Why aeroplanes are even worse than you think.

Article by Isabel Key and Eric Steinberger.

We all know flying is bad for the climate. But how bad is it really? One person travelling in a full airplane causes a similar amount of CO2 emissions as one person travelling the same distance alone in a car [1,2,8]. Longer flights are more efficient per kilometer than shorter flights [2]. Clearly, flights are usually over a much larger distance than car journeys, meaning the emissions per trip are generally much greater.

But there’s a bigger problem: CO2 is only responsible for part of the warming caused by airplanes [3,9]. Contrails, the white clouds that planes leave behind them keep heat in the atmosphere [4]. The clouds are too thin to reflect much sunlight, but there are tiny ice crystals in them that trap heat [4]. The combined effect of all the contrails produced since the first airplanes flew is bigger than the effect of all CO2 emissions ever produced by planes [4].

Scientists are researching sustainable fuels that might improve the situation [5,6]. One day our planes may run on fuel made by algae – tiny plant-like organisms that live in water [6]. In the meantime, the best way to reduce emissions from flights is to not fly [7]! If you do fly, donate money to “carbon offsetting” schemes that fund projects that help tackle climate change [e.g. 10,11].


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