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Could you quit flying? We take a look at the environmental impact of air travel

It's one of those things we tend not to think about, mostly because there are so many other stresses involved with travel. We're so busy thinking about passports, boarding passes, baggage allowances and currency conversion rates that we rarely pause to consider the impact that air travel has on our planet.

We all know that our planes need a huge amount of energy to transport us through the sky, but exactly HOW much? Where does this energy come from? How much pollution does this create?

Peter Kalmus is "a climate scientist who doesn't fly" ever since he sat down and calculated the environmental impact of a year's worth of flying: the 50,000 miles he'd flow, including two international and half a dozen domestic flights.

According to his figures, "Hour for hour, there's no better way to warm the planet than to fly in a plane. If you fly coach from Los Angeles to Paris and back, you've just emitted 3 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, 10 times what an average Kenyan emits in an entire year."

What's more, Kalmus found that the total climate impact of planes was "likely two to three times greater than the impact from the CO2 emissions alone" due to the mono-nitrogen oxide emissions from planes, which "seed cirrus clouds with aerosols from fuel combustion."

The challenge then became, what could be done? For Kalmus, flying was a seemingly necessary part of his life, due to the expectation of researchers to attend conferences and meetings.

I suspect that most people simply don’t know the huge impact of their flying—but I also suspect that many of us are addicted to it. We’ve come to see flying as an inalienable right, a benefit of 21st-century living that we take for granted.
- - Peter Kalmus

Rather than simply putting the massive environmental impact to the back of his mind and continue flying, Kalmus decided that he was going to quit air travel.

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It took him three years to wean himself off planes, mostly due to the social pressures from family and colleagues. For family holidays he switched to his car, which runs on waste vegetable oil ("but even normal cars are better than flying", he says). Not only was this more environmentally friendly, but it brought his family closer together and helped put him in touch with nature.

In his professional life, Kalmus attended only regional conferences and, where possible, switched to teleconferencing (Skype and simular services have made this so much easier).

While this isn't a realistic lifestyle for everyone, a fair number of us can consider how we can cut down on our air travel in order to reduce our carbon footprint. It could be as easy as switching your Sydney to Melbourne flight for a 1-day drive, taking in the sea breeze on the Great Ocean Road and enjoying the scenic countryside. For others, it could be swapping that meeting in Tokyo for a Skype session.

Kalmus predicts, "In the post-carbon future, it's unlikely that there will be commercial plane travel on today's scale." If this is true, then we'd all better get used to travelling less by plane.

Banner image: Shutterstock

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