The world is warming and ecosystems are dying. To avoid disastrous climatic change, massive reductions in CO2 emissions are required in all sectors, reaching net-zero globally no later than 2050. This requires an unprecedented and rapid change in our ways of life.
In this, the world of research is challenged for two reasons. First, researchers are the source of the increasing number of warnings about the state of our climate and biodiversity, and their credibility would be damaged by not setting an example. Second, because researchers have the training and tools to critically appraise their colleagues’ conclusions, they’re well placed to understand the seriousness and urgency of the situation, and act accordingly, by reducing their own CO2 emissions.
Air traffic currently accounts for about 3% of global emissions, which is three times more than the total emissions of a country like France. Traffic is growing by 4% per year and is projected to double by 2030. This is in complete contradiction with the objectives of the Paris agreement, which will require halving current greenhouse gas emissions by around 2030. With the growth projected, by 2050 the aviation sector alone could consume a quarter of the carbon budget for the 1.5°C target, i.e., the cumulative emissions from all sources that cannot be exceeded to limit global warming to this target.
Technical progress toward more efficient planes and better organised airports will have only marginal impact at best. Real change can only be achieved by a massive transition toward biofuels or a dramatic reduction in demand. The first solution would be to the detriment of food security and biodiversity, and providing better nutrition to a growing population while remaining within planetary boundaries already presents a huge challenge. We are left with the second option: flying significantly less.
For better and for worse, researchers have been flying for a long time. The benefits include scientific and human exchanges, and the creation of larger networks with broader scope, giving more robust results. The cost is the international “meeting mania”, which consumes time, energy and money, and whose carbon footprint is enormous.
“A researcher isolated is a researcher lost,” as the saying goes. Today, unless scientists are advanced in their careers, those who give up flying are marginalised. They transgress the rules of an environment that values frequent exchanges and hyperactivity. In doing so, they miss opportunities to make contacts for new collaborative projects, and run the risk of not being “in the loop”.
This observation is not specific to research: it concerns all competitive environments, which in our globalised world is a very large number of professions. To emit less CO2 is to reduce one’s activities; to reduce one’s activities, when one is alone in doing so, is to exclude oneself from the competition. If the first to act loses, it’s no surprise that governmental climate commitments are far from sufficient, and even unmet.
By reducing its emissions voluntarily, the scientific community would be exemplary for two reasons. First, it would show that the science – the severe warnings of climatologists and ecologists – must be taken seriously. Second, it would prove that a professional sector can overcome the fatal “first to act loses” attitude and collectively change its behaviour.
The first project to change the situation could be addressing scientific conferences. Historically, they allowed important results to be shared quickly, at a time when communication with journals took place by post. Publishing an article was necessarily a slow process, and once published, its circulation was limited by journals existing only on paper. Today it is possible to publish in record time, and articles are instantly available online.
Conferences have essentially become areas for collective brainstorming, where a mixture of the official programme and informal encounters produces fruitful exchanges. However, they can also be a source of significant carbon emissions.
There are three ways to limit the carbon footprint of conferences.
Go to fewer of them. Major world scientific meetings emit tens of thousands of tons of CO2. However, under the pretext of human contact but also of communication (even of “buzz”), they multiply without real justification. It is not rare to have three, four or even more conferences of global significance each year on the same theme, each with separate organisers.
Organise events that preserve social interaction while limiting travel, and therefore CO2emissions. This is the concept of multiple-site conferences, where regional hub sites are linked together with videoconferencing. In this case the choice of central locations (relative to the expected audience), instead of pleasant but often remote places, would reduce the total distance travelled. Shorter distances also make trains increasingly practical, and in countries where trains operate on low-carbon electricity, they produce much less CO₂ per passenger and kilometre than planes.
Virtualise encounters: “no-fly conferences” to which everyone can connect from home. Pilot experiments have been encouraging, and technological developments should allow increasingly sophisticated formats including both official programs (easy to virtualise, including for questions and answers) and informal scheduled or improvised discussion sessions. The latter are less easy to organise, but they will need to be preserved because they contribute to the interest of these events.
While it might be hoped that teleconferences will gradually replace face-to-face meetings, the two are in fact growing in parallel. This is similar to what is happening with energy: production from renewable sources is rising rapidly, yet fossil-fuel consumption continues to grow.
The importance of making and maintaining good relationships through direct human contact, and also of efficiency – we work better when we know each other – are good reasons to travel. But not to the point of ignoring the reality of our environmental situation.
The carbon budget beyond which we risk falling into an uncontrollable climate situation is now estimated at about 800 billion tons of CO₂, a little more than 100 tons for each of the 7.5 billion inhabitants of the planet. Spread over 30 years, this gives an average of 3 tons per year per person. Two transatlantic round-trips in economy class are enough to consume this budget, which we drastically exceed already since the average European emits 9 tons of CO₂ per year.
The question is no longer just whether to travel less. It is to quantify the carbon footprint of travel, to set reduction targets (which should be transparent regardless of how ambitious they are), and to verify that these are met.
The net-zero world soon awaiting us requires carbon abstinence. Air travel is just one aspect; information and communication technology (ICT) is another. This should be organised and adopted without delay, at the risk of being forced upon us later on by worsening conditions. Meeting physically with colleagues who live thousands of miles away is not an inalienable right. Ignoring the science of greenhouse gases and the resulting threat posed to humanity would be irresponsible.
To continue to emit CO2 that future generations will then have to capture from the atmosphere to guarantee their own survival would be inexcusable. Many research institutions already have policies in place to encourage their members to adopt good practices for occupational risk prevention, data protection and ethical decision-making. Now is the time for institutions to also embrace policy for flight reduction or carbon abstinence. Our collective future depends on it.
In addition to flying less, you can also fight climate change by donating to Cool Earth, a Kinder-vetted non-profit that is working to protect rainforests 👇
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Join us for the second of our Kinder Conversations - the Sky has a Limit.
Following our investigation into the Future of Meat in February, we've turned our attention to the sky. We'll be talking about whether air travel can be more sustainable, and how.
We're delighted to be hosting this event in collaboration with our friends at TQ, the Amsterdam tech hub where we're based.
📅 When Monday 17 June 18:30 - 20:30
📭 Where TQ, Singel 542, Amsterdam
🎯 Why should I fly Kinder? To hear about the latest research and technology making air travel more sustainable. To find out what you can do to reduce the impact your flights are having. To share a drink with like-minded travelers, and sample some of our vegan snacks (including beloved Professor Grunschnabel ice cream, as seen at the Future of Meat event)
Here at Kinder, we believe that greener travel is one of the key ways in which we can tackle the climate crisis. Travelling green can mean a lot of things, but right now we’re concerned about the aviation industry.
If aviation were a country, it’d be a top 10 polluter - and C02 emissions from air travel are growing many times faster than any other form. We’re already in a very dangerous position, and although there are many potential solutions, we sometimes feel overwhelmed and uncertain about what to do about it.
That’s where Kinder Conversations comes in.
Kinder Conversations is a series of events which delve into the biggest issues facing the world.
At the Sky has a Limit, we’ll be bringing together representatives from research and technology, the aviation industry and the not-for-profit sector to talk about sustainable air travel. We’ll hear more about the problem, and a lot more about the solutions.
Plus, there’ll be time to get a drink from TQ’s bar (buying a drink helps our friends from TQ support more events like this), try some vegan ice cream, and chat to fellow travellers about the steps you can take to travel greener.
✈️ Are you ready to #flykinder? Then secure your boarding pass here.
I don't have a driving license and when pressed about getting one by friends tired of chauffeuring me around I usually say I will only get one if I can drive something cool, like the Batmobile or a flying car. Unfortunately, I might have to honour that promise as it seems that flying cars are finally taking off (alas, no commercial Batmobiles in sight).
Indeed, several promising startups around the world are working to deliver the "car of the future" over the next few years. Like the Dutch company PAL-V that showed off a limited edition of its flying car at the Geneva Auto Show in Switzerland.
The PAL-V is a hybrid between a car and a helicopter (or more precisely, a gyrocopter), able to reach a top speed of 160 km/h on the tarmac but also get airborne in just 5 minutes, hitting airspeeds of 180 km/h over a range of up to 500 km. But since buying a PAL-V will set you back around € 350,000 I might have to pass on this one. Moreover, flying this beauty requires not just a driving license but also (understandably) a license to fly, and that's just too much for me.
Thankfully, other companies are developing vehicles that need no driver at all. Aerospace manufacturer Bell Helicopter, for example, is working on Nexus, an air taxi capable of taking off and landing in the middle of a city (whereas the PAL-V still needs a runway, albeit short, to get airborne).
Called VTOLs (short for Vertical Take Off and Landing), these aircraft aim to become sort of an Uber of urban air travel, bringing customers to the opposite part of the city or even to a nearby city in a matter of few minutes.
If you're at JFK airport in New York, for example, and have a meeting in Manhattan, instead of embarking on a 1-hour, Cosmopolis-style taxi ride, you could just hail a flying car and be downtown in 5 minutes.
Futuristic as it may sound, concrete plans to make it come true are underway. Earlier this month, German startup Lilium successfully completed the first test of its new five-seater Lilium Jet, an electric vehicle that, according to the company, will have a range of 300 km and a top speed of 300 km/h.
The reason electric flight is such an exciting area of research is not just because flying taxis will allow a handful of high rollers to drastically cut on their commuting time. Electric flying cars might be really good for the environment too.
A recent study published by Nature highlighted that, in some cases, flying cars could eventually be greener than even electric road cars, cutting emissions while reducing traffic on increasingly busy roads.
Moreover, developments in the field of flying cars could also boost the research on electric flight at large, including long haul electric flights, sort of the Holy Grail of aviation. And, as known, the civil aviation industry needs to find effective ways to lower its carbon emissions as soon as possible.
However, as explained by Hugh Hunt in an article on The Conversation that we republished here on Kinder World, "gaps in necessary technology and practical uncertainties beyond the cars’ promising physics mean that they may not arrive in time to be a large-scale solution to the energy crisis and congestion."
Let's get this one thing straight: most people prefer flying to other modes of transport, and we seem to do it more and more often. The airline industry is booming and 4.1 billion passengers have been transported last year. Almost every figure one looks at shows the impressive increase in flights over the last two decades.
Alexandre de Juniac, head of the International Association for Flight Transport proclaims: “In 2000, the average citizen flew just once every 43 months. In 2017, the figure was once every 22 months. Flying has never been more accessible. And this is liberating people to explore more of our planet for work, leisure, and education. Aviation is the business of freedom."
However, this ‘business of freedom’ runs on fossil energy carriers as planes still almost exclusively fly on kerosene. Kerosene is a fuel produced by oil refining and carbon dioxide (CO2) is the major product of burning kerosene. The 2-5% of all global CO2 emissions the aviation industry emits is caused by its fuel consumption (and choice). And unlike other fuels like diesel or gasoline, airlines don't pay taxes on kerosene in most countries — making cheap air travel possible.
In 2018 Europe’s biggest airline Ryanair became number 9 in the list of Europe’s biggest CO2 emitters and still claims to be the ‘greenest and cleanest airline’. Andrew Murphy – the aviation manager at the European Federation for Transport and Environment — argues that Ryanair the new coal when it comes to climate pollution. Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, on the other hand, dismisses such claims by saying the claims are ‘’complete and utter rubbish’’.
Other airlines, like KLM who partly uses renewable jet-fuel, are acknowledging the problem but they aren't too far behind Ryanair on the list of emitters.
The growth of the industry is not expected to slow down. India and China are the biggest growth markets, the latter alone is building 200 new commercial airports in the next ten years. Moreover, industry forecasts suggest that emissions will rise by 700% until 2050 which amounts to more than 4% of the world’s remaining carbon budget.
If we want to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement, every the average earthling has a quota of two tons of CO2 per annum but just a return trip between New York and Amsterdam generates three tons already.
Compared to other modes of transport planes are the biggest CO2 emitters per travelled kilometre followed by cars, buses and finally trains which are the least polluting. The CO2 emissions, however, are only one half of the medal. The impact of flying on global warming is different than most other transport as it happens in the air high above the ground where the processes that cause or reduce global warming happen. These include CO2 and nitrogen oxide emission but also cloud formation, ozone and soot as well as methane reduction.
The climate impact of the emitted greenhouse gases in the stratosphere are three times higher than on the ground. Flying also causes condensation trails and fog clouds in certain weather conditions. Such clouds can have a warming or a cooling effect on the climate. One way to improve the climate effect of flying would be planning better routes where warming clouds are avoided and the formation of cooling clouds is favoured — our current routes have an overall warming effect.
So, hypothetically, some flights with clever flight-route planning might even reduce global warming. However, as we don't have time to hypothesise, we need to find and urgently implement other ways to bring down the impact of flying, like using better fuels or even better planes.
This article was written by Eric Schuler for Kinder World. Schuler is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam and works on new industrial sustainable chemistries to turn captured CO2 into useful things such as plastics or fuel. He's also a photojournalist with an interest in climate and land-use change.