Let’s talk more about the aviation industry

Friends, leaders, environmentalists, we would like to hear you speak more about the aviation industry.

Many influential writers and activists on environmental issues address the fossil fuels industry, but rarely discuss the aviation industry. There are some exceptions, such as Alice Larkin (@AliceClimate), Kevin Anderson (@KevinClimate), and George Monbiot (@GeorgeMonbiot), who frequently address aviation. Many others seldom do. Check the Twitter feeds of your favorite environmentalists. Search for your favorite climate change writer’s Twitter handle plus the words “aviation” or “flying.” Tabulating a sample of tweets for one high-profile climate change thinker this week, I find 45% are about the fossil fuels industry, 10% clean energy, 45% politics or activism, and 0% aviation, automobiles, home heating, or other industries that actually use fossil fuels.

Perhaps the movement finds it easier to talk about energy production than energy consumption. This may be fine for some consumption uses, but not others. At one extreme, replacing fossil fuels with clean energy in the electric grid may be more fruitful than reminding people to turn off lights. As a middling case, replacing gasoline cars with electric cars may be partially helpful. And, at the other extreme, we have aviation. We are skeptical about mainstream media coverage of biofuelselectric flight, and offsets. Changes in aggregate demand are fundamental for this particular critical industry.

It is unjust and unreflective to call for drastic economic changes in the fossil fuels industry while remaining silent about the aviation industry. The geographic locus of conflict over fossil fuels is in the coal mines of Appalachia, the oil wells of Oklahoma, and the gas extraction sites of North Dakota. The geographic locus of conflict over aviation would be in airports filled with comparatively privileged travelers, and (as @AntiAeroGAAM reminds us; added Feb 8) in the fields and communities displaced or damaged by new airports and airport expansions. It feels immoral to ask coal miners to be good sports about the economic transition they face, while remaining silent about the changes required for frequent flyers.

In public debate and in the theater of public engagement to protect the environment, the aviation industry deserves a place alongside the fossil fuels industry. We appreciate the occasional tweets and articles by leading environmental writers and public speakers about aviation already, but the issue deserves more. For example:

  • Along with articles about tax breaks for Exxon, let’s have more articles about the more universal tax breaks for jet fuel.
  • Along with articles about the Paris Agreement, let’s increase coverage about the omission of international aviation from that agreement.
  • Along with coverage of EPA’s failures to regulate carbon from energy plant emissions, let’s write more about the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO’s) inadequate approach to addressing aviation emissions.
  • Along with reports about sacrifice zones and spills from pipelines, let’s give more attention to the daily noise pollution and localized air pollution for low-income neighborhoods near airports.
  • Along with editorials calling for divestment from fossil fuels, let’s consider divesting from the aviation industry.

When I raise this issue, friends sometimes say that environmental progress requires a steady focus on policy change and industrial transformation. They say talking about “personal change” would be a self-indulgent distraction. Yet, I don’t see why the aviation industry is equated with personal change, while fossil fuels are treated as an issue of industrial structure. I do wonder whether high-flying personal habits induce a cognitive dissonance, which has muted environmental writing addressing the aviation industry. Conversely, I suspect more political writing about the aviation industry would trigger contemplation of personal change. My own experience, and that of some authors involved with our initiative, is that flying less can be part of a slower lifestyle that is simultaneously good environmentalism and joyful. But, this personal change is not the goal of this blog post, which is about hard-nosed coverage of aviation as an industry.

Friends also sometimes describe their own flying for environmental work as essential. Yet, environmental NGOs and researchers alike could still adopt a reasonable budget for aggregate reductions in flying for environmental conferences, prioritizing a smaller number of high-impact flights. Thinking about the COP meeting in Paris, many European participants traveled by train and bus, and the conference would have been just as successful if they all had done so. As for the enormous U.S. presence, my friends and colleagues were inspired by their experience in Paris, and yet our next important work may involve more domestic travel to bridge the political and cultural gulf that produced U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement. Clearly our first work is at home. The question is not about judging environmentalists; the question is about having the small public interest non-profit sector demonstrate how to do its small share, at a time when courageous changes are expected from every major sector of the economy.

I recognize that most of the world’s greatest environmental writers focus on broad social transformation. In the spirit of this broader transformation, I say to them it is both fair-minded and strategic to quit the soft treatment of the aviation industry. I’ve said enough on this myself. I am ready to hear from you, whether you agree or disagree with me, so long as I don’t hear a deafening silence. Friends, speak up more about the aviation industry.

By Adrian Pingstone (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Universities can make changes in how we subsidize travel by air

The Tufts Institute for the Environment (TIE) this month revised its travel grants program to encourage greater thoughtfulness about the climate change impact of travel by students and faculty for academic conferences on environmental issues.

The new guidelines require students and faculty applying for travel grants to “provide an explanation of how their travel request maximizes environmental impact while minimizing travel emissions costs.” It continues:

Given that aviation is an important contributor to greenhouse gas emissions globally, it is advantageous to travel using modes other than aviation when feasible; and, when aviation is essential, to use direct flights, stay for a longer time period on a single trip, and accomplish more and more diverse activities on each trip. Short travel will still be supported, but applicants who propose environmentally responsible travel plans will be favored.

Even more concretely, one of the program’s three evaluation criteria now states that a grant proposal will be evaluated based on whether it “maximizes environmental impact while minimizing travel emissions costs.”

You have probably guessed that I proposed this change and drafted the language TIE adopted. If I were king of my university, rather than a mere faculty member, I would institute a yet stronger policy, immediately ending all subsidies for travel by air. I feel impatient with the pace of change for universities, including even my own, which has a strong reputation for environmental leadership. Yet, at a time when our national politics has collapsed into dysfunction, it nonetheless pleases me that TIE adopted this modest policy.

Previously, the travel grants program’s poster — no longer in use! — illustrated the exact wrong way for environmental organizations to think about travel, complete with clip art of an airplane.


Now, Tufts University is doing better than that.

Accept this challenge: what similar changes can you promote at your university?

This #flyingless initiative is not just about personal austerity. It is about challenging universities to lead the way in modeling a better way of doing things. In small steps, and then soon dramatically bigger steps, let’s keep moving forward together.

Climate scientists lead by example

In a new book, climate scientist and #flyingless supporter Peter Kalmus integrates lucid readable summaries of the key facts about climate change and charming personable engagement with the human dimensions of making radical lifestyle changes.

The book is titled Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution (New Society Publishers, 2017; also available from online booksellers).

Along with Joe Nevins and I, Peter was the third presenter in a session of the first nearly carbon neutral online conference organized by Ken Hiltner and colleagues at the University of California Santa Barbara in 2016.

Peter is both a scientist and a community builder. His web project, “Scientists Who Don’t Fly,” features personal accounts of climate scientists who wrestle in fascinating diverse ways with the lifestyle implications of their scientific work. Far from being a downer, the overall effect — like Peter’s book — is upbeat. Though people sometimes will try to tell us that change is “unrealistic,” these appealing personalities offer their own testimony that it not only is feasible in principle, but they have done it themselves and still are thriving.

Best of all, Peter’s website has a “join” link for you to submit your own testimonial.


National Geographic runs article by airline “points expert,” saying air travel is getting “greener”

by Parke Wilde

National Geographic on June 20 ran an article, authored by a “points expert” from an affiliate marketing site, making misleading claims for “greener” air travel, with funding from the aviation and defense technology company United Technologies.

The article by Eric Rosen, with the headline “Air travel could get greener even as flights double,” was not marked as advertising, and yet the article seems unlikely to meet the magazine’s usual editorial standards. National Geographic did not respond to my questions about the article.

Misleading claims

Although the headline says air travel could “get greener,” the critical section on environmental impact addresses a much less ambitious goal: “how to prevent a doubling in air traffic from doubling the environmental impact of air travel in the coming decades.”

This section says a new voluntary United Nations program on aviation climate impacts, called “CORSIA,” would have “emissions capped at 2020 levels,” which is quite misleading. Under CORSIA, aviation emissions would continue to climb rapidly, but “net” emissions would be capped through the purchase of offsets, using other industry sectors to compensate for the growth in aviation emissions. This offset scheme is thought by experts to be unlikely to achieve its goals, and, even in the most optimistic scenario, the word “net” in “net emissions” is required for honest reporting. Not even the strongest supporters of CORSIA claim that it caps aviation emissions themselves at 2020 levels.

The article makes exaggerated claims about aviation technologies, for which the only source cited is Sean Newsum, the “director of environmental strategy” for Boeing, a major airplane manufacturer. For example, Newsum makes an implausible claim for aviation biofuels: “Biofuels represent huge potential reductions of between 50 to 80 percent of the lifetime carbon emission of both existing and future aircraft.” A good source for more credible information about biofuels and other technology myths is Peeters et al. (2016).

An accompanying quiz on the website is titled, “How green is air travel?” One of the questions asks, “Which of these is NOT a way a reduction in emissions will be achieved?” The options are: (a) Fewer passengers, (b) Improved technology, (c) Better operations, and (d) Alternative fuel.” The correct answer? You guessed it — “Fewer passengers.” The accompanying explanation says, “Air travel numbers are going up, not down. Passenger loads are expected to double over the next 20 years.” With this sleight of hand, National Geographic switches the topic from promising methods to projected trends, to make demand side changes look like the wrong answer to a question about reducing aviation emissions.

Authored by Eric Rosen, a “points expert”

The National Geographic article’s author, Eric Rosen (@EricRosenLA), is a travel writer and self-described “points expert.” I could find no prior reporting on climate change, the environment, or indeed any other science topics.

This week, in typical fare, he writes for Bravo on “OMG, LOL: 35 funny three-letter airport codes that will make you giggle, BRO!” You can imagine his chuckles at Fukuoka, Japan, and Gaya, India.

Rosen is identified as managing editor and writer for “The Points Guy,” an affiliate marketing site. The “advertiser disclosure” explains how it works. The site takes advertising from credit card companies and other businesses and writes articles on frequent flyer points programs and other air travel topics. The articles may favorably discuss the advertisers’ products. The site’s slogan is, “maximize your travel.”

National Geographic sponsorship by United Technologies

The footer to the National Geographic article says, “This article is part of our Urban Expeditions series, an initiative made possible by a grant from United Technologies to the National Geographic Society.” United Technologies is a Fortune 500 commercial aerospace and defense company, owner of the Pratt and Whitney aviation engine manufacturer and many other subsidiaries.

The article is not marked as advertising. From other pages and search engines on the National Geographic site, links to the article are not identified as having been sponsored.

Questions for National Geographic

It is difficult to believe this article meets National Geographic editorial standards for an article touching on important scientific issues such as climate change. From the headline, it is not possible to pass this article off as a harmless piece of travel “fluff.” And, yet, the identification of sponsorship is not sufficiently thorough to meet journalistic standards if National Geographic wants to say this article was intended to be seen as “advertising,” with no implication that it met usual editorial standards.

I wrote the editor and the press office on July 7 seeking comment. I offered to share their point of view on all the issues in this post, including the United Technologies sponsorship, the Boeing sources, the experience of the author, and the substantitive doubts about the coverage of aviation emissions technologies. National Geographic did not respond.

National Geographic magazine was purchased some years ago by the Murdoch family’s Fox media companies (as a 2015 article in the Guardian discusses). Rupert Murdoch is a leading global media magnate, supporter of conservative political causes, and well-known climate change skeptic. At some times in recent years, the National Geographic organization more broadly has done some vigorous reporting on climate change, including the “Years of Living Dangerously” documentary on National Geographic Channel. Yet, in my own view, this Eric Rosen article on greener aviation appears akin to greenwashing and aviation industry propaganda, not within the bounds of real journalism.




Flying less is greener

Because of a recent Washington Post piece by Sam Denby, it seems like a good time to collect some principles for fair reporting about the environmental impact of several transportation modes.

Principle 1: Report that less long-distance travel benefits the environment

What matters most is how much long-distance travel we do. There are many ways of reducing the average frequency of long-distance travel events while preserving what is important in our work and valuable in our lives. Sam Denby’s piece discusses trips from Dubai to Sydney and from Frankfort to Washington, but it is silly to hold miles constant when discussing such trips. The alternative to flying from Dubai to Sydney is not driving the same route. The alternative is flying less, and it is definitely greener.

Principle 2: Never exaggerate small improvements over bad options

One could compare a flight from Chicago to North Carolina to a single person driving in a car for the same journey. But that trip alone in a car for 820 miles already has a large carbon impact. A family of four environmentalists, if they must travel to North Carolina, can drive. A single environmentalist, who must travel to North Carolina, can consider a bus. We cannot as a nation meet our climate commitments if we travel too often from Chicago to North Carolina. We must contemplate the value and frequency of the trips.

Principle 3: Report equivalent comparisons across transportation modes

On those occasions when, as just one part of a broader analysis, it makes sense to compare transportation modes holding constant the trip distance, then make the comparisons fair.

Option 1: best cases. If you measure miles per gallon (mpg) of a fancy new jet operating at full capacity, then compare it to the passenger mpg of a cutting-edge electric train, a new bus at full capacity, and a hybrid car with 4 passengers.

Option 2: average cases. Alternatively, if you compare trips for average automobile mpg and occupancy, then your computation for flights must: (a) use actual occupancy rates for flights, and (b) use averages for the real-world fleet, not best cases for fancy new planes.

Existing media reports

Let’s look at some actual examples in recent media coverage. I feel Sam Denby in the Washington Post does poorly by these principles, but you can judge.

Fivethirtyeight in 2015 has the title “Every Time You Fly, You Trash The Planet — And There’s No Easy Fix.” This piece does well, emphasizing global carbon emissions goals and assuming that traveling less is one of the options. Denby criticizes the actual transportation mode comparison, because the data source was a carbon offset company, but Denby doesn’t actually say what’s wrong with the numbers, and it seems to me the comparison here does not exaggerate the environmental harm of flying. It seems to basically agree with the other sources discussed below.

Much of the recent controversy arises from the work of Michael Sivak at the University of Michigan, which argues that the efficiency of flying has improved relative to the efficiency of automobiles. I like it that Sivak attempts to follow “option 2” above for consistent comparisons. I don’t know enough about engineering to reconcile his numbers with somewhat differing numbers from environmental organizations. A nice article at Yale Climate Connections treats Sivak’s estimates as authoritative. On the other hand, a somewhat earlier 2013 analysis by the International Council on Clean Transportation somewhat disputes the numbers, making flying look worse than other modes on a passenger mpg basis. For me, the key thing is that Sivak’s numbers do not really make frequent flying look green. Of the existing sources, Sivak’s estimates are comparatively favorable to flying when reporting under “Principle 3” above, which may be fine as far as it goes. But to report the truth more broadly, we must still keep in mind “Principle 1” and “Principle 2”.

My own summary of this complex literature is simple and short: Flying less is greener.




Nature envisions “a greener culture” for scientists

In Nature today, Julia Rosen gives an inspiring overview of scientists around the world who are innovating to reduce the climate impact of their work, with a special focus on flying less.

The article begins with the experience of Stephanie and Fraser Januchowski-Hartley, who traveled from the UK by bicycle and train to the International Congress for Conservation Biology in France:

By eschewing air travel, the pair prevented carbon dioxide emissions of roughly one-half of a metric tonne, and received the Swarovski Optik Green Travel Award from the Society for Conservation Biology, which hosted the meeting.

Rosen reviews the research of #flyingless supporter Shahzeen Attari, whose work shows that “walking the walk” enhances credibility for scientists speaking about environmental issues. She also has thoughtful reflections from one of our founding supporters, Alexandra Ponette-González, who contemplates the distinct challenges for early career researchers.

In the article, Rosen covers our #flyingless initiative at some length. If you arrived to this page through a link from Nature, let me take a brief digression to welcome you and tell a bit about our project. A group of university researchers around the world, including Joseph Nevins (at Vassar College) and myself (Parke Wilde at Tufts University) and many others, started this project in 2015 to encourage university communities to make sharp changes in the carbon footprint of their flying. We have an FAQ page with extensive information about scientific questions (how much does flying matter?) and personal questions (how can I change my flying without ruining my career?). We have a general petition page and a list more specifically of more than 430 wonderful academic supporters. We have an active Twitter feed @flyingless, which provides a good introduction to the work of other people on this topic. Our philosophy places high value on combining personal change with collective action and advocacy. The most important things you can do to help us are (1) if you are a scientist or academic who recognizes the importance of vigorous action toward flying less (even if you still fly yourself), please email us to be added to this list; and (2) please share the flyingless.org site as widely as possible.

In my own comments, quoted in Rosen’s article, I tried to communicate the value of flyingless for people at diverse stages of change, ranging from enthusiastic to reluctant. I noted that university communities can make a huge difference by flying drastically less, even if many academics are not yet ready to give up flying altogether. Still, on reflection, I may have spoken too mildly in this article. Climate change is an exceptional global challenge. Through self-experimentation, we have learned much about how to maintain a vibrant academic life while flying rarely. Several of us have not flown for years. If you are ready for this, don’t hold back and limit yourself to small steps!



The Carbon Code, by Brett Favaro


In The Carbon Code (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), long-time #flyingless supporter Brett Favaro embeds aviation issues within a broader agenda for personal and social change. Along with the energy sector, local and regional transportation, and the food sector, Favaro explains the magnitude of aviation’s impact for the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of comparatively prosperous people:

For the average person, [commuting] trips make up most of the transportation footprint. For those of us in the top quarter of global wealth, the GHGs we emit from long-distance air travel can be far more damaging. We can’t ignore this any longer. The carbon cost of travel is enormous and growing quickly.

The book, written for lay audiences, (1) summarizes the science of consumption impacts on greenhouse gasses and proposes a code of conduct (hence, the title phrase, “The Carbon Code”), (2) reviews implications for daily life sector by sector, and (3) finally engages a broader conversation about cultural and political change.

The book is so terrific that I have added a new question to our Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) list, citing this work. I will be sharing it with friends in my community.

In addressing aviation, Favaro writes:

Flight is a luxury. The vast majority of people on Earth never set foot on an airplane or do so very few times throughout their lives. If you fly regularly, then you are statistically an outlier. This is hard to wrap our heads around in North America and Europe, where flying is relatively common. But every time we travel by air, we are accountable for a large amount of carbon pollution. Climate justice demands that we examine this carefully.