Sunday Brunch: ad singula or 'can I cut airline emissions by getting more people to fly?'

Sunday Brunch: ad singula or 'can I cut airline emissions by getting more people to fly?'

Individual carbon footprint calculations are useful in decision-making but a big picture view is also needed

"I've got this problem and I have to live with it. I can't do anything about it, it is a psychological thing and I can't explain it. I have not flown on a plane for two years."

Dennis Bergkamp, 1995

The quote above is from the Flying Dutchman, not the ghost ship doomed to sail the seven seas forever and never making port, but rather one of the greatest footballers I have had the pleasure to watch live. A hero to Arsenal fans, Dennis Bergkamp(1) had seemingly magical skill, pace (he was consistently in the top five fastest players at Arsenal during his time there), amazing vision and from 1994 he never flew. Bergkamp's aviophobia(2) stems from a combination of personal tragedy and an engine cut-out on a flight during the 1994 USA World Cup.

As well as aviophobes, many choose not to fly, or are anxious about flying, because of the impact of flying on global warming.

Aviation is an emotive topic and a confusing one. It is Schrodinger's CO2e emitter.

For an individual, taking a flight is likely to be their biggest individual emitting activity.

However as an industry overall it is one of the smaller ones, only contributing 2% - 3% of global CO2 emissions. Even factoring in its overall impact on global warming (taking into account persistent contrails that can trap heat) it contributes to around 3.5% of global warming.

The simple reason for this is that the majority of the population don't fly. Hannah Ritchie, Deputy Editor and Lead Research at Our World in Data and author of the excellent 'Sustainability by numbers' substack has a great article on this 👇🏾

How much does aviation contribute to climate change? How will this change in the future?
Aviation is responsible for around 3% of global emissions, and will be one of the hardest sectors to tackle.

But whilst I am going to talk about aviation, this Sunday Brunch really isn't about aviation. We shall do a more detailed blog on aviation at a later date.

Today's Sunday Brunch is really about top down versus bottom's up assessments of impact. How sometimes reducing the impact of an activity to the individual level can lead to suboptimal decisions or overlook potential avenues for improvement.

We'll take a look at two areas where there is a mismatch between an activity's proportional emissions contribution at the individual level versus the aggregate level: aviation and watching TV.


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Do we need more or fewer Dennis Bergkamps?

Fewer people should fly. That way we can reduce carbon emissions. That is the frequent comment that I hear. I agree that not all flights are necessary or indeed quicker. I remember when I worked in Asia, I would often need to travel between Shanghai and Beijing. The flight was around 2 hours and 20 minutes, but when you factored in the check-in time and security at the airports either end, it was actually longer and more disruptive than taking the high speed rail (4.5 hour journey which was very smooth and fiendishly punctual).

(CRH Harmony high speed rail train, image by calflier001 CC BY-2.0)

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