How do airplanes fly 5

Climate change and flying

When was the last time you flew? Various scientists say that only 5 to 10 percent of the world's population take flights each year.

According to estimates by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the number of air passengers worldwide rose to 3.7 billion in 2016, and every year since 2009 has been a record year.

The "International Air Transport Association" (IATA) expects this number to almost double to around 7.2 billion by 2035. Like the planes themselves, the numbers keep rising. And when you consider the damage that flying causes, it makes you think.

It's not just about CO2

According to many estimates, aviation accounts for a little more than 2 percent of global CO2 emissions. The industry itself also largely recognizes this number.

But it is misleading, says Stefan Gössling. He is professor at Lund and Linné Universities and co-editor of the book "Climate Change and Aviation: Issues, Challenges and Solutions". "This is only the half truth."

Other aviation emissions such as nitrogen oxide, water vapor, particulate matter, contrails and changes in cirrus clouds have an additional warming effect.

In relation to the individual, there is no other human activity that causes such high emissions in such a short period of time as aviation

"The industry's contribution to global warming is at least twice as large as that of CO2 taken on its own," Gössling told DW. He estimates the total contribution to climate change to be at least 5 percent.

IATA spokesman Chris Goater, however, says the scientific basis of this so-called radiative forcing is "unproven."

But even if we accept the figure of 2 percent emissions, caused by only 3 percent of the world's population who flew last year, a relatively small group is responsible for a disproportionately large share of global emissions.

A few years ago the environmental NGO "Germanwatch" calculated that a person who flies from Germany to the Caribbean and back causes as many of the harmful emissions as 80 average Tanzanian residents in an entire year: around 4 tons of CO2.

"Viewed individually, there is no other human activity that causes as many emissions in such a short time as aviation because it is so energy-intensive," explains Gössling.

The WWF's carbon footprint calculator is very instructive in this regard. If you were the biggest environmentalist in the world - a vegan solar cell fan who rides a bike to work - but still fly from time to time, you suddenly don't look that green anymore.

Even with otherwise exemplary behavior, two hypothetical short-haul flights and one long-haul flight per year would be enough to turn the environmentalist into a climate offender.

New technologies alone are not the solution

We are more aware than ever that we need to reduce our individual and collective carbon footprint in order to avert a climate catastrophe. Several industries are under increasing pressure in this regard.

In addition to the pure flight emissions, processes in the manufacture of aircraft also significantly increase the overall carbon footprint.

The aviation industry has also made promises - in October 2016, 191 nations agreed on a UN agreement that aims to reduce carbon emissions from aviation to 2020 levels by 2035. In a second step, emissions are to be reduced to half of 2005 by 2050.

Goater says there are four ways the aviation industry wants to achieve these goals: in the short term through climate compensation, through the continuous development of more efficient aircraft, extensive investments in sustainable fuels - such as biofuels - and through more efficient flight routes.

More on this: Climate-friendly flying - is that possible?

He considers air traffic control, which is responsible for the coordination and smooth flow of air traffic, to be very inefficient. "It ensures unnecessary fuel consumption and by increasing efficiency in this area, emissions could be reduced by 10 percent."

He also emphasizes that some commercial flights - albeit very few - are now running on sustainable fuels every day, even though the first such flight was less than 10 years ago.

"This is something that happened much faster than anyone expected," he says. The key now is that industry give priority to investment in this area and that governments encourage them as they have done with e-mobility in the auto industry.

But that doesn't convince Gössling and many of his colleagues.

In 2016 there were 3.6 billion passenger flights. This number is expected to almost double by 2035.

"I think we absolutely need higher prices," he says. "We conducted interviews with top managers in the industry a few months ago, and many of them agreed - behind closed doors, it was anonymous surveys - that alternative fuels will never catch on unless fossil fuels become significantly more expensive."

Daniel Mittler, political director of "Greenpeace" also believes that fossil fuels must become more expensive. "The first step would be to get rid of all fossil fuel subsidies, including the aviation industry, and properly tax the aviation industry," he told DW.

For Goater, that's not realistic. "Fuel is already a significant part of airlines' costs," he says. "Believe me, if we could fly without oil, we would."

The hard truth

But how can the problem be solved? Gössling, who has been researching the subject for more than 20 years, sees only one solution.

"Do we really have to fly as much as we do, or does the industry make us do it?" he asks. In addition to artificially low ticket prices, the industry is also promoting a lifestyle, he says.

"The airline's advertising campaigns give the impression that you can become part of a group of young, urban frequent fliers who visit a different city every few weeks for very little money," he says.

For Goater, on the other hand, the idea of ​​being able to dictate who is allowed to fly and when is as unrealistic as it is out of date.

Do we have to look for simpler means of transportation than kerosene-powered jet planes?

"The goal of reducing emissions has to be reconciled with enabling people to fly - I think that has been the mainstream consensus for many years," he says. "It is not for people in one part of the world to deny this opportunity to people in other parts of the world."

For Mittler it boils down to individual decisions and he believes that flying less is the first step - even if increasing efficiency is very important.

"We need to develop a more social and empathic lifestyle," he said. Skipping the shopping weekend in New York is one of the least painful ways to contribute.

"We need a prosperity based on community and the real prosperity of a collective vision, rather than one based on relentless consumption. Aviation is a symbol of this kind of consumption that we need to shed."

 

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This article was updated on January 24, 2020. The previous estimate of 3% for the number of people flying in a year has been updated to 5-10%. The updated figure is based on a wider range of estimates drawn from a variety of sources.