As a teenaged farm boy from Wallenstein, Ont., my first jet flight was an expansive experience. Suspended above Earth, my mind and spirit wandered and wondered unfettered by time and space as we drifted across landscapes. This vantage point was a big hop from a tractor seat.

However, unknown to me then, the cost of slipping up to the sky in a jet is environmentally toxic. Its climate impact per passenger hour is six to 47 times higher than that of cars.

Given associated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, non-carbon emissions and other climate-forcing impacts, passenger air travel accounts for at least 3.5 per cent of global warming, more than the three per cent of global emissions for the whole continent of Africa. In Canada, the expense of burning jet fuel is our second-biggest transportation cost.

As you might guess, flights are not distributed evenly across the population. In fact, “frequent flyers representing just one per cent of the world’s population caused half of aviation’s carbon emissions in 2018.” Furthermore, in 2018, only 11 per cent of the globe’s 7.9 billion people travelled by air. It’s worth sitting back on our haunches, preferably on the ground, to reflect on who benefits from all the subsidies to airline companies to keep such a small proportion of entitled folks looking down.

In 2019, there were 163 million air passengers in Canada, or roughly 4.2 flights per passenger in Canada — a pre-COVID peak. To redress the climate impact of flights, most taken by a small percentage of the population, we could cap the flight allowances in Canadian airspace. Let’s agree that each Canadian is allowed four flight allowances per year (i.e., the right to then purchase tickets for four flights).

Transport Canada could develop a flight allowance market, and flight allowances per person could be sold by Canadians who opt not to travel to anyone (Canadian or international citizen) who chooses to fly in Canada. Since planes cruising at high altitudes are relatively efficient, the emphasis is on the number of flights or the number of times each plane must take off.

It is economically realistic that those who fly the most, pay their portion of the tab, whether personally or as an employee benefit. Some Canadians might choose to keep two flight allowances and sell two, understanding they have until the end of the year to sell their allowances.

Buyers could bid electronically, with the transaction facilitated and recorded by Transport Canada. The market price for each flight allowance calculated from aggregated bids and offers to sell should be transparent to all buyers and sellers. To be fair, opportunities for low-income Canadians, who may not have access to electronic transactions, should be available for them to sell flight allowances at current rates in post offices or other public institutions.

In the future, flight allowances might be for a period of 385 days, rather than 365 days, as in the initial offering. The period for each offering could be extended as required to meet GHG emission targets. That means anyone wanting to fly in Canada within that period would need to buy a flight allowance from those allocated for that time frame. With a combination of timing and a whole number of total flight allowances per Canadian, Transport Canada could wind down passenger flight GHG emissions.

Airline companies make the case that they are ramping up the use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). The holy grail for SAF is green ammonia, produced from water and air using renewable energy. So far, SAF use is more aspirational than actual, but to drive innovation, a flight allowance market could have provisions to adjust with less stringent requirements, calibrated to specific implementations of SAF with measured reduced GHG emission impacts.

Opinion: Over the Christmas holidays 15 years ago, I was challenged by George Monbiot’s book, Heat and its analysis of the climate impact of flying, writes @ralphmartinOAC. #GHGs #Emissions #AirTravel

Over the Christmas holidays 15 years ago, I was challenged by George Monbiot’s book, Heat and its analysis of the climate impact of flying. Even though I was the director of a national organization, I told my board in January 2007 that I had decided to stop flying, except for compelling family obligations. Since then, I’ve twice taken trips by air.

I understand the arguments about the apparent futility of small individual actions and how I have no right to be smug about my decision. Believe me, I’d prefer not to discuss it with anyone. My intention is to show that it is quite possible to stop — or significantly reduce — flying. I have not suffered by travelling in different ways. Maybe roots in a Mennonite community predispose me to accepting that some activities can be precluded.

Beyond individual action, Canadians could accept a system that will tangibly assign financial costs to the increasing environmental impacts of flying so that those who choose to fly pay the bill.

Ralph C. Martin, Ph.D., professor (retired), University of Guelph. Information on his book, Food Security: From Excess to Enough at www.ralphmartin.ca

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Basing your calculations on passenger hours rather than passenger miles makes all your calculations absurd. Giving out flight permissions might help a bit to reduce economic inequality, but it could backfire. I'd much prefer a lifetime carbon budget for each person that can't be affected by any amount of wealth.

True.
Even if it rectified that, it sounds like an air-miles version of cap-and-trade, which is the least useful approach to decarbonizing the economy ever invented. It would be good for me, because I'm never likely to do more than one round-trip air trip in a year, but I doubt it would be effective.

The passenger hours calculations only apply to one example in an article that contrasted air travel with cars. They also look at passenger km to do similar contrasts.

I too read Heat over a decade ago and have since curtailed my trips to back country camping and exploration of Canadian treasures....luckily EV travel is becoming more easy every year. I'm not a fan of any kind of 'carbon trading' scheme however, as it seems to make individual efforts to cut carbon even less effective. If we could sell our carbon savings from having solarized....we'd make money, but defeat the purpose of our early adoption.....so the idea of trading carbon savings is likely one more example of why capitalism isn't going to save much of anything, going forward.

The fact that most people on the planet don't fly, makes all the subsidies to airlines even more despicable....setting quotas is a beginning, if we want to address the real costs of jet setting. But there's no way we can reduce the emissions caused by aviation, while tinkering with cap and trade to make flying less exclusive. Too few people do the majority of the flying already...if they wish to continue to do so under the scheme outlined above, a mass of money strapped folks would be willing to sell them the boarding passes.

The truth is we need to get our heads out of the clouds when it comes to GHG emissions, and put our feet back on solid earth. There is much work to be done, and nowhere to run....or fly to... that will help us avoid the facts. We change our entitled five planet lifestyles.......or kiss a liveable future goodbye.
That many are unwilling to change, but willing to abandon the future....is the modern tragedy of Entitlement.

A new kind of flying is coming in the next decade: electric airships. The prototypes are here now.

We have the devil's own time with understanding limits I'm afraid Dieter. I too am betting on electric.....but if you read carefully on just one plan to electrify.....Doug Ford's intention to mine for rare earth metals in the Ring of Fire in Northern Ontario.......you'll begin to see the wall we're up against.
Those peat bogs and wetlands in the boreal ring of fire likely store more carbon than we'll be able to reduce building electric cars and trucks......never mind planes........to reduce the emissions of the gadfly southern parts of that province.

The rapid heating of the planet is not just caused by our lifestyles.......its caused by the industrialization and extractivist industries that flourish by catering to those lifestyles. Until we can electrify without what current mining technology does to nature's carbon sinks.......I'm fearin that we're SUNK...
Not to put to literary a spin on the problem.

My grandparents came to this country and never saw family again; far too poor for 4 days on the train, six more on a boat, another on a train to go to Scotland.

Air travel is new; you can't even imagine it as some sort of "need" or "right". I listened to a NO blog the other day, where it was just agreed to, and dismissed as a topic, that the various diaspora Canadians of course, of COURSE, have a right to go home and see family frequently, even yearly.

Then the NO sends, what, over a dozen people to COP26? Half of them, certainly not LSM, have even filed stories from Scotland; they just went to enjoy a friendly time with all their fellow activists. One of them has a nice new story up about busily networking around all the talks and demonstrations. To what good, that could not have been accomplished on Zoom?

Every round-trip flight, if from Vancouver to Glasgow, emitted two tonnes of carbon, while people in India emit about one tonne a year, for everything.

OK, go ahead and do all that. Just stop saying "emergency" about the climate, since your own actions make it clear that it's not really an emergency at all. Nothing you'd skip a conference, or intercontinental home-visit for. If it were an "Emergency", you'd of course curtail all travel not needed for preservation of life. Thunberg was cheered for this simple, clear logic, but I guess because other "activists" are not autistic, the clear, simple logic doesn't govern them, and they applaud her while not emulating her.

I don't know, perhaps their logic is very Christian, or something: Greta, by sacrificing two plane flights for a boat, has Saved Us All, and we can now fly at will.

Looks like both three of my four grandparents were in the same boat, so to speak. Except that they were from Ukraine, Romania and England, respectively. They were lucky to even write more than a couple letters a year back to their old countries, let alone travel tp the other side of the globe for a visit.

It's my view that NO managing editors and fellow overseas jet travellers are exceedingly hypocritical if they cannot bring themselves to even acknowledge the damage they have done to their reputations by copping out on the climate commitments that COP26 continuously espoused. The only response by Ms. Solomon Wood was to justify it on journalistic and educational grounds. It was, in reality, a big carbon-heavy schmooze fest in a well-publicized COVID hotspot for climate activists that escapes logic. Will this ethical lapse be repeated by the NO during COP27 in Egypt?

Monbiot gave up flying years ago. So did a number of genuine climate scientists who now travel to important conferences digitally. Ditto well-researched YouTube videographies on climate issues like 'Undecided' (Matt Ferrell), 'Just Have A Think' (Dave Borlace) and others. And there is the answer to the journalistic imperative considering long distance reportage. If Zoom is too limited and archaic to some (it is in many quarters) then 4K videos and thousands of HD photos could have been shot and produced in Glasgow by local journos under exclusive contract to the NO, with full audio / video / report editing by NO offices over here, everyone staying safe and not blowing the carbon budget for the next decade with one trip while preaching climate responsibility, and publishing a very professional multi-media product.

The same applies to Stand.earth and every other so-called environmental activist organization that travelled overseas to COP just to party. Face-to-face communication my ass. Leave that to official delegates, negotiators and scientists.

Hi Ralph,

Thanks for writing your opinion piece. Canada does have a carbon tax that applies to aviation fuel, which is scheduled to rise each year. It's currently at $40 a tonne, and will rise to $170 a tonne in 2030. The tax only applies to intra-Provincial flights, and only applies where the Province or Territory doesn't have it's own carbon pricing system (mainly Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick). So it would cover, for example, a flight from Toronto to Ottawa, but not a flight from Toronto to Winnipeg. The carbon tax does not apply for flights that either take off or land in one of the territories, due to their heavy reliance on flights. The revenues collected from the tax are returned to citizens, with some of it going to schools and hospitals. Most households come out ahead, as the amount of money they pay for carbon taxes is less than their share of the revenue that is returned in the Climate Action Incentive. The households that don't come out ahead tend to be those in higher income brackets, that tend to have a larger carbon footprint, perhaps because of their larger homes, more frequent flying and other energy-consuming behaviours.

Although your idea of basing the tax on the number of flights taken per year has the appeal of simplicity, the carbon tax is a more accurate reflection of the amount of carbon pollution produced. Also, the reliance on markets to sell unused flight quotas is perhaps unfair, as people will get compensated differently depending on when they sell their quotas. A more equitable approach is a carbon tax, with an equal incentive to everyone in the Province, with adjustments made for people living in Rural areas.

In order for the taxation of aviation fuels to be effective in reducing the amount of flying that people do, it needs to be expanded not only to inter-Provincial Flights but to international flights taking off or landing in Canada.

To reach viable solutions for future travel in a vast, cold country while climate change is critically important, look to the past.

I was a child of four living in a small town on the CPR mainline in Saskatchewan in the early 1950s when strong memories first formed of steam trains chugging along with billowing clouds of steam in sub-zero winter weather. My spouse’s grandmother lived in a small Manitoba town on the same mainline, but 680 kilometres away.

I was nine when my mother took my brother and I on the train to Vancouver from Calgary in the summer of 1961 to visit relatives. Back then the cars were made of shiny, corrugated stainless steel, the locomotives were diesel, the freight trains pulled over for the passenger trains, and there was Sterling silver place settings in the dining car, which served decent food prepared on order in a real on board kitchen. It was a Magical Mystery trip through the misty mountains of BC.

Today, the western terminus of the CPR, a line that became the thread that joined the nation together, is still intact in the same location. The terminal, now Waterfront Station which is currently used as a busy metro transit hub, is a preserved Class A heritage building. The murals of the Rocky Mountains my brother and I admired 60 years ago are still a striking feature way up at the clerestory windows of the column-lined great hall.

Today, the trans-continental passenger service is gone with Via Rail using the CNR tracks to Edmonton (to Vancouver’s Station Street terminus) and the tourist-devoted BC-Alberta Rocky Mountaineer being the exceptions.

Many of the passenger cars from that era are still running and are used by Via. This is one small example of the value of building things to last, as is the value of heritage. And these values are important as we move forward.

There is no financial or physical reason why efficient, electrified intercity rail could not reappear at least on the Prairies and into Ontario and Quebec. The Prairie topography is flat, the transportation corridors already sail across the land, and the technology behind modern, fast passenger rail is tried and true in Europe and Asia.

I would suggest that high speed rail (HSR) is perfectly justified between cities with population of at least a million people. In the EU, fast regional intercity rail and local metros radiate from HSR hub stations to serve outlying neighbourhoods and towns beyond. The Eurostar travels at speeds up to 300 km/h between London and Paris in two hours and 20 minutes. It is run on a regular shuttle service schedule (i.e. outside of pandemic restrictions), they don’t require massive airport structures and land acquisition, and can co-exist with heritage buildings in the inner city, as it does with London’s magnificent Saint Pancras Station and the beautiful Gare du Nord in Paris, both with a variety of other rail and bus services radiating outward.

The population of the Windsor-Quebec City corridor, which would include the American cities of Detroit and Buffalo, meets or even exceeds the 21 million London-Paris population nexus, yet the myths on the “affordability” of high speed or even fast and frequent electric train service abound, which is contradictory when compared to the ‘returns’ generated by highways (zip) which are built with no questions asked. No one will lure people out of planes or cars without a comfortable train service that offers a very competitive city-centre-to-city-centre service with affordable ticket prices and decent networking with urban rapid transit and intercity trains. The European train experience is now outcompeting short and mid-range flights on these terms.

Regarding emissions, Bombardier (remember them?), now a part of the French Alstom empire, conducted research with Sweden through its European office on a sustainable, zero emission passenger rail network using hydro for energy. They decided on the Bombardier Regina series train platform (wider cars, stainless steel bodies for longevity) and calculated life cycle emissions from manufacturing through operations and found that with resilient design the carbon payback would be achieved a reasonably short ways into the operating life of the trains. Moreover, the Swedish Terms of Reference explicitly required the trains to be compatible with very cold northern winters.

Sweden is now also at the head of the pack in making ultra low emission steel using green hydrogen and have already contracted with Volvo and Daimler to supply steel. The same can be had with the railways.

The studies on passenger capacity, induced demand with frequency and convenience exceeding that of planes, and the Network Effect when ideal connections are made with other networks found that the financial returns and the per rider emissions and cost profiles outcompeted cars and planes. The result is that one or two Swedish rail companies contracted with Bombardier / Alstom and have been building a semi-high speed network for nearly a decade.

There is no viable reason why Canada couldn’t follow through with its own modern passenger rail plan.

Excellent set of observations by Alex Botta. Some thoughts I can add:
My reaction, reading through the article, was, don't want us to take plane flights? Give us alternatives.
Right now, not much is happening on restoring Victoria to Courtenay passenger rail, and restoring passenger rail from North Vancouver to Squamish, Whistler, Lillooet, and points north isn't even being talked about.
At the same time, people are being inconvenienced by infrequent or non-existent bus services in BC. Again, improving train service from Vancouver to Kamloops isn't even being talked about, same as restoring passenger trains from Kamloops to Calgary.
As for electrified rail, that's an idea that hasn't caught on in most of North America, but Westinghouse Air Brakes recently launched a hybrid locomotive, and their first customer was CN.
And about high speed rail; I've ridden those 250 km./hour trains in Italy. They're great, but given the current situation, they are overkill. Instead, there is technology available to run trains at around 190 km./hour ON EXISTING TRACKS. A solution that's almost as good, and a fraction of the cost.