As more travellers return to the skies, aviation's environmental impact fuels concern

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·7 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
The emissions-related issues that environmentalists and governments are discussing at COP26 include industry-level changes, such as how the airline sector operates. (Jean Delisle/CBC - image credit)
The emissions-related issues that environmentalists and governments are discussing at COP26 include industry-level changes, such as how the airline sector operates. (Jean Delisle/CBC - image credit)

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled Our Changing Planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.

Pleasure travel and business trips are picking up, according to the International Air Transport Association, and the return to busier skies is fuelling concern among environmentalists about the increase in fossil fuel emissions from a revitalized aviation sector.

Airline ticket sales are rising toward near-normal levels for the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a slowdown that some economists say cost airlines around $370 billion US in revenue after air travel dropped almost 60 per cent in the past 18 months. But while welcoming customers back, the industry is simultaneously grappling with how to reduce its environmental impact.

The issue is top-of-mind for both environmentalists and industry decision makers this week at the United Nations COP26 climate change summit in Scotland.

The Conference of Parties (COP), as it's known, meets every year and is the global decision-making body set up in the early 1990s to implement the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and subsequent climate agreements. The world's leaders and climate change advocates are creating policies at COP26 around a host of environmental priorities, including greenhouse gas emissions from air travel.

While the conference is addressing the need for systemic industry change, on a more individual level environmentalists are divided on the issue of flying itself at a moment in history where they say a climate change emergency exists.

Many struggled with the decision of whether to fly to COP26, although 25,000 people are still expected to travel to the conference that runs until Nov. 12.

Erica Frank is on the board of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a group focused on combating climate change that has also addressed the necessity for in-person academic conferences. She thinks there's little excuse for flying at all.

"Based on the data, and only based on the data, I went from a life of taking an airplane trip every month or so for work and often also for pleasure, to one where I do so usually once a year or so," she said. "It was because the pleasure and the professional gain that I might have gotten from doing that, it just wasn't fair."

Jean Delisle/CBC
Jean Delisle/CBC

Frank still attends conferences every month, but almost exclusively does so virtually — something she says we've all learned is possible during COVID.

"I gave my first keynote in New Zealand from my bedroom [in Canada] eight years ago. It is something that I don't think we have excuses for anymore if we're serious about this being a climate emergency, if we're serious about making real change on a personal level," Frank said.

"There's nothing that's a more efficient target for a high-flying individual than flying less."

She argues that even though emissions from flying constitute only 3 to 4 per cent of global emissions, it's also a relatively small percentage of the global population that flies regularly, so it is a lifestyle change that could make a significant impact on the environment if enough people reduce the amount they fly.

WATCH | Erica Frank explains why she feels so strongly about reducing her own air travel and encouraging others to do the same:

Tzeporah Berman is a well-known climate change advocate and current chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. She flew to COP26 as an invited delegate, but admits that when boarding a flight she always does so with some degree of hesitancy.

"It was a big struggle for me because, right now, there's no question that aviation is pretty much anyone's biggest personal carbon footprint. If you take one flight, if you try to offset it you would have to become vegetarian for four years. And so I thought long and hard about it," she said.

In the end, Berman says she decided to fly to Glasgow because of the vital importance of the conference when put up against the environmental damage flying causes.

"This conference of the parties is a critical moment in human history. We need to hold our governments to account," she said. "I think it's really important that we have representatives of civil society there, that we watchdog the process, that we encourage them to be as ambitious as possible. And then we tell the world what's happening inside those rooms."

Having gone to several COP meetings in the past, Berman emphasizes that the access to the world's decision makers at the conference and the behind-the-scenes negotiations make being there in person critical. And while she places a huge value on personal lifestyle changes she thinks people should all be making, she adds that addressing the climate emergency we're facing now is larger than individual efforts.

"Every tonne of carbon saves lives, so we all should be doing everything we can in our lifestyle, that's true. But right now, the problem is so big and so urgent that we need better laws," she said.

WATCH | Tzeporah Berman discusses why COP26 would not be successful if everyone simply attended virtually:

Part of the solution environmentalists and governments are pushing for at COP26 is industry-level change, including how the airline industry operates.

There are no quick fixes to the emissions from aircraft themselves. Airplane manufacturers in Canada and internationally are looking at ways to produce hydrogen-fuelled fleets, for example, but that technology is still 10 to 15 years away.

Still, there are things the industry can do now to reduce emissions from overall operations, which is the goal of a new initiative at Vancouver International Airport (YVR). The airport released its emissions-reduction plan last month ahead of COP26, creating a potential blueprint others can follow.

"We've really taken a look, being a fossil fuel driven industry, at our business end to end," said YVR's CEO, Tamara Vrooman.

"At where we can make significant changes to the way we operate, to the kind of energy we use, to the way we organize our business to be able to make a commitment to be net zero by 2030. Which is 20 years ahead of what we previously were planning, and is certainly the boldest commitment of any airport in North America."

Rob Kruyt
Rob Kruyt

The airport, which is British Columbia's largest building, is an enormous operation that employs 26,000 people. What's achieved here could be a test case for how other airports and potentially municipalities reduce emissions.

"We also are a network, and so we share our learnings. We're doing some work with London Heathrow at the moment in terms of their commitments and learning from that, and vice versa," Vrooman said.

The specific changes YVR is pledging include minimizing waste in the terminals, reducing fresh water use, energy conservation, investing in renewable energies, replacing fossil fuels where possible through things like electrification, and buying carbon offsets.

Government of Canada
Government of Canada

Vrooman acknowledges that emissions from aircraft themselves are years away from being significantly reduced, but she says people can start thinking now about where they can reduce the carbon impact of the entirety of their trips.

"When we talk about a passenger journey, we talk about what happens from the time you leave your house to the time you get to your destination," she said. "So, it's everything from inventing alternative and electric ways to get to the airport, to the way that you move around the airport, the way that we move the aircraft, so that we're reducing now where we can and getting ready for the technological and fuel changes that will come in the future."

Berman agrees that while individual efforts are important, people will continue to fly. And because of that, industry needs to take its share of responsibility and lead the way in systemic change to help reduce emissions.

"For decades, the fossil fuel industry has wanted us to feel guilty. It's because we drive cars and it's our personal problem. But right now, we need to think of ourselves not just as consumers, but as citizens," she said.

"And it's equally if not more important that you march in the streets, that you call your MP or write your MLA, because we have to hold our decision makers to account to change the systems, not just change the way we individuals consume."

Watch full episodes of The National on CBC Gem, the CBC's streaming service.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting