How much CO2 does a flight actually produce?

So flying is bad for the environment. But just how much CO2 is produced per person on a return flight from say London to New York?:

  • 1.69 metric tonnes of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent when CO2, methane methane (CH4) & Nitrous Oxide (N2O) are converted to carbon dioxide equivalents).
  • That’s the weight of 2 old style VW Beetles (800kg each). Therefore about 250g of CO2 per mile.

    Two VW beetles weigh as much as the CO2 produced per person flying from London to NYC and back!

    Photo: Herbiemania.com

But what’s that in volume terms? Well 1 metric tonne of carbon is 550m3 (a cube with 8.2m sides).

  • So that return flight per person creates 930m3 – that’s a cube with 9.8m sides (bigger than a 3 bed house).

    The CO2 produced would be bigger than this house!

    The CO2 produced would be bigger than this house! Photo: Yahoo

  • Or 37% of an Olympic sized swimming pool (a 50m long, 2m deep pool is 2,500m3)

    The area as represented by an Olympic sized swimming pool

    The area as represented by an Olympic sized swimming pool. Photo: Visitlondon.com

  • … and using the UK’s Albert Hall as a visual comparison then 100 people on this flight are producing  93,000m3 of CO2 in total which is one Albert Hall or 169 tonnes (that’s 13 new Routemaster buses!!)

    The Royal Albert Hall is always used in UK to make size comparisons easier to understand

    The Royal Albert Hall is always used in UK to make size comparisons easier to understand. Photo: royalalberthall.com

How is this all worked out?

  1. The distances is calculated using the shortest route.
  2. This is then multiplied by 1.09 to allow for take-off, circling & non-direct routes.
  3. This is finally multiplied by the appropriate Defra emissions factor specific to the type of flight (UK domestic, short haul or long haul), the class of seat taken (economy class, business class etc.) and the average occupancy of the plane.
  4. Some sites then have a ‘Radiative Forcing Factor’ as emissions from planes at high altitudes impact climate change more than if the emissions were released at ground level. This then multiples any total figure by 1.9 (and what I have done for my calculations).

So what can be done?

  1. Combine your trip with another one?
  2. Think it through – do you need to take this trip at all?

    I hear tales of travel bloggers taking 42 flights in a year totalling 87,000 miles. Do you need to go on that many trips as that’s 21.75 tons of CO2, which is 27 old style VW Beetles or 4.8 Olympic sized swimming pools in volume!

  3. Offset your carbon?

    So what about carbon offsetting? An article in the New York Times stated that company ‘Responsible Travel’ were cancelling their offsetting program as “while it might help travelers feel virtuous, it was not helping to reduce global emissions. In fact, company officials said it might even encourage some people to travel or consume more”. Flight emissions in the UK are rising so fast that by 2020 they will account for the country’s entire sustainable carbon allocation so people flying more is certainly not what we need!

    Maybe plant some trees? However a tree is carbon neutral so planting one will store the carbon temporarily only to emit it back into the atmosphere when it eventually dies. Most carbon offsetting schemes have already moved away from tree planting to cleaner energy projects such as supplying energy efficient cooking stoves to people in developing countries. But only if that wasn’t going to happen anyway by some other means can you prove the additionality and worthiness of any offsetting project. More info. on this in a great article by the Guardian – A complete guide to carbon offsetting.

    Better still a tonne of carbon saved today is far more valuable in terms of preventing climate change than a tonne of carbon saved in a few years’ time. So how about we all just take fewer flights and consider that saying you’ve travelled on 42 flights during the course of the year is actually a pretty “bad” thing and not something to be overly proud of.

    Have a go yourself at one of the many ‘Flight carbon footprint calculators

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One thought on “How much CO2 does a flight actually produce?

  1. Pingback: Take 12 Trips | Biggsy Travels

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