Flying – Just how bad is it for the climate?

We’ve all heard that flying isn’t great for the environment – but just how bad is it and what are our options to do something about it? We take a look below. 

5 minute read

Flying from London to New York and back in economy class has a carbon footprint of about 1 tonne of carbon dioxide per person. This is approximately the equivalent of driving a car 2,500 miles or going vegan for a year instead of eating a typical Western diet.

Take off and landing are far more fuel intensive than cruising. Short flights are therefore generally more carbon intensive, per mile, than longer flights, but of course, the further you go, the more greenhouse gasses are being emitted.

Is flying the most carbon intensive mode of transport?

Generally yes, but driving a car with no other passengers could have a similar footprint per kilometre as taking a long haul flight. Here’s a table to give you an idea of how the different travel types compare.

Emissions per passenger per km travelled (grams)

Source: BEIS/Defra Greenhouse Gas Conversion Factors 2019

How many people fly?

Every year around 3% of the world’s population take a flight. Some estimate that less than 20% of the world’s population have ever taken a flight.

Flying currently accounts for 2-3% of global emissions, but it’s estimated this could grow as high as 15% by 2050.

What about biofuel or electric planes?

Clean technologies like biofuel and electric planes are still a way off being commercial prospects. Whilst biofuels have a lower carbon footprint than traditional fossil fuels, they take a lot of space to grow and can lead to deforestation and decreased biodiversity. Electric planes may come along in the future, but the technology for commercial electric flight is still a long, long way away.

So one day these technologies might help reduce the impact of flying, but they’re not coming to the rescue any time soon!

Why is flying so cheap?

One of the main reasons it’s so cheap to fly is that there is no tax on aviation fuel. An international agreement was reached 75 years ago to keep aviation fuel tax-free, in order to help the fledgling aviation industry to grow. Recently progress has been made in the EU towards the introduction of a tax, but significant hurdles still remain before one can be introduced.

Whatever the arguments for and against, this tax exemption does help explain why we can often fly around the world for much less money than a train or car journey!

Photo by Iwan Shimko on Unsplash

I want to reduce my flying footprint – what are my options?

1. Fly less

Commit to only take one return flight a year. Or to take one less return flight than you did last year. These decisions, collectively, are hugely important in the fight against climate change.

It’s been suggested that a punitive tax could added to the price of all flights for people who take more than one or two flights a year – a ‘frequent flyers tax’. So whether you like it or not, it might one day get more expensive to go on all those holidays.

2. Travel less

Staycations are growing in popularity in the UK. A weak pound and more environmentally conscious consumers have driven a rise in domestic tourism over the past few years. Staycations are great way to reduce your travel footprint, reduce your holiday costs and explore hidden gems in your home country.

3. Offset

Offsetting is a divisive topic. It essentially means paying someone to absorb your carbon emissions, through some other activity (like planting trees). The problem is that it’s not quite as simple as that. Offsetting programs have been criticised in the past for being ineffective and in many cases it can take many years for the program to successfully ‘offset’ your emissions. 

Whilst it’s far from perfect, if you do need or want to fly, offsetting is a pretty cheap and simple way to reduce the harm your journey has on the planet. It usually costs around 5% of the flight cost – so if you can afford to fly, you can afford to offset!

4. Stop flying

Take a year off flying or stop completely. It will have a very real direct impact and you might just inspire your friends and family to follow suit. If you’re interested, check out Flight Free 2020 UK – a campaign of people pledging not to fly in 2020.


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