Carbon Emissions Series: Air Travel Efficiency

One of the more interesting responsibilities of my current internship here in DC is to peruse news articles and company/NGO reports that relate to corporate social responsibility. Last week, one particular report caught my eye because of its relevance to travel and tourism. Brighter Planet, a sustainability research and reporting company, recently published a white paper on airline efficiency. The paper, titled “Air Travel: Carbon and Energy Efficiency,” struck me as ironic. Air travel is a highly emissions-intensive mode of transportation and seemingly incompatible with sustainability. It accounts for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, a large number for a single industry.

Brighter Planet’s report, however, did not seek to justify flying. It instead analyzed a decade’s worth of data on a host of fuel consumption metrics on all major airlines. What the research found was intriguing and useful. The efficiency of a flight that you take is influenced by countless factors, but there are five main “efficiency drivers” that most significantly impact the GHG emissions of a flight: aircraft model, seat density, load factor, freight share, and distance. I’ll do my best to explain each of these briefly.

Aircraft model is self explanatory. As a rule of thumb, the bigger the aircraft, the more efficient it is because larger airplanes consumer less fuel per seat-mile than smaller planes do. Obviously, newer planes are also more efficient than older models.

Seat density is also easy to understand. The greater the number of seats a company can pack into one airplane, the greater the efficiency, since less fuel is used per passenger. An airline that uses planes with large proportions of first-class seats would be less efficent than a low-cost carrier with only economy class seats (in general).

Load factor is the portion of filled seats on an airplane. This is a crucial factor, because each passenger’s carbon footprint will depend on how filled the airplane is; total emissions are divided by the number of people aboard. It is therefore in the best interest of the airline company—and the environment—to obtain 100% capacity.

Freight share describes how much cargo a plane carries. This is not something that you, as a passenger, can control. In general, if a plane carries a large amount of freight, its passengers are responsible for less of its GHG emissions.

Distance is the single most important factor that affects aircraft efficiency.  Far more fuel is used during takeoff and landing than during regular cruising. Therefore, shorter flights are much less efficient that long-haul flights (in terms of fuel consumed per passenger mile). Stopovers add significantly to your carbon footprint, so nonstop flights are preferable.

Why does this information matter, and how does it relate to sustainable tourism? Tourism is instrinsically linked to travel, and tourists often fly to their destinations—and eco-resorts are no exception. Conscious travelers are concerned about their flights’ carbon footprint (which will likely be a very significant portion of the overall vacation footprint if you stay at a sustainable resort). What can you do to reduce your carbon footprint from air travel? Unfortunately, today there is very little the average traveler can do, as we do not have control over several of the five factors. Your actions will be limited to the following:

  • Purchase carbon offsets, which airlines often offer at flight purchase checkout online.
  • Fly with the most efficient airlines (the list is available in the Brighter Planet report).
  • Select nonstop itineraries.
  • Don’t fly first class.
  • Reduce or eliminate flights from your vacation planning.

Sustainable travel and tourism can be regarded as a paradox, because traveling always means using up extra resources. However, my constant hope is that the sights you see during your eco-tourist trips will instill a respect for the environment—and effect substantial changes in your lifestyle back home that will far outweigh the impact of your travel.

The Brighter Planet report is available here.

One thought on “Carbon Emissions Series: Air Travel Efficiency

  1. Pingback: Visualizing Carbon | Raxa Collective

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