Canadians need to rethink air travel in a warming world

We all need to recognize that our lives are deeply dependent on the health of Earth’s ecosystems, and that our current lifestyle is putting these systems at risk

Air travel is the one of the fastest-growing sources of climate emissions in Canada, but this is rarely talked about. 

Canadians take about seven million commercial airline trips every month. According to the Conference Board of Canada, more than 10 million Canadians will travel overseas in 2018. 

Travel allows us to connect with far-off loved ones, learn about new cultures, meet new people and recover from our stressful lives.

But flying also constitutes the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions for many Canadians.

Just one Toronto-London return flight emits about two tons of carbon – twice the annual carbon footprint of the average person on Earth.

Emissions from commercial aviation in Canada increased by almost 50 per cent between 2009 and 2016, and global emissions from air travel are expected to quadruple over the next 30 years.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says we will need to cut global carbon emissions in half within 12 years if we are to avert catastrophic floods, fires, heat waves and species loss.

That goal is impossible unless we stabilize emissions from air travel, but with scant public discussion on the subject, there is minimal pressure on airlines to reduce pollution. 

The aviation industry, desperate to avoid increased taxes, has worked for years on CORSIA, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, which would make it mandatory for airlines to buy carbon offsets for emissions. Its goal is to reduce net aviation emissions by 50 per cent by 2050. 

But the agreement has been widely criticized for its slow implementation (the plan won’t be mandatory until 2027 ), a reliance on offsets rather than actual emission reductions and the assumption that questionable technological fixes, namely the advent of electric planes and biofuels, will help cut pollution from jet travel.

What does all this mean for those of us planning our next vacation?

We all need to recognize that our lives are deeply dependent on the health of Earth’s ecosystems, and that our current lifestyle is putting these systems at risk.

The vast majority of international flights are neither for business nor family visits – they are for pleasure. It’s time to rethink our vacation travel and consider flight-free options instead. 

Individual change is necessary but not sufficient. We need to urge our governments to come up with ways to reduce aviation growth, and to expand infrastructure for lower-emission means of travel, such as buses and trains.

Reducing air travel may seem like a sacrifice. It does constitute a reduction in freedom and convenience. But day-to-day choices really do matter. Modelling a way of life that can be shared by all is the only way we can protect the health of our planet for generations to come.

Michael Polanyi is a community worker, writer and activist.


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