I have travelled to every country in the world twice, most recently to write the book “Elsewhere” (“Ingenstad“) about the world’s 20 least-visited countries, and it is fair to say that I fly more than most. My carbon footprint isn’t tiny, but actually far from as big as you might think. The solution to the planet’s climate crisis isn’t as “simple” as quitting travel altogether, but rather to look closer at why and how we travel.
Everyone understands that planes emit CO2 and other gases. That the pollution is released high in the sky is even likely to make it worse, and another reason why travel related emissions should not be ignored. To automatically blame passengers, who actually already pay carbon taxes as a part of ticket prices, is however not the way to go. One reason is that society has developed in such a way that aviation is essential for much more than just to get Jack or Jill from A to B. We expect speedy deliveries of seafood, carparts, letters, parcels and flowers. And only air transport is fast enough to satisfy our demands.
There are also many other culprits in the world of emissions, and we need to look at the totality. To ground aircrafts, even all of them, without also changing other habits wouldn’t drastically change the bigger picture. The internet does for instance emit as much as airplanes, thanks to a world-wide cluster of huge server farms that require power and cooling. New sensors, gadgets and gizmos that are all connected via the internet means that the power needed is already increasing at ultra speed. If The Guardian’s estimates are right, the internet will be to blame for 3.5 percent of the world’s carbon footprint within eight years, and a whopping 14 percent by 2040.
2.2 percent of global emissions come from the aviation industry, which is often mentioned alongside meat production for human consumption (8.6 %) as the main perpetrator, according to politicians and media. I discussed this with a climate scientist who highlighted that this is a well-defined strategy to avoid that flying and cattle disappear from climate change discussions, given that these categories can be seen as luxury that most people in the western world are reluctant to give up without fight.
“When people think about what they can do on a daily basis to be more environmentally friendly, they typically think about recycling and avoiding plastic bags. Those issues are of course important, every little helps, but what really helps is to eat less meat, to drive private cars less and to fly less,” Karen Richardsen Moberg told me. She is a scientist at Western Norway Research Institute. Many of her colleagues have the same focus.
This is a simplification, in my opinion. People in most western countries are also voters in democratic elections and can cast their ballot in favour of the political parties whose platforms are green. Other parties doesn’t seem to understand that change is urgent and must be imminent. To focus on the 11 percent of emissions that are caused by flying and the meat industry is better than to only focus on the 2.8 percent that are caused by waste management, but still doesn’t help much towards achieving the 1.5 degree goal in The Paris Agreement. If we are to reach this goal, then both governments and citizens need to think and act comprehensively, and without tabloidization.
Let me try to have a closer look at the numbers. I say “try” because no one has accurate and complete figures, in part because they always change. Any figures presented in various surveys, reports and articles are therefore estimates, which often varies even within the same emission categories. I have used different sources to try to present as accurate and representative data as possible (sources are listed below). The problem is that the numbers do not add up. By adding all sorts of different emissions I get to over 100 percent, which obviously isn’t possible. I have therefore had to partly estimate based on the conflicting figures out there.
But first; How much do wars and military activity pollute? I ask the question since the world’s defense and military organizations have achieved an exception from emission statistics. And that is by no means because they do not pollute. They have however managed to convince the world that their emissions are military secrets, and that they therefore must be kept secret, and not given any attention. It is therefore impossible to know exactly how big these emissions are, but estimates show that the US Military alone is responsible for 5 percent of all pollution, according to Barry Sanders, author of “The Green Zone: The Environmental Cost of Militarism”. This includes all “regular activities” performed by American forces alone, but do note that emissions increase dramatically whenever a war is started or a conflict escalates. The US Military is the world’s biggest, and spends 37 percent of the defense budgets on the planet. That equals that of the next seven countries on the list (China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, UK, India, France and Japan)! World military spending is over 1.6 trillion USD per year (or put differently: 1.6 million million or 1,600,000,000,000).
As if the sheer spending isn’t bad enough, the US Military has a general excemption from all environmental measures and regulations that may be decided upon in the UN and other international forums. Not a bad position to be in for the world’s biggest environmental culprit. But let us also include defense related emissions from all other countries and they amount to 13.5 percent of the world’s carbon footprint! And take note that is a conservative estimate. These “secret” emissions do by any account reduce the percentages of every other civilian category accordingly, as shown in the table below. In the left column “Without defense” I have included the various types of emissions that can be found in civilian reports. But emissions related to military activities are very real, although not official, and need to be included too. This is shown in the right hand column, “With defence” where the other sources of emissions have been reduced, while the total has been increased. Emissions caused by oil, gas and coal are included in the relevant sources shown in the table. Further oil, gas and coal emissions are added under “Unspecified energy production”.
Some thought should also be given to the fact that higher temperatures lead to less fresh water, and that a lack of the vital liquid repeatedly has increased levels of conflict or caused wars. Consequently we see arms races which in turn increase emissions, increase temperatures and decrease fresh water reserves. A vicious circle.
I am often confronted by journalist with my carbon footprint “which must be huge as much as I fly”. With a job in public service broadcaster Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) I have a rather normal paycheck. Almost everything that I make is used for jetfuel, which leaves little money to spend on other ways of polluting the planet. So, let us look a bit closer at the emissions from the aviation industry.
The total global emissions per year amount to 35.8 billion tons of CO2 (without the defence industry, or 41.3 billion tons with it). Aviation accounts for 781 million tons, or 2.2 percent (1.9 % if we count military activities). There were 4.3 billion passengers on 38.1 million flights world-wide in 2018. That means 104,000 flights per day, on average, undertaken on approximately 25,000 passenger planes, 17 percent of which are for long distance. Each plane transported 113 passengers, on average. Each passenger was then responsible for 0.18 tons of CO2 per flight. There is naturally a difference between a one hour long flight and one that takes 18 hours, whether there are 10 or 400 passengers on board and whether we are talking about a new propeller plane with two engines or an old jet with four, but all planes need to reach cruising altitude – which requires the most fuel – and many of us fly both short and long flights, so using such an average isn’t entirely wrong.
Then again, it isn’t fair to divide emissions only on the passengers on board each plane. Foodies expect fresh Norwegian fish, Japanese steaks and French truffles to be flown in regardless of whether they eat in Oslo, Dubai or New York. And if your car stops, you want it to be repaired asap. To reduce warehouse costs most spare parts are transported to the garage by plane – and truck. Not to forget the mail, which includes online purchases. It needs to arrive. Fast. Customers of today do not accept to be kept waiting for trains, ships or trucks. 20 percent of revenues on commercial passenger flights derive from freight. Which means that high-maintenance restaurant guests, car owners or recipents of parcels indirectly contribute to aviation emissions even if they have never taken a flight in their lives.
Politics also comes into the picture. If no flights existed to Finnmark – the northernmost county of Norway, rural Scotland or Montana, even fewer people would live there and the corresponding countries would have had even higher populated areas and been further urbanized. That is not something governments want, due to financial, military and geopolitical reasons. Alaska would for instance be easier lost to Russia again if no one lived there due to a lack of flights. Less people would also be willing to live in big towns and medium cities far from major ones if not covered by international flights. People expect to be able to travel domestically and abroad easily. This doesn’t mean that they will actually ever take any of the flights, but the mere existence of them makes people feel safe and comfortable enough to not move away to more central locations. It is therefore not illogical to subtract 20 percent of aviation emissions for transport and the same for political reasons from the carbon footprint of airline passengers. Such a calculation will no longer mean 0.18 tons of CO2 per person per flight, but 0.11 tons. I will not discount claims from scientists and climate change experts that exhaust that is released 10,000 meters above sea level may cause extra environmental harm, so let me double the emissions to 0.36 and 0.22 tons per flight respectively, to give a more accurate and realistic picture.
Another example that is rarely discussed is the environmental impact of pet food. The production of food for cats and dogs has turned into a giant industry which now accounts for more than a quarter of the emissions caused by meat and fish for human consumption. There are approximately 450 million pet dogs and pet cats in the world, totalling 900 million four-legged creatures. To produce their food emits 3.2 percent (2.8 % with defense) of annual CO2 in the world, which means 1.1 billion tons (1 144 000 000). Since the average dog weighs 22 kilos and the average cat only 4, there is a big difference in how much CO2 each favourite pet emits. The median canine is to blame for 2.1 tons of CO2 each year, compared to 0.4 for the comparable cat. I am not saying that people should euthanize their pets, but it may be an idea to feed them more leftovers from human food, just like people did before pet food brands bombarded us with ads and commercials telling us how bad bones are for Buddy and Bella.
But let me also touch upon something way more sexy: Reproduction. To raise a child in the western world causes an enormous carbon footprint, according to a 2017 study published in Environmental Research Letters. Having one child less will save each of the two parents as much as 58.6 tons of CO2 per year for the rest of their lives. That equals between 163 and 532 flights per year (depending on which of the four figures I use). And no, I am not suggesting that people should stop having children, far less that parents have their offspring murdered. It is just worthwhile being aware that having a kid contributes substantially to CO2 emissions, and that that knowledge may mean that more prospective parents want to persue another option. There are unfortunately a lot of unwanted children in the world, one possibility is to consider adoption and/or to become foster parents.
Having and driving a car (or three) is another known climate influencer, both because of the production of the vehicle and due to its direct lifetime emissions. Road based transport can be blamed for as much as 17 percent of global emissions (or 14.7 percent, with defense). A small petrol car or a big electrical one adds 3 tons of CO2 per year, while a big petrol driven BMW emits twice as much. The reason why an electrical Tesla isn’t necessarily better for the environment than a small traditional car is that the production of such a powerful battery causes massive emissions that are divided on the car’s lifetime.
Let me also compare transport of people over 1,000 kilometer. By airplane it will typically take 25 liters of fuel per passenger, given an average amount of passengers, although it also depends on plane type and weather. The EU average for a private car with driver and one passenger is actually exactly the same: 25 liters of fuel per person. You will still have to add the emissions from the production of the car. The emissions from the production of an aircraft is divided on so many million or billion of passenger kilometers that they are marginal.
Let me get back to flying. For arguments sake, let us say that we change our holiday travel patterns from travelling within the “western bubble” to rather exploring other cultures, people and places outside it. If we travel differently and use our trips to exhange knowledge and establish friendships with people who live where we go, then travel can be a part of the green change as opposed to a part of the problem. Increased mutual understanding, more friendships and more trade across borders and cultures can and will reduce risk for conflict and war. Which in turn will result in reduced military budgets, fewer military operations across the world and therefore a big decrease in both fear and the perceived need to maintain big forces with their significant emissions. Peace and stability are way too important subjects to leave for politicians and business people alone. We need more “normal” people to contribute too, in the shape of open-minded tourists that seek unusual destinations.
A reduction of 14 percent in defense activities will reduce the world’s carbon footprint with as much as the entire global aviation industry currently emits. But let me be realistic. There is currently big resistence to any reduction in military operations. NATO, with its de facto leader USA, would rather see that NATO members increase spending and buy more arms, something which will undoubtedly result in “enemies” following suit, and we have another vicious circle. Increased military spending comes with an exceptionally high cost to the climate, which will eliminate any emission decreases the world population manages to achieve through eating less meat, building in wood instead of in cement and steel and knitting our own clothes from wool instead of buying polyester. To maintain current military spending is in other words probably the most positive climate measure we can dream about in the short term.
Increased arms trade can in fact be catastrophic for the climate, especially since a hyper capitalist is in charge of the world’s biggest economy. Firstly, he sees an opportunity for his wealthy acquaintances and friends to increase arms export from the world’s biggest producer of weapons, by far: The USA already sells over 40 percent more than Russia in second place, and these two countries sell for more than all other countries combined. Secondly, Donald John Trump doesn’t believe that humans contribute to global warming.
A dangerous combination.
And let me be blunt: If we increase the world’s defense budgets, that are already to blame for 13.5 percent of the world’s pollution, instead of decreasing them, then the Paris Agreement doesn’t stand a chance, almost regardless of our actions. While more travel between cultures can potentially reduce the need for armed forces.
But who should tell Kongsberg Defence Systems, the biggest Norwegian manufacturer of weapons? Because Norway values jobs and revenues, regardless of what they do to our environment. Just don’t tell anyone.
My government is creative in making Norway come across as an environmentally friendly country. According to official statistics (that, again, omit military activities) Norway is accountable for 0.12 percent of global emissions. That means that every citizen in Norway emits 8.3 tons of CO2 per year. That is almost double that of the average world citizen (4.8 tons) and a quarter more than the average EU citizen (6.75 tons). Qatar is the world’s worst by 38.5 tons per inhabitant, accoring to Our World in Data. Qatar and Kuwait are coincidentally the only countries that produce more oil and gas per capita than Norway.
But hang on. Norway doesn’t consistently include emissions that are related to our oil and gas production, whereas both Gulf countries mentioned above do. Since our production of petroleum happens offshore, clever bureaucrats seem to have decided not to include the related pollution in Norway’s statistics, even though we own and control the economic area where the oil rigs are. It doesn’t make much more sense when it comes to emissions caused by the oil and gas produced by Norway. The users get the blame. Oil that is exported to i.e. Canada and used there will reflect badly when it comes to Canada’s emissions, not on Norway’s despite having produced it. A comparison is in order. For illegal narcotics, it is the manufacturers and traders that are punished severly, not the (ab)users. For pollution, the opposite is the case.
Norway produces 2 percent of all oil and 3.1 percent of all natural gas. How insane is that? James Bond-ish 0.07 percent of the world’s citizens pump up 1/40th of global oil and gas. The petroleum products are responsible for 54 percent of the world’s emissions, according to Norway’s Minister of Oil and Energy, Kjell-Børge Freiberg, which means that Norway accounts for 1.36 percent of global emissions (not 0.12 %). 1/1426 of humans do in other words cause 1/73 of pollution. Or, to put it a third way: Each Norwegian emits 90,2 tons of CO2 per annum. That is hell of a lot higher than the offical figure of 8.3 tons, which doesn’t include our oil and gas production or the effects it has. That means that Norway pollutes twice as much as the officially “most-wanted” polluter Qatar.
That statistics are statistics and can be used for pretty much anything is well-known, but it doesn’t save the world climate from a single gram of CO2. Only by changing the attitudes of politicians in charge and influential business leaders can Norway (and other countries) reduce emissions substantially. We should use a lot of our financial resources for research and development into environmentally friendly substitutes so that we can secure revenues, jobs and our planet in the future too. Norway actually has the resources to become a frontrunner in future proof energy solutions, paradoxically as a result of years of putting revenues from oil and gas into the Norwegian Oil Fund, the world’s biggest investment fund.
It is just a lot more demanding to do so as long as the oil just sits there, practically begging to be pumped up. At least according to the lobbyists that are paid to squeeze out every possible cent from oil, before something else takes over. A little bit like selling typewriters long after laptop computers and personal printers were invented.
My mission is not to criminalize one cause of emissions over another, but to show various types of pollution side by side in such a manner that the totality might be easier to spot. Reality is that unless we as consumers, especially in the western world, do something about all causes of emissions, not only two or three, we will never achieve what The Paris Agreement was designed to do, or preferably even a lot more – at least not until the CO2 levels on the planet are so high that human kind will become extinct due to lack of oxygen and there is no one left to pollute. I’d say that is putting it off a bit too late. It’s damn good that Elon Musk is planning colonies on Mars.
In the meantime, let us contribute by travelling outside the western bubble. To interact with each other, make new friends, exchange thoughts different to our own and establish trade deals. Because “the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page”, according to Saint Augustine of Hippo. And “not to travel is an insult to your own mind, creativity and intellect”. According to me.
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