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Air Travel

Air travel growth CO2 emissions.

Air travel is the world′s fastest growing source of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, which cause climate change. Globally the world′s 16,000 commercial jet aircraft generate more than 600 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), the world′s major greenhouse gas, per year.

Indeed aviation generates nearly as much CO2 annually as that from all human activities in Africa.The huge increase in aircraft pollution is largely due to the rapid growth in air traffic which has been expanding at nearly two and half times average economic growth rates since 1960.

It is expected the number of people flying will virtually double over the next 15 years. This means increasing airport capacity, more flights, more pollution and increasingly crowded airspace.

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Impacts of air travel growth on the atmosphere.

In 1999 the world′s top climate scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(IPCC), published a detailed study of the impact of aircraft pollution on our atmosphere - Aviation and the Global Atmosphere (see website http://www.ipcc.ch/index.htm ).

The report′s findings support the following:
  • Aircraft release more than 600 million tonnes of the world′s major greenhouse gas CO2into the atmosphere each year.
  • Aircraft cause about 3.5% of global warming from all human activities.
  • Aircraft greenhouse emissions will continue to rise and could contribute up to 15% ofglobal warming from all human activities within 50 years.
  • Nitrogen oxides(NOx) and water vapour have a more significant effect on the climate whenemitted at altitude than at ground level. Hence any strategy to reduce aircraft emissions willneed to consider other greenhouse gases and not just CO2 alone.
  • An increase in supersonic aircraft flying could further damage the ozone layer as aircraftemissions of NOx deplete ozone concentrations at high altitudes, where these aircraftwould typically fly.
  • Aircraft vapour trails or contrails, often visible from the ground, can lead to the formation ofcirrus clouds. Both contrails and cirrus clouds warm the earth′s surface magnifying theglobal warming effect of aviation.
  • The impacts on the global atmosphere from air travel will be concentrated over Europe andthe USA where 70-80% of all flights occur. Hence the regional climatic impacts of aircraftemissions over these areas are likely to be greater than predicted by the IPCC report(whichused global averages).

Most significantly the climate scientists concluded that improvements in aircraft and enginetechnology and in air traffic management will not offset the projected growth in aircraft emissions. That is, we need to slow the growth in air travel if we want to reduce the growth inaircraft greenhouse gas emissions.

Local impact of aircraft emissions.

Aircraft emissions can also have a significant effect at ground level. Air and ground traffic at major airports can lead to pollution levels as high as city centres. A study of Gatwick airport prior to 2000 predicted that NOx emissions from cars could decrease by 75% by 2000due largely to cleaner vehicles, but aircraft emissions of NOx were expected to double by 2008. As a result the National Air Qualitystandards for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) would be exceeded in nearby towns.

It is important that adequate air quality monitoring is carried out at major airports to ensure National Air Quality standards are achieved. A report undertaken for the Health Council of the Netherlands reveals airports have a negative impact on public health. The Health Council called for public healthimpact assessments of airports that would assess the cumulative way people are exposed to hazards including air pollution, noise and safety from airport operations.

The need for an environmentally sustainable airports policy.

"...an unquestioning attitude toward future growth in air travel, and an acceptance thatthe projected demand for additional facilities and service must be met, are incompatiblewith the aims of sustainable development..."

Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 18th Report, ′Transport and the Environment′, October 1994.

Alternatives to flying.

Even if you only fly once a year you can generate a significant amount of greenhouse pollution. For example a passenger taking a long haul return flight from the UK to the USA can produce as much carbon dioxide as a motorist driving in the UK for a whole year.For a typical journey under 500km , say London to Amsterdam, the amount of CO2 produced per passenger is 0.17 kg/km for air travel, 0.14 kg/km for travel by car, 0.052 kg/km for rail and 0.047 kg/km by boat (ie.ferry).

High speed rail

There have been a number of studies showing how air travel produces far more CO2 emissions per passenger than rail. A Dutch study published in 1997 (Energy and emissions profiles of aircraft and other modes of transport over European Distances, Centre for Energy Conservation and Environmental Technology, Delft, Netherlands, 1997) compared the greenhouse emissions from air transport vs a number of other transport users.

As can been seen, in terms of CO2 emissions,air travel is clearly more polluting than rail.Over short distances (ie. less than 500km) air travel produces around three times more carbon dioxide per passenger then rail. Yet nearly 70% of all flights within European airspace are less than 1000km long. With over 7½ million flights within European airspace in 1998, there is a lot of scope to move short haul flights to rail.

The European Union spent around €3billion from 2000 to 2006 on the Trans European Network program, which encourages transport links between member states. The majority of this funding will be for investment in rail. Meanwhile Spain was investing €1 billion on a fast rail link between Barcelona and Madrid which will cut 4 hours off a 6½ hour journey and Germany launched a 330 km train to travel between Hanover and Amsterdam in 2000.

As well as less pollution, rail companies can boast faster check in times, city centre to citycentre travel and less frequent delays than most airlines.


Advances in telecommunications can reduce the need to travel. Tele- and videoconferencing are a viable alternative to flying for many business travellers. They can also reduce travelling time, traffic congestion and aircraft pollution.

What can you do:

  • Choose to fly less frequently whetherfor business or pleasure
  • Consider taking a train as analternative to domestic or short hopflights
  • Investigate teleconferencing as analternative to business flights
  • Support the domestic tourist industryand plan more holidays in your home country