Out of thin air

carbon emissions from aviation are rising faster than any other sector

Up, up and away: GHG emissions from aviation are rising faster than any other sector

There’s a piece in the Guardian today highlighting the pitfalls of the carbon debate. It centres on a new web service, the oxymoronically monikered Carbon Friendly Flight Search. The site, put together by The Carbon Consultancy, Global Travel Market and FlySmart.org, lulls users into the notion that there really is a carbon friendly way to fly.

It works in pretty much the same way as all the other flight comparison websites, except that it tags each flight with a score (1-10, 1 being “best”) to indicate the relative amount of emissions that might result. The idea is that, in addition to the price of a flight, customers have its dirtiness to consider when choosing between options. Only they don’t.

The “Technical Bit“, which turns out to be anything but, contains the following:

Until airlines provide exact fuel consumption against flown passengers you will not be able to make a choice based upon actual efficiency per plane per airline, so for now the best that can be done is to use available data to help make your flight choice more informed.

So, it’s a guestimate?

…the carbon rating of the airline links to both the statistical probability of the plane types you will travel on when flying and aircraft performance.

It sure is. No surprise there though. Even Defra have problems producing figures for airline emissions:

 …calculations are based upon emission factors per passenger-km (for domestic, international short- and long-haul), with an additional factor of 9% ( of IPCC’s 1999 report on aviation) added to take into account delays and indirect flight paths. Non-CO2 effects such as from Radiative Forcing from NOx and water vapour emissions are not factored into the calculation. This is because there is currently uncertainty over the non-CO2 climate change effects of aviation (including water vapour, contrails, NOx etc) which have been indicatively been accounted for by applying a multiplier in some cases. 

You get the picture. It’s like pulling rabbits from a hat. And that’s not the worst of it. The best that the UK Government’s finest minds can come up with is this:

…it is clear that aviation imposes other effects on the climate which are greater than that implied from simply considering its CO2 emissions alone.

Despite that, the Act On CO2 website does give emissions figures for flights, taking account of distance, airplane class, passenger class and a range of other factors. At the end of the day, though, it’s still a guess.

This inability to pin down individual emissions is the main reason why carbon calculators are a bad idea. The information they spew out is only as good as the information fed in. Whilst Defra’s efforts are admirable — the statistics they provide do give a good picture of where the bulk of our emissions come from — calculators at best serve a limited purpose.

At worst, they perpetuate the notion that we can carry on as usual, so long as we do a bit of offsetting here and there. It might well be possible to “neutralize” the environmental impact of flying to that stag weekend in Prague by planting native trees in the UK, but the real question is whether that flight is necessary in the first place.

Whether the CFFS is well intended or not is open to debate. Certainly the use of a 1-10 scale implies — subliminally at least — that some flights are ten times worse than others. The difference between flights, however, is likely to be much, much smaller than the average impact of a flight. Put another way, on a scale of one to ten for environmental damage, all flights should be ranked at nine and a bit.

No industry founded on the burning of fossil fuels can be green. It might not be practical to stop flying, or driving, or using any other form of motorized transport entirely (yet), but there’s an awful lot of unnecessary journeys being made. That’s where the effort to clean the transport sector should be focused at present.

Some maths teachers have a fondness for scrawling the letters “IYJRN?” at the end of a needlessly tortuous proof — Is Your Journey Really Necessary? Perhaps we need to ask ourselves that question before deciding which airline to fly with.




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