Complex Made Simple

Aviation’s impact on climate change, and what we can do about it

With aviation a persistent source of CO2 emissions and air pollution, are there greener methods to travel, and are they feasible?

Would you take a boat ride, instead of a plane ride. if it meant reducing your carbon foot print? This is one of many dilemmas posed by research agency Ipsos, in a study commissioned by the WEF Soon, the GCC could finally have alternative methods for interstate travel other than aviation

There’s no denying it: Climate change is a fact of our past, present, and ever-gloomy future.

From heat waves, to dry seasons, to melting ice caps and glaciers, our planet’s ecosystem is in overdrive and we’ve got no one to blame but our fuel gluttonous modern economy. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which includes more than 1,300 scientists from the United States and other countries, forecasts a temperature rise of 1.38 to 5.5 degrees Celsius over the next century, NASA cites. Sea levels are expected to rise, seasons will change, and rain will become scarcer. 

Of the many contributing factors to the Earth’s deteriorating ecological state are our traveling habits. While paling in comparison to other fuel-guzzling activities, aviation still accounts for 2% of global man-made CO2 emissions, according to IATA. As per 2017 numbers, that’s around 859 million tonnes of CO2. 

Convenience/Cost vs. Environmental Responsibility

Last week, a study conducted by Ipsos on behalf of the World Economic Forum (WEF) found that 1 in 7 (14%) passengers globally would pay more for travel methods with a lower carbon-footprint than airplanes. This percentage agreed to switch even if it were less convenient or more expensive. Twice as many (29%) would do so if it were as convenient or no more expensive than flying.

Generally, the global public is divided into three groups of similar sizes when it comes to trusting both the commitment and the ability of airlines to reduce their environmental impact: roughly 1/3 are fairly or very confident in them, 1/3 have little or no confidence in them, and 1/3 sit in the middle, the study found. 

Image: Ipsos/World Economic Forum 

Apparently, frequent flyers are much more likely than less frequent ones to trust airlines’ commitment and ability to reduce their impact on the environment (about 3 in 5 do), but also to consider alternative forms of travel with a lower carbon footprint.

“Younger people, aged under 35, and those with a university education express the strongest support for finding an alternative to flying,” WEF commented. “In China, nearly two-thirds of people say they would avoid flying even if the alternative were less convenient or more expensive.”

As for faith in the industry’s efforts to reduce their carbon print, Saudi Arabia ranked high. 

The Forum said: “Half of all Saudi Arabians express a great deal of faith in the environmental commitment of airlines, a far higher proportion than any other nation. Three-quarters also have a great deal or fair amount of trust that airlines will back their promises with actions.”

People from countries like Japan, South Korea and France, however, had very little to no faith in the industry making environmental amends. 

Is this feasible? 

Teen extraordinaire Greta Thunberg of Swedish origin set a precedent example last month when she made a 15-day sea journey to New York City onboard a green-powered yacht, departing from Plymouth, England. Instead of taking a plane to attend a United Nations climate summit occurring in the US this month, she opted for a zero carbon footprint alternative. 

“She traveled aboard the Malizia II, which has its own solar panels and hydro-generators to power the yacht,” The Verge explained

Her journey sets an interesting example for travelers with a clear message: Plane travel doesn’t always have to be the first option considered ahead of a trip. 

While the sentiment is certainly in the right place, it is worthy of note that a businessman making it halfway across the world for a last-minute meeting can’t opt for the 15-day scenic route. Similarly, a family setting out on vacation whose guardians have a limited number of leave days from work will not have the privilege of spending their days off just getting to their destination. 

The GCC is ripe for alternative travel

In the GCC and Middle East, the concept does prove tempting. 60 minute plane trips between countries like the UAE and Bahrain pose the most ideal opportunity for foregoing air travel in favor of something more eco-friendly. As it currently stands, a car or boat ride are your only true alternatives. With no existing train routes connecting GCC countries, you can’t really enjoy the benefits of easy cross-border travel like you could in Europe, for example. However, this could change soon in coming years. 

The GCC is undertaking a massive rail project that will connect the GCC states together, dubbed the GCC Railway (or Gulf Railway). The project is estimated to cost $250 billion and is estimated to be completed by 2023. Most of the railway will run through the UAE and Saudi Arabia. 

Another project, the Virgin One Hyperloop, is being undertaken in Saudi, which is estimated to cut the trip from Riyadh to Jeddah on land to 76 minutes, compared with more than 10 hours currently. 

As it currently stands, the airline industry “has pledged to cap its CO2 emissions from 2020 and it says that by 2050 aviation emissions will be half the level they were in 2005,” the WEF noted. In the meantime, we’d all better brush up on our train line memory practice.