Commercial airplanes and business jets account for 3% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. that scientists say are causing climate change, according to the Energy and Environmental Study Institute.
Yet airplane emissions have grown faster than those from other forms of travel in recent decades, and the industry expects demand for air travel to increase by an average of 4.3% per year over the next 20 years. All told, air travel emissions could more than double by 2050.
Why there’s debate
As concern about climate change increases, air travel has been identified by some activists as a luxury one should avoid.
Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg made headlines in 2019 when she sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to avoid generating greenhouse gas emissions caused by air travel.
Sweden is ground zero for promoting flight shame, or “flygskam,” as it is known there. In 2018, a Swedish activist founded the group We Stay on the Ground, which seeks pledges from individuals to go a year without flying to lessen emissions.
A newer American group called Flight Free USA is trying to do the same thing here. Other organizations, such as Stay Grounded, promote alternatives to flying and argue that buying carbon offsets to compensate for air travel emissions is not a solution.
Air travel is essential to modern life, others argue, so the solution is reducing the emissions from flights rather than eliminating flying. “We’re already moving on sustainable aviation fuel,” special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry told Yahoo News in March. “But we have to be thoughtful about [the fact that] we’re not going to suddenly wipe out every aircraft in the world and not fly.”
Even some environmental scientists say that nowhere near enough individuals will make sufficient sacrifices to stop climate change — only systemic change and collective action can do the job.
In 2020, Austria bailed out Austrian Airlines on the condition that it dropped its flight route from Vienna to Salzburg and offered an environmentally friendly alternative. In May, France banned all short-haul domestic flights in which trains are a viable alternative. Analysts say a similar policy would reduce U.S. emissions by eliminating heavily trafficked routes such as Los Angeles to Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla., to Atlanta, but they note that the American passenger rail system lags far behind its European counterparts. In 2021, the average American drove nine times as many miles as they flew. Cars and trucks are still responsible for the majority of U.S. transportation emissions, but the marketplace for automobiles is quickly shifting to electric vehicles.
Giving up flying is the easiest way to cut your emissions
“There is nothing you can do in your life to raise your emissions as fast and as high as taking a flight. I could drive a car for an entire year and that would be the same as the flight from London to New York, per passenger.” — Anna Hughes, the head of Flight Free UK, to the Christian Science Monitor
We need cleaner transportation, not an end to most travel
“Though air travel accounts for only a paltry 2% of global emissions, whether or not climate scientists should fly consumes far more than 2% of my Twitter timeline. Unfortunately, sometimes doing science means traveling great distances, and we don’t always have the time or luxury to take slower low-carbon options … a single scientist, or even hundreds of scientists, choosing to never fly again is not going to change the system.” — Michael Mann, climate scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, Time.
People are going to fly if it’s for something important
“If my mom is sick and lives in Arizona, of course, I will need to fly regularly to help her — however guilty I might feel about [my impact on] the environment.” — Nick Pidgeon, professor of environmental psychology and risk at Cardiff University in Wales, to Afar.
'The plane is going anyway'
“If I personally choose not to fly, it does not reduce the CO2 emitted or stop the plane flying. Not only will another backside take my seat on the plane, the 80,000kg behemoth will take to the air anyway and the fossil fuels required to power it will not be altered.” — David Thorne of London-based climate change advocacy organization Transition Town Tooting, Lowimpact.org
If you don’t fly, it will encourage others to stop
“A lot of people think that what you do as an individual doesn’t matter much. But the thing is, what we do as individuals affects everyone around us, and changes norms." — Maja Rosén, president of We Stay on the Ground, to the New York Times.
You can offset your flight’s carbon emissions
“I buy the gold standard, of funding Climeworks, to do direct air capture that far exceeds my family’s carbon footprint.” — Bill Gates, to BBC News
If you do fly, you’re supporting the industry and its ongoing expansion
“This is a climate emergency. When you get on a plane, not only are you responsible for emissions, but you’re also casting a vote to continue expanding that system.” — Peter Kalmus, climate scientist with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory who founded No Fly Climate Sci, to the New York Times.
Flying is essential for many countries
“There are global benefits to aviation. ... If people stop flying, it won’t affect Britons much, but it will have a horrific economic impact in Barbados.” — Pericles Pilidis, professor at the Centre for Propulsion and Thermal Power Engineering at Cranfield University, to the Guardian.