Travelling by plane: what is the ecological impact?

Since its democratisation in the 1960s, flying has become the fastest-growing means of transport, however it also causes the most pollution. Nevertheless, there are ways to become more aware of the ecological impact of travelling by plane and to compensate for our CO2 emissions by travelling more responsibly.

As a reminder, the transport sector produces a quarter of France’s total greenhouse gas emissions, which is the biggest cause of global warming.

In 2013, France became the first European country to implement an initiative on greenhouse gas emissions. Every transport provider has to inform passengers of the quantity of CO2 emitted during their journey. How the company decides to do this is up to them (poster, ticket, website…), but the method of calculation is the same for all forms of transport. The aim is to increase awareness and guide travelers towards solutions which are more respectful of the environment.

Measure the CO2 impact of our journeys

Several online tools can help us calculate our carbon footprint. One of these is the eco-journey comparator set up by ADEME (Agency of the Environment and the Control of Energy “Agence de l’Environnement et de la Maîtrise de l’Energie”), which measures the environmental impact of our journeys.

For a return trip from Paris to Berlin, the carbon footprint can be multiplied by ten depending on the chosen method of transport. A train journey which emits 21 kg of CO2 per passenger rises to 150 kg for a trip by car (petrol) and 255 kg for a flight in economy class. These figures vary depending on the relative weight of passengers.

According to a survey led by “Banque Mondiale” in 2013, a flight in business class emits three time the carbon dioxide as economy class and a flight in first class emits nine times the amount as economy.

The aeronautical sector is responsible for 2% of all CO2 emissions. This percentage may seem low, however when we consider the negative consequences on the ozone layer (the emissions are released in the troposphere and not on the earth’s surface) the potential impact of this carbon dioxide increases. Added to this are other greenhouse gases which are difficult to measure: nitrogen oxide, which is emitted during take-off, and condensation trails.

Even though the CO2 emissions are minor compared to the those produced by road traffic, the number of people travelling by plane has grown considerably faster than by other types of transport. This evolution leads to both the development of international exchanges but also an increase in distances travelled.

So, how can we travel ecologically when flying is the only way to travel long distances in a short amount of time?

The last ecological resort: carbon offsetting

Over the last few years the voluntary carbon credit has widely expanded within companies and communities, although it is not yet well-known by individuals. “Carbon units” are the volume of emissions that we wish to offset, and this is achieved by funding greenhouse gas reduction projects around the world: reforestation, the construction of solar ovens, bioclimatic housing etc.


In contrast to the compulsory carbon offsetting certificates required by the United Nations as part of the Kyoto protocol, this voluntary market is not regulated. To ensure the reliability of the participants – the number of whom has rapidly increased- you can choose an organization which has signed the ADEME guidelines to compensate for your greenhouse gas emissions.

The carbon offsetting platform Solidary CO2 (CO2 Solidaire), a pioneer in the French market, calculates our CO2 emission rate by taking into account the mode of transport, and the resulting offsetting cost is then assigned, by choice, to an environmental project in France or abroad. Another key player is the program “Action Carbone Solidaire”, launched by photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand, which is working on projects to reduce CO2 through vegetation.

Faced with traveler’s new concerns, some agencies offer their customers the choice to directly offset their CO2 emission when booking their plane tickets. Allibert Trecking, a responsible tourism specialist, offers this option to their customers and systematically applies it to its employees’ journeys. Local initiatives have also been launched, for example the agency Bali Autrement chose to establish a partnership with Solidary CO2 for its domestic flights.

Although we are not reducing our ecological footprint directly at the source, this modest act allows us to lessen the impact, and may even encourage us to travel differently.