Jet fuel climbs sharply as percentage of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions

In the United States, from 2013 to 2017, jet fuel use has jumped as a percentage of total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the most recent national inventory report (.pdf) released this April by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In 2013, jet fuel was responsible for 213 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions (CO2e), which represented 3.1% of the U.S. total (6,776 million metric tons). By 2017, jet fuel emissions climbed sharply to 250 million metric tons, which represented 3.8% of a slightly smaller total (6,534 million metric tons) [updated Aug 17 with small correction].

This means that, in just four short years, in the midst of a climate crisis, aviation emissions as a percentage of the U.S. total rose by more than 20% (one fifth) to reach unprecedented high levels in 2017.

“Using these radiative forcing factors, aviation was responsible for between 7.6% and 11.5% of U.S. carbon dioxide equivalent emissions in 2017.”

The impact of aviation is yet higher if one counts the “radiative forcing” due to the impact of high-altitude aviation emissions. This consideration may double (using an estimate from the CoolClimate calculator) or triple (using an estimate from Lee et al., 2009, in the journal Atmospheric Environment) the climate impact of aviation. Using these radiative forcing factors, aviation was responsible for between 7.6% and 11.5% of U.S. carbon dioxide equivalent emissions in 2017.

Moreover, all of these statistics count only the CO2e emissions from burning jet fuel. All other climate impacts of aviation, including materials and construction of the airplanes, and construction and operations of airports, are in addition to the numbers above.

It is sometimes stated that aviation is responsible for 2% of greenhouse gas emissions, without noting that contemporary U.S. aviation emissions are far higher. The most frequently given citations are to trade association web pages that lack details, or to a 20 year old IPCC estimate of global emissions that has not been updated. In the U.S. context, scientists and climate action advocates should no longer use this 2% figure unless they explain it more precisely.

[New paragraph Aug 21] An electric aviation technology company, AeroTEC, reports estimates that flying is 12% of emissions in the United States, and 4.9% globally, but it does not link to an authoritative information source. Overall, we simply need a scientifically authoritative current estimate of the direct and life-cycle climate impact of the aviation industry to replace the widely cited 2% number.

The high level of U.S. aviation emissions has been overlooked for several reasons, including the fact that jet fuel for international flights (called “international bunker fuels” in the EPA report) is excluded from official national accounts that are most commonly cited. For the statistics above, we included these international jet fuel amounts. This is a sensible approach, counting U.S. amounts for international bunker fuels in U.S. estimates (and, appropriately, excluding international amounts for fuels on incoming international flights). All data and computations for this post are shared in a public spreadsheet with citations.

No major U.S. environmental organization has a substantial campaign of any magnitude addressing aviation demand and rising aviation emissions. There are many initiatives related to offsets, but no large initiatives related to actual in-sector aviation emissions. Aviation is the most neglected of the large emissions sources for U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Aviation demand trends are dangerous, presenting a grave risk that the good we attempt to do in other sectors will be swamped by rising emissions in aviation.

TrendUSEmissions

 

Updates on Various Fronts

Climate strike protest, London, February 2019.

Exciting Initiatives in Academia and Beyond

The Université de Neuchâtel in Switzerland is encouraging its academic personnel to decrease its flying and has devised a chart to help them do so. In response to the efforts of the three PhD students at the French-speaking university, the institution is asking researchers, faculty, and graduate students to commit themselves to reduced flying—renouncing, for example, all flights within Switzerland and taking ground transportation to all destinations within 450 kilometers of Neuchâtel—by publicly signing a document. As of May 29, 166 individuals had signed.

Students in Europe have launched a European Citizens’ Initiative to get the European Union to end the privileged status of air travel by imposing a tax on aviation kerosene or fuel. The hope is that, by making flying more expensive, the tax will lead to a reduction in air travel and spur greater investment in sustainable modes of transportation. The initiators of the petition ask that FlyingLess supporters from EU member-states consider signing. You can do so here.

In April, the Council of the American Association of Geographers (AAG) received a petition signed by 234 AAG members. The document called upon the AAG Council to take far-reaching action to reduce CO2 emissions related to the Annual Meeting—one which sees about 9,000 attendees from the United States and abroad, the vast majority of them flying to and from the host city and producing thousands of tons of CO2 emissions in the process. Responding favorably to the petition, the Council is now in the process of setting up a task force charged with redesigning the AAG meetings and reducing their associated emissions at a depth and scale suggested by climate science and bodies such as the International Panel on Climate Change. Given the size and influence of the AAG, this development could have impacts well beyond the organization.

On May 31, 2019, the Department of Geography, Planning & Environment at Concordia University in Montreal adopted a “Flying Less Policy” that grew out of the work of its Climate Emergency Committee.  The policy requires, among other things, that all faculty members in the department disclose their annual flying activity (the results of which have already been made public, collectively and anonymously, for 2018-2019). The policy also commits faculty to prioritizing travel-free meetings and video conferencing over physical travel and, when travel is needed, collective forms of ground transportation for destinations within 12 hours of Montreal. Moreover, it commits the Department to promoting a Flying Less policy at the University as a whole, and within Quebec and Canada as well (by encouraging external funders, for example, to work to decrease flying). In addition, the new policy requires that the Department encourage students to participate in activities that do not involve flying and provide financial support to make such participation possible.

Concrete initiatives and strategies to reduce air travel will be the focus of a flight-free conference in Barcelona from July 12-14. Organized by the Stay Grounded network—in conjunction with various civil society groups and the Institute for Ecological Sciences and Technology (ICTA) in Barcelona—the “Degrowth in Aviation” conference will bring together social movements, non-governmental organizations, and scientists. To register, go here.

In the Media

Efforts to reduce flying within the academy and far beyond are receiving heightened attention in the media. A May 22 article in The Guardian (“Could you give up flying? Meet the no-plane pioneers”), for instance, mentioned FlyingLess and linked to our website, leading to a huge spike in visits. Meanwhile, TRT World, an international news channel, recently broadcast a roundtable discussion addressing the question, “Can we stop flying?”  Among the four participants was Milena Büchs, as Associate Professor in Sustainability, Economics and Low-Carbon Transitions at the University of Southampton (and a Flyingless petition signatory ).

The coverage manifests the growing movement in Europe critical of flying and its impact. As POLITICO Europe reports, “If it were a country, aviation would be the sixth-largest carbon polluter in the world, eclipsing Germany.” The same article, whose title refers to a “popular revolt against flying,” asserts that “campaigns to reduce air travel emissions are gaining traction” in Europe.

This is especially evident in Sweden (see “#stayontheground: Swedes turn to trains amid climate ‘flight shame’”), where the number of domestic air passengers has dropped eight percent (8%) in recent months, after a three percent (3%) decrease the previous year, while train travel has increased by similar figures. In response, the Swedish government has stated that it would like to reintroduce overnight trains to cities throughout Europe. (Elsewhere on the continent, there are other favorable signs of the resurrection of night trains.)

In France, the national government is considering a proposed ban on flights within the country on routes traveled by train in less than five hours.  Regardless of what the government decides, it will push for an aviation fuel tax at the next meeting of the European Commission, according to France’s Environment Minister Francois Rugy.

Such developments have not gone unnoticed within the aviation industry. At the meeting in Seoul, South Korea of the International Air Transport Association in early June, airline executives expressed worry that anti-flying sentiment will “grow and spread” if they don’t win what one executive termed the “communications battle.” (See “‘Flight shame’: How climate guilt is the newest threat to airlines.”)

Recent academic articles

An article by researchers in the Department of Geography the University of British Columbia, one based on a sample of 705 academics at their home institution, found no relationship between the amount of professional air travel and academic productivity. They also found, using a smaller sample size, no significant difference in total air travel emissions between researchers they characterized as “Green” (those who study topics related to environmental sustainability) and “Not-green.” (See Seth Wynes, Simon D. Donner, Steuart Tannason, Noni Nabors, “Academic air travel has a limited influence on professional success,” Journal of Cleaner Production, Vol. 226, No. 20, 2019: 959-967.)

Another just-published article by a team of researchers at the University of Adelaide studied academic air travel—also among academics at their home institution. The authors were particularly interested between institutional pressures for academics to fly and their university’s formal commitment to sustainability. Drawing on a one-year qualitative study, they found that, while many academics are worried about climate change, only a small number are willing to fly less for fear of damaging their careers. The authors conclude that institutional and political shifts are needed to bring about individual changes in behavior on a large scale. (See Melissa Nursey-Bray, Robert Palmer, Bride Meyer-Mclean, Thomas Wanner, & Cris Birzer, “The Fear of Not Flying: Achieving Sustainable Academic Plane Travel in Higher Education Based on Insights from South Australia,” Sustainability, Vol. 11, No. 9, 2019: 2694.)

A FlyingLess Anthropology: Revisiting #displace18

Bracco Illustration
This illustration by Michael Bracco appeared on screens on every break between panels during the Displacements conference livestream.

A little more than one year ago, the Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA), in conjunction with the Society for Visual Anthropology, held its biennial conference. Called “Displacements” (#displace18), it was a hybrid undertaking, one composed of a virtual conference and in-person gatherings at sites across the world linked via the internet. In addition, it was an experiment—one aimed at radically reducing the ecological footprint associated with academic conferences and re-thinking what takes place within the conference itself.

Anchored by a dedicated website operating out of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland (USA), the April 19-21, 2018 gathering involved 150 individual presenters and more than 1,300 participants from over 40 countries, more than half from outside the United States. (Previous, in-person SCA gatherings typically had about 200 attendees, the vast majority of them from the United States.) The scores of local “nodes” from which participants accessed the conference ranged from Amsterdam, Quetzaltenango, Quito, and Seattle to Dakar, Jakarta, Tangier, and Toronto. (Many also accessed Displacements from their homes.) Moreover, the conference included a film festival.

#Displace18 succeeded on many levels, most notably by drastically cutting the CO2 emissions of the conference while greatly democratizing participation. (Conference registration was only US$10.) That said, there were also limitations and challenges associated with the new format—from the technical to the social and personal.

As many followers of FlyingLess often inquire about different “models” of virtual conferences, we bring to your attention a valuable essay, “Reflections on #displace 18,” authored by Anand Pandian, the lead conference organizer. The essay, one partially informed by surveys of Displacements participants, explores the successes and challenges of the 2018 meeting, while providing a helpful overview of the conference.

At the end of the essay, Pandian puts forth a number of “lessons” and “future possibilities”—both for those involved in Displacements and for others who are thinking of organizing similar endeavors. Among them is the great potential for better exploiting the node structure so that nodes become central actors in the overall conference—by serving as sources of conference material, for example—rather than simply tools of distribution. Another is the need for Displacements and similar undertakings to figure out how to negotiate the potential for distraction among conference participants. Because the format allows for virtual attendance, it also facilitates multitasking by attendees, thus raising challenges in regards to depth of engagement.

The effort to think through such matters is a manifestation of the Society for Cultural Anthropology’s intention to do another Displacements-like conference in 2020. Indeed, work on the next biennial conference is already underway.

Meanwhile, anthropologists are pushing the American Anthropological Association (AAA) to allow for virtual alternatives to in-person participation at its annual meetings. For the upcoming meeting in Vancouver (in November), Anand Pandian and some fellow anthropologists proposed an “Executive Session”—a status granted to panels seen as most relevant to the conference theme—on the carbon impact of conferencing and low-impact alternatives. The proposal quoted the AAA’s Global Climate Change Task Force’s final report (one approved by the organization’s Executive Board in December 2014). “Reshaping the relationship between people and their carbon-intensive lifeways entails a shift in habitus,” the report asserted, while recommending that the AAA “aggressively” pursue “developments . . . that reduce the carbon footprint due to association-wide activities.”

Such language notwithstanding, and even though the conference theme is “Changing Climates: Struggle, Collaboration, and Justice,” the AAA declined to include the panel among its high-profile sessions.

Despite the rejection, the organizers behind the proposal hope that the would-be roundtable discussion—one envisioned as a combination of in-person conversation for those physically present and of a series of video presentations available on social media—will be part of the regular conference program. Regardless, one can be sure that the energy generated by #displace18, along with a growing reality and awareness of climate breakdown, will only lead to intensified efforts to push the AAA and related associations in a low-CO2-emissions direction.