Air transport, carbon emissions, and capitalism – Muntazir Jaffer


Image: Fighting for Air, Amazing Productions, 2018

Muntazir Jaffer is a boutique cosmetics designer with a focus on sustainability in personal care. After graduating with from the University of Birmingham with a MEng in Chemical Engineering, he was baffled by the minimal adoption of green technology across the UK and now rants continuously about sustainable development, carbon emissions and waste water treatment. 

When we think about flying, thoughts of jet-setting abroad come to mind: escaping the cold and dreary winter days, sitting on a beach in the Bahamas and soaking up the sun. Less often do we think about travel’s less popular sibling, carbon emissions – which is strange, considering air travel is one of the major consumers of fossil fuels. Flights currently make up 2.5% of global CO2 emissions. A 2015 EU Commission Emission Strategy estimates that, as our globalised world becomes more connected, this figure will have risen to 22% by 2050, accounting for more than half of the UK’s annual carbon budget in line with the 2°C limit set by the EU. Furthermore, as much of the developing world continues to grow and relies on relatively cheap fossil fuels, the projected contribution will be 17 times greater than what’s currently released. As there are no sustainable alternatives that match the high energy density or availability of kerosene (aviation fuel), air traffic will become even more of a key contributor to climate change over the next 30 years.

So how do we mitigate this almost impossibly fast consumption of carbon spewing giants? How do we as individual agents tackle the beast that is international travel and find a way that encourages a more globalised world, without banning aeroplanes outright?

The solution may be less drastic than we think – cutting luggage allowance from 23kg to 13kg.

If you’re like my mother, you’ll maximise use of the weight allowance and over-pack. You won’t use half the things you bring and the extra space will be filled with souvenirs and cheap clothing you don’t need. Most holiday goers manage effectively with 13kg – I usually only take a set of hand luggage with me. If you’re moving abroad or returning from a summer away, 13kg of luggage will last you two weeks, which is more than enough time for a ship to transport the rest of your belongings. The 10kg you’ve saved could instead be used to transport another 45 people on the same long-haul flight, reducing the need for 1 in every 10 flights and maybe even cutting the price of your ticket.

In real terms, this equates to a reduction of 68 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per flight, the same amount as the total carbon fixed by 68 trees over their lifetime. Although based in simple estimation, it’s a staggering amount when you think about it, and it highlights a simple truth: the sooner we act, the more control we can have on mitigating climate change. In a ground-breaking analysis of environmental management, the Stern Review estimated that the cost of alleviating climate change in 2006 was around 1% of UK GDP. Due to faster than expected emissions growth, this cost has now risen to 3% GDP – and each year, a further 5% of lost GDP will be lost irrevocably. With every passing year of complacency, the more detrimental the impact of climate change will be and the more taxpayers will be forced to pay the price. Forward planning for infrastructure and economy is essential to protecting the planet.

With almost every paper on climate mitigation stressing the need for far-reaching policy change, the question remains – why hasn’t anything been done to tackle the issue? More importantly – why haven’t polluting airlines introduced carbon abatement measures, despite consumers being encouraged to do the same?

The answer is a simple and sadly unsurprising one. Over the last 40 years, growth within the industry has increased airlines’ iron grip on governments. Air travel is perpetuated as a necessity for business and tourism and is unquestionably needed to strengthen the global economy. As a result, the huge pollution caused by the aviation industry has largely been shielded from international and environmental scrutiny. During Tony Blair’s premiership, airlines were protected from EU carbon levies and, at present, they are one of very few mass polluters exempt from the Paris Climate Agreement (despite their projected contribution to CO2 emissions). Even projects such as Heathrow Airport’s terminal expansion were backed by the Government, despite being met with massive environmental and local resistance. The project has since been curtailed, but other city airports are expected to grow in its stead.

Our current economic system panders to international and corporate interests over the apparent needs and protections required by its citizens. Big business often dominates social interests, and we are expected to sit back whilst suffering the increased effects of global warming. We have now reached an era where the consequences of climate change have tangible political impact, often driven by deteriorating water sources, pollution, or crop availability.

A few examples. A recent conflict in Nigeria between nomadic and farming populations was driven by the drying of Lake Chad. Pressure from insecure water sources forced nomadic tribes to move further south and use water systems traditionally monopolised by grazing farmers, increasing competition for necessary resources and inflaming previously settled ethnic tensions. Similarly, the 2003 Darfur conflict was driven by a reduction in crop yield and expanding desert, labelled as an ecological crisis “arising at least in part from climate change” by the then-UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon. In both cases, pressure on vital resources and an unstable political climate have catalysed conflict between populations and led to loss of life. Closer to home, the ‘Beast from the East’ left parts of the UK colder than the Arctic, a thought that was unimaginable 20 years ago. Our continued reliance on fossil fuels has led to temperatures in the Arctic circle exceeding the melting point of ice, and the changing air currents have brought on a freezing cold front from Siberia, directly causing 10 deaths in the UK, and undoubtedly contributing to more.

The initial (and often sustained) narratives around such conflict have intentionally avoided climate change, instead blaming struggling populations in situations out of their control. Even in crises where the effect of climate change is heavily contested, like the Syrian civil war, there still remains a disparate connection between an increased global temperature and stress on economic vulnerabilities. Although not always paramount, long-term weakening of economic systems due to changing global temperatures and the speed at which environmental shock can be delivered together hide the corrosive effects of climate change. Instead, international media and foreign governments are allowed to capitalise on increasing instability and avoid more holistic questioning about the role we as consumers play in international affairs.

To make substantial change, we need a collective solution to climate change. We need to control our consumption of fossil fuels and encourage the adoption of renewable and sustainable technology worldwide. Greater investment in research and incentives for green technology adoption are required to control our industries if we want to stop the world turning into the barren landscapes of Fury Road. 

However, our current government supports ideologues and talking heads over actual change. After watching Blue Planet II, the environmental secretary Michael Gove gave an impassioned speech about plastic straws and their ‘heart-breaking’ threat to sea life. How commendable; this puts him on par with my five-year old niece. Surely a man in his position must be aware of plastic accumulation in the sea? Surely he must be aware that 83% of potable water sources are contaminated with micro plastics? His response was to ban single-use plastic straws. Not only does this fall short of the necessary action required, but what about issues just as pressing, like rising sea levels, volatile global temperatures, and the deforestation of rain forests which preserve endemic species and act as large carbon sinks?

Instead, his position on what is possibly most inane aspect of waste is being used as a bargaining chip against the European Union, in an attempt by his party to strip valuable environmental regulation from British law. In addition to the chlorinated chicken and lowered industrial safety standards, the Conservative Party supports the use of fracking in Yorkshire, despite its degradation of woodlands and release of emissions. INEOS, the fossil fuel giant, are attempting to circumvent the National Trust’s wishes to prevent fracking on its own land by filing injunctions with the government. The fact that this hasn’t been rejected is very telling of our unwavering reliance of fossil fuels.

In an era of atomising liberalism and massive wealth inequality, climate change is the unifying factor that affects us all. Rich or poor, male or female, old or young, all of us will suffer from a rapidly changing global climate at the expense of corporate greed. Hiding and exporting its problems – from allowing airlines free reign to pollute or blaming foreign nations for the repercussions of a steadily increasing global temperature – will only prolong the suffering and cost of our actions. 

There is no planet B, no journey to Mars to save the human race, no magic wand to make it all go away. We must demand our governments protect global interests, not corporate ones. In some cases, this is already happening. Countries with a strong rejection of neoliberal orthodoxies, such as those in Central and Latin America, have had the fastest growth in renewable technology over the last five to ten years. Costa Rica, Uruguay and Nicaragua are among the highest generators per capita of renewable energy, despite having relatively low GDPs. Brazil have offered several public-private partnerships in solar contracting, allowing the nation to generate income and making nearly 76% of its electricity renewable. Further afield, European social democracies in Denmark and Sweden have facilitated multifactorial approaches to carbon-neutral technology, and are heavily investing in sustainable infrastructure and life cycles.

It seems that by working together, our collective action can foster intellectual discussion that translates into meaningful environmental policy. If we continue to deflect the debate with dead cats, empty words, and voodoo politics, we will fall down the rabbit hole to Trump’s America. Scott Pruitt of the Environmental Protection Agency and the remaining corporate cabinet are prime examples of how politics can be derailed to serve the elite and reinforce the vice-like grip of oil conglomerates, all under the guise of “making America great again”.

Rejecting the status quo and enacting change comes from who you vote for and what you’re willing to tolerate. It can be done and is within our grasp. Personally, I want a more global world. I, much like you, want to travel internationally with the ease that flights allow, but to do so we must truly appreciate the reciprocal relationship our consumption has with the world. All it takes is a little compromise from everyone, less luggage on a flight, more investment in sustainable technology and more sharing of a pot of wealth held by the few.

Citations and calculations:

We assume:

  • Average weight of a passenger: 80kg
  • Weight reduction of baggage with new measures: 10kg
  • Approximate number of people on a long haul flight: 400
  • Average duration of a long haul flight: 8 hours (example journey: London to New York)
  • Fraction of travellers who bring a full suitcase: 0.8

Therefore we can estimate the number of people who bring a full suitcase as

400 x 0.8 = 320 people

This corresponds to a reduction in weight of 3,200kg per plane under the proposed new measures (320 x 10kg)

3,200kg of free space is equivalent to (3200/80) = 40 people (by weight)

The proposed reduction in baggage weight frees up the space for 40 more people by weight on each flight. If each flight carries 440 people instead of 400, we remove the need for 1 in every 10 flights with no change to the fuel capacity.

One passenger on a flight from London to New York generates around 1.7 tonnes CO2 equivalent per flight from London to New York. Different emissions values are derived due to discrepancies in methodology, however estimates range between 1.2-2.1 tonnes CO2 equivalent. This is due to a weighting effect, as NOx and CO2 gases are more potent in the upper atmosphere and exhibit a stronger global warming potential than other ground emissions.

1 tree approx. = 1 tonne CO2 equivalent fixed. Again, this value may be vary depending on your assumptions, as trees support microbial/feeder ecological systems, which also fix free carbon, and the amount of CO2 they fix varies with the age and condition.

Editor’s note: If you are interested in learning more about sustainable development and fancy some homework, we recommend reading Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air’ by David McKay. It’s a great starting point for the topic and outlines many of the concepts around green energy, with annotated calculations for those unfamiliar with Life Cycle Analysis. Similarly, for further reading on the economic and technical pathways on meeting the Paris Climate Agreement’s 1.5C limit, there is the ‘Deadline 2020‘ report, published by C40. It’s written for policy makers and the general public alike, and both texts should provide the reader with insight on what the coming years of climate action should look like.


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