Science·What on Earth?

Air travel emits a lot of carbon, but there are ways to fly more responsibly

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at making greener choices when booking air travel and how when it comes to electric cars in Canada, there are have and have-not provinces.

Also: The have and have-not provinces for electric cars

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, folks! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • How to book a greener flight
  • The countries most vulnerable to water shortages
  • In Canada, acquiring an electric vehicle depends on where you live

How to book a greener flight

(Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

It's summertime, which for many of us means hopping on a plane to new adventures.

Scientists calculate that a person taking one return flight from eastern North America to central Europe generates about the same amount of carbon emissions as they would commuting 25 kilometres a day for an entire year in a fuel-efficient car.

And it turns out that flight can actually cause twice as much warming as you'd expect from the CO2 emissions alone because of the nitrogen oxides, contrails and cirrus clouds it generates in the atmosphere.

All this has prompted teen climate activist Greta Thunberg, as well as many of her fellow Swedes and others concerned about climate change, to give up flying.

But not all of us are ready to skip the chance to see the world or attend far-off events like a friend's wedding for the sake of the environment. And we may not have the option of taking a car, bus, train — or, in Thunberg's case, a racing yacht — instead.

Ryan Katz-Rosene, a University of Ottawa professor who studies sustainable transportation, recognizes there are lots of benefits of travel and, specifically, flying. But he said the need to act on climate change "does warrant asking ourselves whether … a family vacation [that requires travelling] thousands of kilometres by plane is really necessary," and whether the benefits of a given trip can be achieved without flying. 

If you've thought it through, and you can't give up a particular trip, there are things you can still do to minimize the impact of your air travel on the environment. Here are some tips:

  • Fly economy. Extra legroom comes at more than a financial cost — a first-class ticket can generate two to four times the emissions of an economy class ticket because packing more passengers in each plane increases efficiency. Some airlines, like Sunwing and U.K.-based easyJet, offer only economy seats.
  • Take direct, non-stop flights. Proportionately, more fuel is burned during takeoff and landing, so non-stop flights are more fuel-efficient.
  • Take daytime flights, where possible. Contrails and cirrus clouds generated by aircraft trap heat, causing extra warming — but mostly at night. That's because during the daytime, they also reflect sunlight back into space, counteracting the heat-trapping effect.
  • Consider buying offsets. Many airlines give you the option to buy offsets — that is, invest in projects that reduce carbon emissions, such as tree-planting or green energy. In theory, that can help counterbalance the impact of your emissions. But experts warn that offset programs are not always effective and may inadvertently encourage people to fly more.

When it comes to reducing the carbon output of aviation, avoiding flights as much as possible is still the best option. We'll have more soon on how the airline industry can reduce its emissions.

Emily Chung

Reader feedback

Olivia Robinson's article last week on how to make your cottage getaway more eco-friendly elicited a number of responses from readers. Buffy Packard wrote that "until electric motors for boats are more affordable and more prevalent, they are totally out of reach monetarily for the typical cottager."

We also heard from some readers with regional euphemisms for going to "the cottage" or "the cabin." Peter Humphries said that northern Ontarians "head to camp." Ernest LeFebvre reported that people in Cape Breton go to "the bungalow." How charming!

Comments or suggestions? Write us at

Old issues of What on Earth? are here.

The Big Picture: Water shortages

One of the effects of a warming planet is water shortages, which have the potential to affect about 1.8 billion people — a quarter of the global population — in the next few years. As you can see below, the 10 most vulnerable countries are in the Middle East and northern Africa.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • A report by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlighted the fact that our current use of land and water worldwide cannot be sustained if we hope to stave off the worst effects of climate change. One of the key takeaways was that moving people to a more plant-based diet could save several million square kilometres of land that could help sequester carbon.

  • The oil and gas industry is feeling the pinch of efforts to green the economy. A new analysis from BNP Paribas, one of the world's largest banks, said the sector is now in "relentless and irreversible decline." The report said that in only a few years, it will be not only cleaner but also cheaper to power an electric vehicle on wind- or solar-generated energy than it is to run an internal-combustion engine car on gasoline.

  • Banning plastic straws has been one of the most popular environmental gambits of the last year. McDonald's removed them from all its British outlets and replaced them with paper ones. When customers found the paper ones dissolved in their drinks, Mickie D's reinforced them with a material that ... makes them unrecyclable.

  • Everyone enjoys walking along a clean, uncluttered beach, which is why municipalities spend a lot of time combing the sand to keep it Instagram-friendly. But a study focused on beaches in Southern California concluded that the obsession with esthetic beauty can harm the underlying ecosystem.

When it comes to electric cars, there are have and have-not provinces

(Evan Mitsui/CBC)

In May, the federal government launched its rebate incentive to help Canadians buy an electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle. But the plan has highlighted just how uneven the opportunities are to buy EVs across the country.

In Vancouver, the hum of battery power can be heard when you're walking across almost any intersection. In Quebec, charging stations litter the landscape.

But in Alberta, for example, if you want to check out an EV at a dealership, in many cases the salesperson is climbing into the car for a test drive with the manual in hand — because they've never even been in one of these cars. Or you might be told you can't test-drive EV models because the manufacturer isn't sending any to the province. (You can still buy it, but it will have to be sight unseen — and the wait could take you well into 2020.)

How has the EV market in Canada become so distorted?

To start, some provinces have offered their own rebates and primed the pump for consumers. On top of the federal incentives, Quebec offers up to $8,000; B.C. has up to $3,000 in rebates. Ontario used to offer up to $14,000, but that was scrapped by Doug Ford's government after he was elected in 2018.

Over the last few years, these incentives made those markets more desirable for the companies that make electric vehicles — according to the advocacy group Electric Mobility Canada, these provinces now account for most of the roughly 100,000 EVs on the road in this country. (Alberta, on the other hand, makes up only 2.2 per cent of the total, with all other provinces combined accounting for 1.1 per cent.)

Some manufacturers just don't cater to those smaller markets. Kia, for example, isn't selling either of its moderately priced, mid-sized EVs — the Niro or the Soul — in any province outside Quebec, Ontario and B.C.

"Right now, we focus the limited availability of product on those markets that not only offer incentives to consumers but also offer the required [charging] infrastructure to support the vehicles," said Mark James, Kia Canada's communications manager. James said that as the supply of vehicles grows, the company will expand into other provinces.

Quota programs are also having an impact on where manufacturers are choosing to send their EV models. This spring, B.C. passed legislation for a zero-emission vehicle standard. It mandates that 10 per cent of all new light-duty cars and trucks sold in B.C. be zero emission by 2025, 30 per cent by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2040. Similar rules are found in Quebec, and manufacturers who don't meet the targets have to pay penalties.

Because of these targets, manufacturers will prioritize EV sales in Quebec and B.C., said Matthew Klippenstein, a Burnaby-based engineer and the EV adviser for the non-profit Plug-In B.C. "That leaves pretty much every other province fighting over the scraps."

In provinces where support for EV sales is lagging, EV owners are coming together to encourage others to make the leap. 

"The community is very generous and willing to offer up their own vehicles for events for the public to see," said William York, a director for the Electric Vehicle Association of Alberta.

Sarah Lawrynuik

Stay in touch!

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty


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