Icelandic consumption and emissions. This matters, because any attempts by individual countries to tax aviation fuel would be unlikely to succeed, since planes would simply go out of their way to refuel in low-tax countries, meaning a transnational policy is required.

Future efficiency

Since 2000 the number of air passengers has almost tripled, reaching a new high of 4.3 billion in 2018. The main driver of growth is budget airlines, which offer primarily short and medium-haul flights in the American and European markets.

Passenger numbers and fuel efficiency over time. Fuel efficiency in MTOE per million passengers on the left axis, million passengers on the right axis. Image: Jan Ditzen/author provided.

It’s not all bad, though. As shown in the figure above, the amount of fuel required per passenger has decreased steadily over the years, although the rate seems to have slowed after 2010, despite the introduction of more fuel-efficient planes. The IPCC estimates that 18 per cent of CO₂ emissions from planes can be saved, if air traffic control management and other operational procedures become more efficient.

Based on current information it still seems the increase in passenger numbers is likely to outstrip the increase in fuel efficiency, leading to an increase in overall fuel consumption.

A greener alternative

Low-carbon sustainable aviation fuels can reduce CO₂ emissions, although only six airports in the world (Bergen, Brisbane, Los Angeles, Oslo, San Francisco and Stockholm) offer them on a regular basis. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that, in 2018, sustainable aviation fuels only accounted for 0.1 per cent of aviation fuel production – so much more could be done to promote their use around the world.

CO₂ emissions by fuel type. Emissions on the left axis and contribution of aviation to global emissions (in %) on the right axis. Image: Jan Ditzen/author provided.

In 2018, passenger planes emitted around 960m tonnes of CO₂, representing 8.5 per cent of emissions from oil products and less than 3 per cent of CO₂ from all fossil fuels – leaving other oil products and coal as the main sources of emissions.


But the fact remains that alternative means of travel, especially trains, have a much better carbon footprint than flying. The London North Eastern Railway estimates that it takes about 17kg of CO₂ per passenger to travel from Edinburgh to London, which equates to heating the average UK home for two days. Atmosfair estimates the same journey by plane would produce 145kg of CO₂ – equivalent to heating a home for 22 days.

In wealthy nations across the Western world, where people can choose to take alternative transport over short and medium distances at little to no extra cost, “flyskam” may well have its place. But when it comes to tackling climate change, flying less is small piece in a big puzzle.The Conversation

Jan Ditzen, Research Associate (Centre for Energy Economics Research and Policy), Heriot-Watt University and Erkal Ersoy, Assistant Professor of Economics, Heriot-Watt University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What it's been like living in one of the few places that never locked down

People enjoy sunny weather in Tantolunden park in Stockholm on May 30, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

While most of the Western world was confined to their homes for the better part of two months this spring, my friends and I in Stockholm continued hanging out. In stark contrast to most other places, we went to restaurants (occasionally, outside when possible), to one another’s houses (in our yards when possible), and even sent our kids to school. As the rest of the world opens up again, not much will change in Stockholm.

As an American expat living in the Swedish capital, I was initially angry at Sweden’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In my home country, early outbreaks in locations such as Seattle, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area led to strict rules that were soon mirrored in many other states and cities. The Swedish strategy, meanwhile, boiled down mostly to recommendations: If possible, work from home; avoid unnecessary travel within the country; engage in social distancing; and if you’re above 70, stay home. I felt that, in the face of a global pandemic, a country known for its generous welfare policies – that took such good care of its citizens – wasn’t doing its part to protect us.

My friends and I are mostly expats with young families who, early on, pulled our children out of school against official policy. (Schools here only closed for those 16 and over.) We eagerly waited to hear what further action our current country would take. Surely a country known for its progressive social policies would take fast, decisive action to protect its citizens?

The regulations that were put into place in Sweden amounted to restricting public gatherings to no more than 50 people (reduced from 500, which concert halls skirted by restricting entry to 499), limiting restaurants to table service only, and no visiting retirement homes. People here did take the work-from-home guidelines to heart – no one I knew was going in to work. But bars and restaurants were full. My Instagram feed was a highlight reel of acquaintances clinking champagne flutes at the city’s major clubs and restaurants.

After the first few weeks, I slowly started meeting up with friends again. I sent my kids back to school, where they intentionally spent most of the day outdoors and drop-offs were restricted to outside only (parents weren’t allowed to enter the building). I was careful to take precautions like bringing hand sanitizer to playgrounds and wiping my hands after opening and closing the gate to school. Hardly anyone wore masks to the grocery shop or inside stores – the few times I’ve seen people wearing them I’ve done a double take. One busy Friday night in late April at the local supermarket there was a line out the door and someone regulating the number of customers allowed inside at the same time. I took a photo and sent it to my family in the US saying “Sweden finally catching up with the rest of the world!” (I haven’t seen entry to that store being regulated since.)

When I spoke to Swedish friends about the strategy many agreed with the relaxed approach, mentioning that other countries’ draconian measures would be unnecessary in Sweden. A recent poll showed that just 11% of people in Sweden felt they did not trust state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who is leading the strategy. In this country, the onus was placed on citizens themselves to follow recommendations. It's about personal judgement and individual responsibility within a framework that rested on mutual trust, rather than top-down control. Swedes’ high level of interpersonal trust and trust in authority was often cited in the press as the characteristic enabling the relaxed Swedish strategy in tackling the virus, as opposed to social distancing becoming a matter of surveillance and policing like in Spain or Italy, where any nonessential socializing was forbidden.

In early May, Sweden's ambassador to the US Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter said in an interview with the Washington Post that some media outlets made it look “like everyone in Sweden is out drinking and partying,” she said. “That is not the case.” But that was certainly how it felt to me. According to research by Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser in 2016, in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, more than 60% of respondents in the World Value Survey think that people can be trusted. And in the other extreme, in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, less than 10% think that this is the case.


Of course, many places in the US also took a similarly relaxed approach to tackling the pandemic, with conservative lawmakers and anti-lockdown activists citing Sweden as taking the right approach. Sweden, rarely finding cheerleaders among conservative US circles, suddenly stood as an example to follow. But since then, places such as Arizona, Texas and Florida have all seen significant spikes in cases following reopenings and are being deemed the new epicentres of the virus – while Sweden’s numbers have stabilised. According to some reports, the death toll in Sweden is one of the highest in the world per capita, but the total number of Swedish deaths remains at just above 5,000, compared to over 120,000 in the US, over 43,000 in the UK, over 28,000 in Spain and over 34,000 in Italy. The mortality rate in Sweden and the number of new intensive care cases in the country declined in the last week and contagion rates here are now “stable” according to the WHO.

Although it didn’t always feel like it at the time, Sweden issued clear guidance from the beginning, with the expectation that people would choose to follow it. It certainly was my experience that everyone I knew stopped going into the office and started working from home. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, attributed Sweden’s slowing of the virus to implementing guidance early on. “Sweden’s policy is unusual in that it took a much less stringent approach to preventing transmission," he says, "but interestingly it implemented those measures at a very early stage in the pandemic, before large amounts of community spread had occurred.”

Now I go outside and all too often realise I’ve left my hand sanitiser at home. I even met a friend for lunch outdoors at a busy cafe one particularly sunny day, and another indoors one Friday night for dinner. In May I had a birthday bash in my garden with a dozen or so friends and we ended up at the local bar. I always felt guilty after, as if I’d done something wrong that I couldn’t tell my family in Baltimore about. When I watched international news or spoke to family back home I would feel a certain cognitive dissonance between my own seemingly low-risk reality and what I knew to be happening in the rest of the world. My family in the US calls me skeptically questioning why I’ve had people over in my garden, or been out to eat. I can’t explain the lack of logic that permits an entire city’s citizens to operate life as normal in the midst of a global pandemic. But Stockholm has become a bubble of exactly this.

Being relatively young and healthy, I’m not so worried about getting sick. Even though young and healthy people have gotten seriously ill, there haven’t been any reported cases at my kids’ or any of my friends’ kids’ schools. Nobody I know in Stockholm knows has gotten sick, allowing me to feel a certain distance from it. But my husband’s parents are in their mid-70s and weren’t able to see their grandchildren for two months save for a few visits to their hallway, where we wave and blow kisses to them standing at the door.

I’ve been grateful – but also felt a sense of guilt for – my freedom here. When there are no hard and fast rules about how to act, it’s easy to constantly question yourself: Is it really okay to be outside, sitting at this full cafe? Is it okay to invite a few friends over for a birthday? Is it okay to send my kids to school? These questions have surely gone through minds around the world in the past several weeks, and now it’s clear that that behaviour had dire consequences in some cities and not others.

While Swedish social media at times suggests an endless friend-filled party at summer homes and popular hangouts, the reality here is a balancing act between personal judgement and the freedom to continue life as normal. Self-regulation is what it comes down to in Sweden, anyway.

Elysha Krupp is a writer and editor currently living in Stockholm.