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Riding Dirty........Comparing Plane and Car Emissions

There is a trend of "fly-shaming" in Sweden and Northern Europe that seems to be catching on.  It might be spreading to all of Western Europe, The U.S., Australia and Canada soon, too. 


What is the environmental and CO2 impact of flying vs. driving? 


The quick answer is "it depends" and we will try to give a straightforward and clear answer which is actually pretty difficult to find in the crazy spiderweb on digital information we call "the internet."


Depending on multiple factors, such as flight duration, occupancy, aircraft model etc., flying emissions might actually be ALMOST the same as driving in some cases.  


And if you're driving a hybrid or electric car that's full, well, driving might be better!


When did people start becoming conscious of their airborne carbon footprint? 


It really began to catch on when Greta Thunberg decided to sail across the Atlantic, rather than fly. 



L'Aquila Active has applauded her from the beginning for taking a stand against climate change, however, we believe that while government regulations and bans are important and necessary, a full transformation of capitalism itself into a global circular economy (with governmental subsidies rather than punitive taxation) is the only way we can truly become carbon neutral in a realistic and timely fashion.  


Since, let's face 2020, multi-national companies, globally speaking, have far more influence than governments.  Especially when it comes to change at a rapid pace. 


We will give Greta credit, because as newly famous, she's one of the few celebrities that's not a complete hypocrite.  Of course, most people who also care about climate change are quite busy with their lives, and don't have the luxury of waiting 2 weeks instead of a few hours for a transatlantic voyage.


It should also be noted that these trips cost a fortune of a minimum of $10,000 - 15,000 Euros, around ten times the cost of most coach roundtrip tickets across the Atlantic.  


But still, she's making an effort, and more importantly......a point. 


This is unlike every supposedly "liberal" and "progressive" rich and famous millionaire and billionaire that loves to talk about climate change, but just can't seem to get their carbon footprint even CLOSE to everyone else's without buying carbon offsets (and btw, we are just talking about the much higher average footprint of citizens in the developed world).


In many cases, through owning multiple homes and cars plus a lifestyle of constant jet setting.....the rich and famous have a carbon footprint that is likely dozens times the average person. 


It's especially ridiculous when it's a famous actor or actress, because let's be honest - you play "pretend" for a living.  


And it's these same people, who also "pretend" they care about climate change.  


If you're Leonardo Di Caprio, for example, you're one of the best at playing "pretend!"


And I want to be clear, as an actor, I love this guy! 


But, as an activist for climate change? Not so much. In fact, it's pretty safe to say this type of "fair weather" climate change activist (pun intended) turns independents, moderates, and people in the center.....completely OFF with his hypocrisy. 


We NEED people in the center if we are ever going to pass any meaningful legislation, especially on a global level!


And just like Rose, I can't let Jack go on this one ; )


This guy used to own a superyacht, and he STILL rents them fairly regularly. 


I want to be clear on the difference of someone using a private (or even better, commercial) plane, ESPECIALLY if you are regularly attending important conferences on climate issues.  You can make a number of credible arguments in defense of flying here, for example, being able to spread awareness and reach thousands of people quickly.   


When it comes to owning/renting superyachts and still "pretending" to care about climate change, however, the only argument you can make is that you are a certified douche.   

You are using one of the most carbon inefficient pleasure mobiles known to man for no purpose other than fun.  


Most superyachts get roughly 0.1 miles per gallon, while the WORST car on the road gets 10 miles per gallon.  That's 100 times worse, and I'm sure you can figure out that's just one part of a yacht's carbon footprint.  


Is it just me....or is this a little ridiculous? 


Isn't that kind of a slap in the face to anyone who cares about the environment?  


It would kind of be like the leader of an Alcoholics Anonymous literately chugging from a bottle of Tequila during a meeting.  


And then buying Alcohol "offsets" (in the form of coffee, an IV, and cold shower?) and calling themselves sober. 


And listen, I'm not here to shit on Leo. However, it's a trend by the rich and famous to consistently FAIL to set an example.  


As stated before, I think this really hurts the movement and momentum of climate change, and especially those who may have been previously skeptical and increasingly open to the facts.  


Because, the good news is, as much as the world is still completely fucked, things are changing for the better.  We FINALLY have electric cars, not just hybrids!


10 years ago, did you honestly think electric cars would be mainstream?  I didn't...but they are today!


We are FINALLY are having serious conversations about carbon, and seeing plastic bag bans and single use plastic bans across all of Europe and in most major cities.  


Here at L'Aquila Active, we are a platform for several sustainable fashion, specifically active wear and althleisure brands. 


Sustainable fashion is becoming more and more popular around the world as conscious consumers are beginning to ditch fast fashion.


I am actually optimistic.  Just like a superhero movie, we might be able to save this planet, and ourselves....just in a nick of time. 


Around the world, people are finally being "woke" to the fact that, as much as we can try to change the actions of others, ultimately... change starts with the individual.


So once and for all, let's try to CLEARLY break down the differences in CO2 and emissions for common forms of transportation, specifically cars vs. planes.  


It ain't easy, but we are gonna try. 



285 g CO2 /passenger/km for a plane

(According to EEA - European Environmental Agency) 



NOT as bad as you think....but still plenty of problems, especially as globalization increases and the aviation sector is expected to grow significantly. We still also don't know enough about non-CO2 emissions from aviation. 


Once again, I'd like to reiterate that when comparing all transportation emissions, especially when comparing planes vs. cars, there are going to be some assumptions one must make.  



An important caveat, Radiative Forcing - could be even worse than CO2!

One really complicated, and not entirely understood factor when calculating aviation emissions is radiative forcing, which can best be described as all of the other non-CO2 emissions that act as warming pollutants.  


Basically, when planes are in their "cruising" phase and emitting comparatively less CO2, they can also trap thermal radiation through formation of new clouds.


Planes can create contrails (water vapor condensation on aerosol emissions) that form additional cirrus clouds.




Climate & Energy Journalist Jocelyn Timperley explains,


"Significantly, these calculations don’t take into account the radiative forcing – the impact on the overall energy balance of the planet – caused by non-CO2 warming pollutants, such as water vapour, aerosols and nitrogen oxides.

The impacts of non-CO2 aircraft emissions at high altitudes came to prominence back in 1999 following publication of a special report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on aviation. This estimated the total historic impact of aviation on the climate to have been two to four times higher than for CO2 emissions alone.

But while it has been well established for more than a decade that air traffic affects the climate through emissions other than just CO2, putting a number on the overall effect of these emissions has proven tricky.

In particular, the contribution of aircraft emissions to the formation of additional cirrus clouds – thin and wispy high-level clouds which can be formed by aircraft contrails – has proven extremely difficult to pin down. While it is known these clouds can trap thermal radiation – research has indicated their impact on global warming could dwarf that of CO2 from aviation – the mechanisms remaining poorly understood."


So to be clear, radiative forcing CAN be really bad, and can contribute significantly to emissions, EVEN if those emissions are not from CO2.  


The problem is that the total effect can be extremely variable and hard to measure and quantity when looking at the sector as a whole.  Examples of variables that make a big difference on radiative forcing:


1) altitude

2) time of day

3) weather - season, temperature, humidity

4) make and model of aircraft


The reality is that global climate change policy is still in its infancy, and it's hard enough having a conversation and an agreement that just accounts for carbon.  


However, although hard to measure and very variable, it may contribute for nearly DOUBLE the amount of total warming emissions than just CO2 alone.


"Evidence has shown total historic radiative forcing from aviation is 1.9 times greater than for its CO2 emissions alone!"


Kind of like steroids and PED's in the Olympics and in Major League Baseball.....


Radiative forcing, for now, remains largely an asterisk on this conversation - but it's a BIG one, and even though it is partially factored into our overall comparison, it remains important to mention.


Hopefully in the future, this metric will be more easily measurable and standardized to form a more holistic and realistic picture of total warming emissions, that includes both radiative forcing and CO2.  


The Good News On Plane Emissions:


They've gotten much better recently, thanks to several initiatives that have increased fuel efficiency, logistics, and increased flight occupancy.  


This include initiatives such as CLEANSKY which focuses on novel aircraft configurations and capabilities, advances in wings, aerodynamics and flight dynamics,propulsion efficiency, and advances in control systems.  



Similarly, SESAR is another initiative, also lead by the EU, which helps automate, digitalize, and standardize air navigation services and logistics.  This enables better communication and better planning, therefore helping to better plan flight routes and minimize inefficiencies.  


These are just two examples, but due to increasing technology, both in terms of logistics/systems as well as improved design in the planes themselves - plane emissions have fallen faster than car emissions.


An even bigger contributor to that reason is likely because each flight is closer to full occupancy than ever before.


Notice that planes always seem to be more crowded lately, with rarely more than a few empty seats on most flights? This isn't just anecdotal evidence.



Michael Goldstein from Forbes, explains: "In the US load factor has increased on domestic flights from  67.88% in 2002 to 86.08% in 2018, while the number of domestic flights has stayed almost constant, from 8,085,083 in 2002 to 8,176,610 in 2017."


The trends of flights closer to full occupancy, with more environmentally friendly designed aircraft, and better logistics and systems in place that minimize inefficiencies are all reasons why planes, although still with a heavy carbon footprint, continue to get better each year.  


They better, because due to globalization and increased travel around the world, global flight volume is predicted to triple within the next 30 years!




55 g of CO2 / passenger/km for an average car

(According to EEA - European Environmental Agency) 


Verdict: Probably worse than you thought, especially if you often drive alone.  


So cars are 55g of CO2 per person, and planes are 285g of CO2 per person, how is that close?


Vehicle occupancy matters - Be cool and Join the Carpool!


Well, the big reason is due to the assumption of 4 PEOPLE IN EACH CAR in the above 55G CO2 per person/km!


This is a huge assumption because the average vehicle in the United States is only about 1.5 people on average!


In fact, from 2009 to 2017, the average occupancy per vehicle was virtually unchanged at 1.67 passengers per vehicle.  


So if only one person in car (as in many if not most cases), the average emissions are 220G per person per km.  


This is already pretty close to the 285G per person/km as air travel!  


Similar to radiative forcing, car travel also has a lot of other factors that most be considered.  


Although we are trying an apples to apples comparison, you will see that even when trying to be practical and straightforward, you still need to consider at least a few variables. 


Examples of Variables that will increase CO2 emissions per car


1) Traffic Jam = MORE CO2 Emissions 

 In a traffic jam? Expect 2.5 times per emissions than normal conditions.  Although this has improved recently with newer vehicles containing eco-friendly city driving options and engines that shut on/off more, traffic jams still reduce car emissions significantly. 


2) Hot day with air conditioning blasting?

Expect another increase of 7-20% CO2 emissions.  Pretty self explanatory, air conditioning is energy intensive and reduces fuel efficiency.


3) Supply Line, Infrastructure and Maintenance

Once again, it depends on how you want to classify total CO2 emissions, but one must also consider the carbon footprint of the entire infrastructure and supply chains. 


For example, think of the carbon footprint it takes to maintain thousands of miles of highways and roads - technically speaking, this would include everything from raw materials and supplies to the carbon footprint of vehicles and other emission relating resources involved in construction, maintenance, and even policing of these roads.  


M V Chester and A Horvath from UC Berkley put together a  comprehensive assessment and research letter called "Environmental assessment of passenger transportation should include infrastructure and supply chains" that attempts to tackle this complicated issue.  


Their conclusion? 


"Total life-cycle energy inputs and greenhouse gas emissions contribute an additional 63% for onroad, 155% for rail, and 31% for air systems over vehicle tailpipe operation."


In other words, when comparing car vs. plane infrastructure and supply chains, automobiles have twice the additional carbon footprint!


This would make sense as although airports are massive, they have relatively fewer personnel and vehicles to maintain, as well as a network of highways and roads to maintain.  In the U.S. alone, there are over four million miles of roads!




Although there are a lot of additional variables that stick out, there seem to be a few big ones that differentiate emissions from aviation vs. automobiles: 1) vehicle occupancy 2) radiative forcing 3) infrastructure and supply chain inclusion 4) optimal vehicle usage - and improved technology and logistics


When it comes to the above four additional variables, planes appear superior in every category except radiative forcing (which doesn't exist for automobiles).  


Planes tend to be approaching 85%+ of occupancy for most flights, global initiatives and investments have resulted in real improvements in airplane design, propulsion and logistics, and have an overall much lower supply chain/infrastructure carbon footprint than automobiles overall.


Does this make air travel better than car travel? 

Not necessarily, if anything, because of heavy regulation and cooperation between many big business/government, the aviation industry has done a better job making airplanes as CO2 efficient as they can be.


In most cases (especially when multiple people in one car), cars are still a superior option. 

Unfortunately, we are simply implying here that there tend to be additional variables, namely occupancy, that can completely alter the emissions analysis.  


No one said environmental science was easy!


We can play the "it depends" game forever, but practically speaking, here are some scenarios where planes are better and vice versa. 



Car is usually better than planes when.......

Full occupancy - 4 people or more, car is fuel efficient, hybrid/electric, minimum use of air conditioning with minimal traffic. Short to medium distances are also usually comparatively favorable to cars over airplanes since a large amount of CO2 emissions occur during the take off/landing phases.


Cars are usually worse than planes when.....

Driving long distances alone in a less fuel efficient car, especially during congested times with use of air conditioning. Very long distances are LESS favorable to cars overall comparison because so much of the CO2 emissions occur during the take off/landing phases.


The bottom line on transportation? Both options aren't great. There are much more eco-friendly alternatives, and single occupancy cars and planes shouldn't be your go-to option. 


Some better (and highly obvious) advice?


First off, if you care about the environment, probably best to skip the yachts or superyachts ; )


For the "non-elite" that still want to minimize their carbon footprint:


For very short distances, walk.

For short distances, cycle.

For medium distances, use subway or bus.

For long distances, use bus or railroad. 


Use planes only for long distances where railroads aren't an option at all, or is highly unpractical. 


If you do need to use a car, use an electric/hybrid and make sure you fill it up with family, friends, and memories!




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