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The footprint of flying

Is flying really worse for the planet than eating meat?

FlightFree UK
18 Jun 2 min read

An article recently shared on our Facebook page“Minute by minute, mile by mile, nothing we do causes greater or more easily avoidable harm to the environment than flying,” – has sparked a fair amount of debate. Many of the responses said, animal agriculture is far worse, so better to go vegan than stop flying.

So how damaging is flying, and is it really worse than eating meat?

Animal agriculture is responsible for approximately 15% of our global emissions. So on the face of it, our diets dwarf the impact of flying – the aviation industry is commonly quoted to contribute between 2% and 5% of global emissions. So even at its higher estimation, aviation is responsible for fewer emissions than the meat and dairy industry.

The thing we need to be clear about is whether we are talking about the industry or individual behaviour. While everybody eats, not everybody flies – only around 5% of the world’s population has ever been on an aeroplane – which is one of the reasons why the overall percentage is comparatively low. Though, taken in that context, for an industry to be responsible for 5% of global emissions while only serving 5% of a global population doesn’t quite seem fair!

But on an individual level, flights create a far greater impact. If you fly once a year or more, those flights will make up the largest chunk of your carbon footprint. Going vegan removes around 1 tonne of CO2 from your annual output whereas a single flight could add that amount in one go. A round trip to Tenerife generates 1.5 tonnes of CO2 – more than you’ve saved by being vegan.

The IPCC recommend that for ongoing sustainability we should exceed no more than 2.3 tonnes of carbon each, per year. So one flight can use up that entire allowance. You could eat meat for an entire year and generate the same. With an average footprint of 10 tonnes per European, a couple of short-haul flights a year could account for around a third of your CO2 output. If you fly long haul, that figure is going to be far higher.

Of course, we need need to be addressing all of this. Aviation, food, shipping, fast fashion, all of it. This isn't to prove that flying is ‘the worst’. Massive reductions in all areas are needed in order to bring our emissions down to where they need to be. We all need to be eating far less meat and dairy, as well as flying far, far less. But if you do fly, nothing else you do will increase your carbon footprint so much in so short a space of time, and reducing that will have the greatest impact on how you interact with the planet.

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