Surprising Aviation facts in the age of Climate Anxiety

By:‚Äč‚Ä謆Mark Brooks, Phil Lightstone

We all agree that climate change is an inevitable reality of carbon emissions and other forms of pollution.  The Australian bush fires, amplified by climate change, have created unbearable devastation and impacted climates as far away as Antarctica.  The dominant approach to fighting climate change has been to focus on improving emissions efficiency and reducing consumption.  Did you know that air travel can often be the most emissions efficient way to travel and can help reduce global warming?

Emissions from automotive sources are seven times larger than aviation. This chart shows why. Emissions from light trucks / SUVs have doubled. Freight truck emissions have soared 112%.  Source: Government of Canada, Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators

In the western world, the use of consumer and industry incentives such as E
lectric Vehicles rebates and carbon taxes are having some success.  But frustration and anxiety over missed targets, growing emissions from the developing world, and slipping dates have given rise to a new movement, the Climate Strike.

The climate striker’s approach to combating climate change is fuelled by anxiety. It has been described as declaring war against ourselves, against how we consume and live. To reduce the rate of global warming, climate crisis protesters use shock therapy on consumers and industry.  Believing current efforts are not enough, climate strikers block roads, try to shame consumers, and call for enforcing draconian rules designed to reduce emissions, including restricting, or even banning, flight.  In the extreme, this is envisioned by some as a near complete shutdown of our capitalist consumer-oriented economy and the end of air travel. However, based upon consumer traits, this would have the effect of increasing fossil fuel automotive utilization, resulting in increased carbon emissions.

Here are key aviation emissions facts everyone needs to know:

1. At 3% Of Canadas total, Aviation does not make up the largest segment of transportation emissions.
honour belongs to the increasing number and size of large fossil fuel SUVs now dominating our highways. Overall automotive transportation created 20% of Canada’s emissions in 2017. Transportation created 144 Megatons out of 716 Megatons of total emissions. Domestic aviation comprised only 1% of Canada’s total, at 7.1 Megatons. International air travel added an additional 2% at 14 Megatons.
2. Persistent Contrails are not an emissions multiplier.
Contrails, sometimes called
the high altitude effect, are short lived micro-clouds.  They are not carbon emissions.  Aircraft flying at or below 25,000 feet cannot normally create persistent contrails. Above 25,000 ft, if the weather is right, contrails can add up to 15% to the impact of emissions.
3. Passenger aviation is more emissions-efficient than driving.
For travel between most cities in Canada further apart than a few hundred kilometres, aviation is the most emissions-efficient way for an individual, or small family to travel. It is also the fastest and safest way to travel. As a real world example, a seat on a Porter Airlines Q400 from Toronto to Thunder Bay creates 106 Kg of emissions. Driving an average car, the 1,400 km between these two cities burns 125 litres of gasoline creating 261 Kg of emissions.
4. Total Canadian emissions could be reduced by flying more and driving less. At least 2 Million Tons of emissions per year could be trimmed from future growth by allowing for efficient passenger flights out of Toronto. The new airport planned east of Toronto in Pickering will be key to enabling these savings. Each Porter flight is more than twice as efficient as driving solo reducing emissions by as much as 6,100 Kg per flight between Thunder Bay and Toronto. One flight is equal to removing up to 50 SUVs from the highway connecting the two cities.    

Current real-world average figures of aircraft and cars on our roads and in our skies tell a striking tale. You can squeeze four people into a European subcompact or a new Tesla to beat that average. But the average Canadian new car size and fuel consumption went up last year to 8.9 litres per 100 km. That’s more than double the 3.4 litres per 100 km per seat of a Q400 flown by Porter, WestJet and Air Canada on regional routes. As the Q400 never flies above 25,000 ft there is no persistent contrail effect. The increase in road traffic and SUVs are our real emissions challenge not aviation.

Aviation emissions have been singled out with often-inaccurate claims by the alarmists that makes it hard to take the protesters seriously. Like spotting multiple spelling mistakes on the cover of a new book, it is easy to disregard the story.  This is especially true given the huge strides being made in the aviation industry to reduce emissions per passenger and the new offset system being rolled out. To make progress on fighting climate change we need to address anxiety over flying by dispelling myths and misinformation. We need to encourage the use of trains or buses, but this is typically only practical in a few select routes between major Canadian cities. Aviation is the clear emissions winner and is the only practical alternative to driving long distances.

For a decade, Bombardier’s Q400 has been the backbone of Canadian regional aviation and consumes an average of 3.4 litres per 100 km, per passenger. If Porter is allowed to upgrade to the latest jet aircraft that consumption could be cut to as little as 2. Sadly, Transportation Minister Marc Garneau stopped the extension of the runway at Billy Bishop airport that would have enabled this billion-dollar aircraft upgrade. It is possibly that he did so because of public perception created by misinformation on its environmental footprint.

Flying direct instead of driving also shaves 400 km of travel distance off the 1400km of asphalt connecting Toronto to Thunder Bay, Ontario. And what about the energy burned to create and maintain the asphalt highway and to keep it clear of snow in the winter?

The latest climate conference in Madrid, failed to deliver an agreement.¬†Part of the reason appears to be a widening gulf between the mainstream interpretation of climate science and the anxiety being created by extreme or uninformed interpretations of that science.¬†¬†From Wiki info-war editing, to extreme ‚Äúwhat if‚ÄĚ scenarios in the press, misinformation is creating an unbridgeable political gap. If we are to make progress, we can no longer ignore the misinformation being spread about aviation emissions or the anxiety it is creating.¬†It is time to take back the ‚Äúsocial licence‚ÄĚ, or general public acceptance that expanding efficient air travel and new airports can be in the public interest.

Locally in Toronto, the key restriction on flying efficiency is the lack of local airport infrastructure. This will change with the expected announcement in 2020 of a new international airport to be built in Pickering just to the east of Toronto.  In the next decade, it is critical that we do our upmost to improve the carbon emissions efficiency of all forms of transportation.


Toronto Pearson airport Jan 2020. Pearson is now land locked unable to expand. Pickering Airport will augment Pearson’s capacity and offload both air and ground congestion with new locally accessible aviation.

Population growth in the Greater Toronto Area, combined with the lack of roadway infrastructure, causes automotive emissions to increase through congestion.  On the horizon, the new generation of electric regional aircraft and Urban Air Mobility is the silver bullet which will further reduce transportation emissions. Together these advances will unlock each individual’s greatest asset, Time, in a manner that is compatible with our environment.



Government of Canada emissions report.

ICAO emissions calculator

Contrails increase warming 1 to 3/100 of carbon emissions 

Canadas Aviation Action Plan 

Contrails impact Aviation emissions by 15‚ÄĮ% of the CO2¬†

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