Cutting back on air travel is essential -- a single flight across the country wipes out the benefit of a person’s environmental good deeds for an entire year. Photo: caribb/Flickr

In the hit movie Up in the Air, George Clooney plays a professional who travels around the U.S. to fire people on behalf of employers. Clooney’s character logs thousands of air miles. In fact, he flies so often that one of his personal goals is to become a member of the exclusive ten-million-mile-club. I’m a fan of Clooney and appreciate a well-told story, but the question that kept nagging me during the movie was: “What do all those miles add up to in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions?”

Going to a movie with an environmentalist can be a questionable decision, but there is little doubt about the impact of air travel on climate change. Globally, aviation (passenger, freight, military) is among the fastest growing sources of GHG emissions. This growth is happening with few constraints, unless volcanic eruptions like the one earlier this year in Iceland are counted.

On an individual level, a single flight across the country can wipe out the benefit of a person’s environmental good deeds for an entire year. A return flight from Toronto to Vancouver will produce the equivalent of over 1.5 tonnes of GHGs per passenger. Air travel to exotic destinations like Bali or Bangkok (even if you are staying in an “eco” resort) does as much damage to the climate as driving an SUV for a year.

Airplanes, like other motor vehicles, burn fossil fuels and therefore emit carbon dioxide (CO2). The farther one travels, the more CO2 is emitted. It’s not just the plane’s exhaust that is a problem. The fuel, in the form of oil, must first be found, retrieved, refined, and transported — all of which causes even more GHG emissions. Most of the GHGs will linger in the atmosphere as an unwelcome souvenir of a trip for upwards of a century after you return home.

Long-distance flights are also problematic because emissions into the sensitive upper atmosphere have a greater impact. GHG emissions from such flights are multiplied by 1.9 (the “radiative forcing index”) to give a more accurate estimate of the global warming impact.

In short, seeing the world is helping to destroy the planet (or at least its climate).

Short- and medium-distance flights are damaging too because of the disproportionately large amounts of fuel used on a trip to get off the ground. A jet flight from Toronto to Ottawa will burn almost twice as much fuel per passenger as a VIA train and more than four times as much as a bus.

Flying less is the obvious, if not easy, answer. It’s hard not to love the benefits of flying, especially when cheap fuel puts even “exotic” destinations within reach. These places are successfully marketed as adventure (even when chain hotels and restaurants await at the other end). “Air miles” are a popular part of our culture. People in developing countries like China and India are quickly copying our flying habits.

Most people have very convincing reasons for flying. Indeed, although we are rigid in judging the environmental conduct of others, we can be surprisingly flexible when our own conduct is at issue. Unfortunately, the sum of our excellent reasons for flying (or other fossil fuel-burning activities) will not spare us from a nasty future.

Instead of asking whether we have a good reason to fly, it might be more worthwhile to ask: “who suffers?”

The world’s vulnerable populations are the first victims of warming, while benefiting least from flights. Depriving some people of flights may seem unfair but it’s less unfair than depriving other people of the crops they could grow but for the parched soil. Celebrated English journalist George Monbiot observes in his book Heat that cutting flights will only affect a tiny proportion of the world’s population but the reason this cut seems “so harsh is that this tiny proportion almost certainly includes you.”

Flying less is actually not as difficult as one might suppose. Many Canadians were quick to find reasons to cancel flights to Mexico on the outbreak of swine flu. If we can cancel a flight for a small risk to our health then why not do the same when the livelihoods of vulnerable people are at stake?

So-called carbon “offsets” for flights are often touted as the solution, but offsets can be of questionable quality. One commentator best summarized offsets as “permission to kick your dog.” We can be certain only that flights not taken today will not harm us tomorrow.

When we don’t consider flying as an option, we may discover new ways of doing things. Investing in state-of-the-art videoconferencing equipment for business can bring people together more often and more cheaply. Vacationing closer to home allows us to discover the beauty around us.

Despite the growing and worrisome contribution of aviation to global warming, there has been little attention to the issue in Canada. Internationally, neither the Kyoto Protocol nor the recent Copenhagen agreement addressed GHG emissions from international flights. Good public policy might include a moratorium on airport expansions, better interurban rail and bus service, measures to reduce international flights, and an acknowledgement — regardless of the air miles we have accumulated — that this issue needs our attention.

So what does Clooney’s character produce in GHG emissions from 10 million miles in the air? The answer is about 3,000 tonnes of GHGs (depending on variables like the number of long versus short flights). This is approximately the equivalent of the emissions for a year of 600 cars — far more if the passenger travels in first or business class (because each seat takes more room). Grounding fictional people like Clooney’s character is a good start to reducing aviation emissions — but much more needs to be done to save us from landing in a dangerous future.

Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer focusing on transportation issues. He is an adjunct professor in natural resources law at Osgoode Hall Law School.