End-of-2020 Update, Part 2

Extinction Rebellion action to block flights at airport in the south of Sweden, June 29, 2020. Source: Twitter.

To see Part 1 of the FlyingLess “End-of-2020 Update,” go here.

If intensifying climate change isn’t enough reason to rein in one’s flying, health concerns should be. A recent investigation by the Los Angeles Times revealed shocking information about the dangers of flying to the those why travel by plane. The air breathed within airplanes comes directly from the jet engines. This is generally safe and works well as long as there are no mechanical problems. When there are, “heated jet engine oil can leak into the air supply, potentially releasing toxic gases into the plane.” These “fume events,” reports the Times, occur “with alarming frequency across all airlines.” The impacts of these “events,” depending on their severity, can be as mild as fatigue or as severe as “life-altering and career-ending health conditions.”

Soon after the publication of the Los Angeles Times  report, Nature confirmed that the year 2020 saw a marked drop in carbon dioxide emissions. This was largely because of the effects of the covid-19 pandemic and the associated contraction of economic and social across the globe. Still, the impact on emissions was not as pronounced as many climate scientists expected they would be. In a year that tied for the hottest one on record, 2020 saw a 6.4 percent decrease in emissions. There’s no doubt that this is significant—about double the seize of Japan’s annual emissions. It is also clear that the drop was not as big as it needed to be.

The Paris Agreement obliges the world to keep the increase in average global temperature to “well below” 2°C (vis-à-vis pre-industrial levels), while striving for 1.5°C. For this to happen, annual emissions reductions worldwide—in the immediate term—need to be 10% per year, with even greater reductions, percentage-wise, among wealthy, high-consuming countries and individuals. This provides a sense of the enormity of the challenge we face to prevent far-reaching destabilization of the climate system.

As followers of FlyingLess are no doubt aware, key to dramatic reductions in overall emissions is a radical decline in aviation. Here the news is mixed. In 2020, again due to the pandemic, aviation was the energy sector that experienced the biggest fall in emissions: 48 percent. It is high unlikely, however, that such a reduction will persist once the worst of the pandemic passes. Still, there are signs of growing consciousness and commitment to reducing flying on a long-term basis. A poll of over 27,000 people in all 27 EU countries, conducted in late 2020, found that 74% of respondents intend to fly less frequently for environmental reasons post-pandemic. Forty-three percent of all respondents said they would do so “all the time,” with the other 31 percent saying they would so “from time to time.”

As discussed below, who flies and how often is grossly unequal. This is why, says Stefan Gössling of Linnaeus University in Sweden, “If you want to resolve climate change and we need to redesign [aviation], then we should start at the top, where a few ‘super emitters’ contribute massively to global warming,” Referring to the period of pandemic in which we find ourselves, he asserts, “The rich have had far too much freedom to design the planet according to their wishes. We should see the crisis as an opportunity to slim the air transport system.”

Slimming air transport requires that we not focus only on passenger aviation. Air cargo, fueled by the growth in e-commerce, particularly that emphasizing fast delivery, also needs scrutiny. At many airports, according to one person quoted in a recent New York Times report, the need for space to accommodate the growth in air cargo is “soaring.” In 2020, for instance, Fedex, the largest air cargo carrier in the world, saw a 48 percent increase in the number of packages it carried over 2016. While the pandemic, in no small part, underlies the growth seen over the last year, it is also a manifestation of longer-term trends  Prior to the pandemic, e-commerce sales were already increasing more than 10 percent annually. But the staggering growth in online shopping during 2020 suggests faster and longer-term changes than previously imagined. According to one airport executive, “There is a lot of consumer behavior that permanently changed in 2020. … We’re seeing levels of cargo today that were expected in 2028.”

New Initiatives and Developments

ExPlane is “an international network of students and staff taking action to transform our universities and make their travel policies and culture sustainable.” This involves putting an end to “unnecessary travel and ensur[ing] that all decisions to travel by plane are made consciously and with full awareness of the environmental impacts.” The network emphasizes both personal and institutional changes—and has helpful examples on its website of “good practices” on both levels. The website also contains a campaign toolkit to help those trying to raise consciousness around the climate costs of flying and working to change university travel policies. FlyingLess hopes to interview some of the founders and publish the interview on this site in the near future.

Advocates of FlyingLess now have a zine that they can read! Edited by Mathilde Gerbelli-Gauthier, a mathematician, and Clara del Junco, a theoretical chemist, Burnout: a zine on academia, travel, and climate change is a collection of essays addressing the relationship that academics have with travel. The authors thoughtfully and creatively explore not only the impact of academic mobility in terms of fossil fuels, but also the personal and emotional costs of relocation, matters of home and distance, the desire to be grounded in a community, and other related topics. 

In November, the University of Sheffield (in the United Kingdom) released its “University Sustainability Strategy” for 2020-2025. The report commits the public research university to being “net-zero carbon” by 2038. This entails making “significant cuts to absolute carbon emissions,” including Scope 3 emissions—by a factor of 75 percent (based on a 2018/19 baseline) by 2030. (Scope 3 is comprised of indirect emissions from sources tied to the operation of the University, but that it doesn’t own or control—such as commuting by students and staff and emissions embodied in supplies chains.) “Sustainable travel” across University activities is central to the strategy. Regarding aviation in particular, the University pledges to “work to reduce our reliance on the sector.” At the same time, the report asserts that “it will not be possible or desirable to avoid all flights.” As such, the strategy states that the flights that continue to happen “will require substantial carbon off-setting,” while recognizing that many offsetting instruments are “problematic” and committing to ensuring that any offsets adopted by the University will be “scientifically robust.” (Recently, Scott Kirby, chief executive of United Airlines, had this to say to say about offsets: “While they may offer customers some peace of mind, traditional carbon offsets do almost nothing to tackle the emissions from flying,”) As part of these efforts, the University has committed to a range of measures in the Sustainability Action Plan that accompanies the report. Actions include the minimization of business-class and long-haul flights, and an end to funding flights within the United Kingdom, except for reasons of accessibility.

Flight Free USA has a new flight emissions calculator, one developed by team member Brandon Liu, that measures the climate impacts of flights in a variety of creative ways. It estimates, for example, the flight’s impact on Artic sea ice as well as how far one could travel in an electric train such as Eurostar for an equivalent amount of fossil fuel.

Recent academic articles, reports, and essays

Sometimes we stumble upon articles long after we should have encountered them. Portia Roelofs’ essay (“Flying in the univer-topia: white people on planes, #RhodesMustFall and climate emergency,” Journal of African Cultural Studies, 31:3, 2019 267-270) is one such piece. Within, the international development scholar reflects on her own privileged mobility in light of the “the wider political-economy” of air travel, which, she writes, “is the activity that most clearly embodies the links between inequality and ecological breakdown.” Taking inspiration from the black-student-led #RhodesMustFall campaign at the University of Cape Town and climate justice work by Black Lives Matter UK, the author suggests distributing flying-related resources and connecting with scholars at a distance in more just and sustainable ways. In doing so, she calls “the ability to fly … one of humanity’s most precious inventions:” Roelofs concludes by declaring, “Who gets to use this power, for what ends and who suffers the consequences is a question we must address if we are to live responsibly in the new normal of a planet facing climate emergency.”

“International, in-person coral reef conferences are intended to help study and save coral reefs, but, paradoxically, the long-distance air travel of participants to these events directly contributes to their demise.” So write Chelsie Counsell, Franziska Elmer, and Judith C. Lang in a recent article (“Shifting away from the business-as-usual approach to research conferences.” Biology Open 9, no. 10, 2020).  In response to this recognition Counsell and Elmer organized a “global coral reef research conference with low CO2 emissions and high accessibility” for 2020. Calling it “Global Coral Reef Week” (GCRW), they organized 16 remote meeting hubs around the world. But when the pandemic occurred, they had to quickly pivot to an entirely virtual conference. The revamped GCRW, which had a total of 2700 attendees, included workshops and plenary lectures, two networking sessions and a trivia event.  The authors share what they saw as the benefits of the virtual gathering, offer advice for organizing online research conferences, and ideas for future directions.

A team of researchers in the United Kingdom and Sweden examined the flying-related practices and attitudes of climate scientists. They found that climate researchers, especially senior academics, fly more than researchers in general. Drawing on a global survey of academics and an experimental study, the authors seek “to better understand the role of knowledge in relation to relevant behaviour” and “to offer timely insights for reducing the carbon footprint of academic travel.” They find that personal attitudes predict one’s willingnessto reduce flying, the most important factors are social/structural (e.g., family commitments, income, and seniority), and  geography (one’s location in relation to available non-aviation modes of travel). As such, the authors advocate that efforts to reduce CO2 emissions within academia be coupled with “broader policies and technologies [by scholarly institutions, funders, and governments] to encourage and enable low-carbon and avoided travel.” This requires shifting “incentives away from international travel to more sustainable and inclusive research practices.” (See Lorraine Whitmarsh, Stuart Capstick, Isabelle Moore, Jana Köhler, and Corinne Le Quéré. “Use of aviation by climate change researchers: Structural influences, personal attitudes, and information provision.” Global Environmental Change 65 [2020]: 102184.)

In light of the drastic societal changes needed to avoid global ecological breakdown, four researchers from Europe and the United States have estimated “the final energy needed” to meet the minimum threshold to provide “decent material conditions and basic services” to everyone on the planet. By way of a bottom-up model, they find that “a massive rollout of advanced technologies” and far-reaching reductions in demand to reduce consumption—decreasing global energy use, by 2050, to 1960 levels—would allow for sufficiency for all. Moreover, they find that the “material sacrifices” required to realize a world of sufficiency and economic equality are “far smaller than many popular narratives imply.” Such a world, they assert, would also allow for “substantially improved” life conditions for the estimated four billion people who now live in poverty. (See Joel Millward-Hopkins, Julia K. Steinberger, Narasimha D. Rao, and Yannick Oswald. “Providing decent living with minimum energy: A global scenario.” Global Environmental Change 65 [2020]: 102168.)

Key to making the changes suggested by the article immediately above is reining in the consumption of highly affluent households and individuals. They “drive biophysical resource use” not only though their high consumption but also “as members of powerful factions of the capitalist class” and through their propelling of “consumption norms across the population.” Changing this require coupling radical lifestyle changes with technological advancement says the team of authors of a new article. It also necessitates overcoming the “growth imperative” and associated push for consumption expansion inherent in capitalist society. To address such matters and realize “convincing and viable solutions at the systems level,” the authors call “for the scientific community across all disciplines to identify and support solutions with multidisciplinary research, for the public to engage in broad discussions about solutions and for policy makers to implement and enable solutions in policy processes.” (See Thomas Wiedmann, Manfred Lenzen, Lorenz T. Keyßer, and Julia K. Steinberger. “Scientists’ warning on affluence.” Nature Communications 11, no. 1 [2020]: 1-10.)

Speaking of the highly affluent, tourism, transport and sustainability scholars Stefan Gössling and Andreas Humpe reveal that at most one percent of the world’s population accounts for more than half of the total emissions from passenger air travel. The finding is based on an evaluation of 2018 data from industry, supranational organizations and surveys. In their article (“The global scale, distribution and growth of aviation: Implications for climate change.” Global Environmental Change 65 [2020]: 102194), the authors also establish that 11 percent of the world travelled by air in 2018, with at most 4 percent doing so internationally. They also estimate that commercial flights were responsible for 88 percent of aviation fuel consumption globally (71% for passengers, 17% for freight), with the remainder due to military operations (8%) and private aircraft (4%). The aviation emissions associated with the United States are bigger than the next 10 countries combined. And people in the United States and Canada flew a distance (per capita) more than 50 times bigger than people in Africa. Given that international climate policies do not cover a large share of aviation’s emissions and the highly unequal social and spatial distribution of flying, the authors call for stronger aviation climate governance as well as additional research.

In a short, related paper, Stefan Gössling builds on discussions of how the Covid-19 pandemic provides an opportunity to rethink the air transport sector. He argues that air travelers, the aviation industry, politicians, and health insurers have generally ignored or downplayed aviation’s role in spreading pathogens and disease and its significant contribution to climate change (“close to 5% of all forcing from anthropogenic sources”). Given such negative externalities, the fact that the industry induces demand through low fares, the industry’s marked (pre-pandemic) growth, and the gross inequities in who flies, Gössling pushes us to ask how much air transport is really needed. More pointedly, he suggests, we need to consider the possibility and plausibility of shrinking the global transport system. This is especially important at a time when governments are providing massive aid to airplane manufacturers, airlines, and airports to help them weather the pandemic-related downturn. (See “Risks, resilience, and pathways to sustainable aviation: A COVID-19 perspective.” Journal of Air Transport Management 89 [2020]: 101933.)

Five medical scholars from Canada and one from South Africa co-wrote an article that examines the CO2 footprints of medical conferences—specifically the annual meetings of the Societies for Pediatric Urology, which takes place in North America, and the European Society of Pediatric Urology. Both meetings typically have hundreds of in-country and international delegates, the vast majority traveling to the host city by plane. The median participant of the seven meetings examined traveled 2596.34 miles and was responsible for .61 metric tons of CO2e. The authors conclude by pointing out that climate change “poses a serious health concern this century, and the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the necessity of seeking alternatives to large, physical academic medical conferences.” Among the measures the authors suggest for adoption are video streaming, teleconferencing, and carbon offsets. (See Karen Milford, Mandy Rickard, Michael Chua, Kristine Tomczyk, Amber Gatley-Dewing, and Armando J. Lorenzo. “Medical conferences in the era of environmental conscientiousness and a global health crisis: the carbon footprint of presenter flights to pre-COVID pediatric urology conferences and a consideration of future options.” Journal of Pediatric Surgery [2020]).

Matters of public health similarly motivated an article by two medical radiologists from the University of Groningen (the Netherlands). The authors measured the CO2-equivalent footprint of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) annual meeting, the associated health burden, and the costs to offset the emissions. For the 2017 meeting in Chicago, they estimated about 40,000 tons of CO2-equivalent emissions from air travel by more than 23,000 registered attendees from the United States and 114 other countries for whom data existed. (The actual number of attendees totaled more than 50,000.) The health impact of these emissions ranged from 51.4 to 79 (for low levels) disability-adjusted life years (DALYs). (The DALYs are a measure of the disease burden—in the form of years lost—due to illness, disability or premature death. The different estimates of DALYs reflect a range of assumed scenarios—from high levels of socioeconomic growth over time to low levels.) The costs of offsets for the flights—estimated at a cost of only $12/ton of CO2-e—was $474,072. (See Derya Yakar and Thomas C. Kwee. “Carbon footprint of the RSNA annual meeting.” European Journal of Radiology 125 [2020]: 108869.)

The authors of another article assert that “one large academic conference can release as much CO2 as an entire city in a week.” In reference to the annual conference of the American Geophysical Union—”the world’s largest Earth- and space-science conference”—the authors establish that its 28,000 delegates to the 2019 meeting in San Francisco emitted the equivalent of 80,000 tons of CO2, about 3 tons per scientist in attendance. The total is also equal to the average weekly emissions of the Scottish city of Edinburgh. To markedly reduce conference-related emissions, the authors suggest a variety of measures. They include choosing conference cities with the goal of minimizing travel emissions; increasing virtual attendance; and making meetings biennial instead of annual. The authors also explore a three-hub model, one that combines regional annual meetings in Asia, North America, and Europe and connects them via virtual room facilities. (See Milan Klöwer, Debbie Hopkins, Myles Allen, and James Higham. “An analysis of ways to decarbonize conference travel after COVID-19,” Nature, Vol. 583, July 16, 2020: 356-359.)

Finally, Rob Kuper of Temple University conducted a thorough analysis of travel-related CO2 emissions associated with the annual meeting of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) during the period 1960-2019. He finds that travel to and from these meetings resulted in an amount of CO2 emissions ranging from 38,429 to 52,545 tons. These emissions are associated with September Arctic sea ice loss of an amount ranging from 115,287 to 157,635 square meters. The article concludes with recommendations for changes to the format of ASLA meetings that would eliminate travel-related emissions and, in the process, narrow the gap between the ASLA’s proclaimed values as reflected in its Code of Environmental Ethics and the Society’s actual practices. (See “Travel-Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions from American Society of Landscape Architects Annual Meetings,” Landscape Journal, Vol. 38, Nos. 1-2, 2019: 105-127.)  Kuper has also produced a video presentation based on the article. We feature the presentation below.