The Elephant in the Room
Photo source:  Marcus Ward,  Creative Commons

Photo source: Marcus Ward, Creative Commons

When it comes to climate impacts from transportation, there’s an elephant in the room--a Boeing 747-sized elephant. 

Taking a flight is one of the most harmful actions an individual can take to accelerate climate change. Just one flight has the climate impact of weeks-worth, or even months-worth (depending on how carbon-intensive your lifestyle is) of emissions. And air travel continues to grow each year, at an exponential rate. 2018 saw a record 4.3 billion air passengers. The industry group International Air Transport Association (IATA) forecasts that by 2037, that number will skyrocket to above 8 billion.

Photo credit: Sorrel Galantowicz

Photo credit: Sorrel Galantowicz

Flight is the area of transportation in which sustainable solutions are the least obvious. “Impossible” or “beyond” burgers give meat lovers all the flavor without the climate impact of factory farming. Electric vehicles allow people to continue driving while significantly cutting carbon. These technology solutions allow for climate progress to be made by simply swapping one product for a near-identical one. When it comes to flying, no such techno-fix is waiting in the wings.


It’s true that planes have become much more efficient over the past few decades, but those gains have slowed to a near halt in recent years. According to the International Energy Agency, “aviation is likely to be the most difficult transport sector to decarbonise… potential efficiency gains can be obtained by completely redesigning aircraft. Considering the long lead times and investment required, such measures are unlikely to be commercialised by 2030.”

Given that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we have until 2030 to halve emissions, we’ll need to rely on stronger policy, and behavioral shifts, to address growing emissions from air travel.


So far, policy efforts to mitigate the impact of the airline industry lag behind other sectors. For example, the Paris climate agreement left international air travel out entirely. Several U.S. states have recently reduced taxes on jet fuel. Closer to home, the City of Burlington’s ambitious climate goals exclude emissions from flights to and from Burlington International Airport.


For those of us serious about addressing climate change, it’s time to get serious about air travel.


What can we do to reduce the harmful effects of air travel? There are solutions available. It’s essential that we provide an alternative to flying by creating a high-speed electric rail network, which will allow millions of Americans to replace flights between cities with quick, comfortable, and far more sustainable train trips. Diverting resources away from status-quo infrastructure investments (i.e. highways and fossil fuel subsidies) takes political will, meaning those of us who want to see change will have to push for it.


Behavior shifts are also needed. Those who fly must consider what flights, if any, are necessary. If you’re travelling for pleasure, is there another, closer place to spend time off? If it’s to see family, or for business, can you get there without a plane? My family is in Chicago, and I’ve lived in Vermont for seven years. In 2015 I gave up flying, and in the past four years I’ve explored many other ways of getting to and from Chicago that I hadn’t known existed. I’ll be the first to admit, the alternatives to flying from Burlington to O’Hare are far slower and less convenient. But that inconvenience doesn’t compare to the disruptions we will all face in the coming decades if we do not go all in on mitigating climate change.


Like Icarus of Greek mythology, we aren’t taking the dangers of flying into account. We need to stop flying too close to the sun. The more we ditch unsustainable habits, the more we will discover and explore alternatives. As we understand alternatives, we’ll become better advocates for those alternatives. It’s not a question of whether we should try to combat climate change through behavior change or through activism and political advocacy. The two can, and must, go hand in hand.

Jack Hanson graduated from the University of Vermont in 2016 with a degree in Environmental Studies. While finishing his degree, he worked full time on Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. Since then he has worked in communications, political advocacy and campaign roles. He currently serves on the Burlington City Council, representing Burlington’s East District.