For some time now, we have known the toll on the environment from the aviation industry. The emissions are significant as only one transatlantic flight or two medium-distance flights is roughly equal to all the emissions saved from switching to eating foods suitable for vegans for an entire year.
While aviation is a considerable polluter, it is clearly not due to the roughly 80% of the planet’s population who make less than $10 US per day. Even among wealthy countries, those who fly are the minority: a recent Gallup poll shows it is consistently at around 40%. In addition, even among those who fly, it is that minority of frequent flyers who are responsible for the majority of the pollution.
The emissions from different modes of transportation are dependent on variables, and while flying is often portrayed as the worst, in some cases alternatives can be more polluting. It would be foolish to think every sector of transportation is having the benefit of technological advancement while the aviation sector is at a standstill.
As previously discussed, there isn’t an international consensus on how to derive various emission numbers; the government has an incentive to deceive if not outright lie to the public and we have seen that happen in Canada. However, we find the numbers published in the UK to be at least more comprehensive than those in Canada. For example, their greenhouse gases conversion factors include radiative forcing and the effect on emissions of average flight occupancy.
The graph below shows the impact of various factors—such as rail fuel usage or travelling in business class—on the resulting emissions.
As we can see from this graph, the occupancy of the chosen mode of transportation is an important factor. For example, one of the differences in the calculation for buses vs coaches is the occupancy factor as coaches tend to run with a higher occupancy rate, at least in the UK where these numbers originate. The emissions of rails are subject to both occupancy rate and technology employed, as we can see in the comparison between the Canadian rail service which uses diesel locomotives, to UK national rail which uses both electric and diesel, and Eurostar which is fully electric.
The emissions of commercial flights are comparable throughout the world because there are few airplane manufacturers; while occupancy rates differ depending on days and route, the nature of for-profit businesses means on average it will be fairly consistent.
The efficiency of electric vehicles depends largely on the underlying electric grid that supports them. In Canada, it would be different from province to province but lower than in the UK since on average our electricity includes more renewable energy due to the significant amount of hydro power in Canada compared to other countries.
This information should help us put all of these modes of transportation and factors into perspective. It is likely that, similar to Canada, these numbers have various issues, such as vehicle accessories not being taken into consideration, but the big picture should remain valid.
It’s obvious that not travelling is always better and that flying in general tends to have higher emissions than driving, but that is not always the case. Flying economy class and owning a non-electric SUV, common in North America, means that the flight is likely to have a lower carbon footprint.
It’s important to note that if we had perfect knowledge, could account for all animal exploitation and assign each individual a score based on the amount of animal exploitation they are directly or indirectly responsible for, we posit that a majority of people who self-identify as vegan in G-20 countries would account for more animal exploitation than some people who do not self-identify as vegan from non-G-20 countries. This should cause us to deeply reflect on our vision, veganism, and our actions.
New developments in the aviation industry might make changing our behaviour easier. It is now becoming more likely that many flights would not be vegan certifiable due to the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) made in part from animal fats.
SAF, in its most popular commercial form of HEFA-SPK, is made with a blend of plant and animal fats. In 2019, there were only five airports with regular SAF distribution—Bergen, Brisbane, Los Angeles, Oslo and Stockholm, accounting for about 0.1% of total aviation fuel consumption. Globally there are various incentives to increase this number rapidly in order to reduce emissions. There are already many airlines that are increasing their contractual volume of SAF purchases, as well as countries trying to pass laws mandating the increased use of biofuels.
Globally, there’s currently a green taxonomy debate. In the Vegan World Alliance (VWA), there is a disagreement on the importance of having clear definitions of various subjects within veganism. We believe it is crucial since it is illogical to pursue a vegan world if we cannot agree on what vegan is. We hope one day our colleagues will come to understand the importance of having a common understanding of various concepts within veganism; thankfully, the European Parliament partly understands this and is in the process of defining various words and concepts to be used on the European continent with regards to sustainability. It’s critical to have a consensus around the definition of green since most regulations aim to increase the use of sustainable or green alternatives.
When profit is the motivation behind our actions, things are likely to go awry. We have seen the perfect example of this recently in the European Parliament. In their process of trying to define what is and is not considered a green alternative, the European Parliament decided that natural gas and nuclear energy are now considered green. We hope this is not the beginning of a global trend of greenwashing. Just like the vegan label is now used to whitewash the exploitation of animals, sustainable alternatives are not immune to these pressures.
The European Union concluded that the egregious exploitation of animals in the form of palm oil does not deserve to be labelled green or sustainable. We have long banned palm oil from our vegan certification and agree with the EU Parliament on this issue, but many of our European colleagues still certify as vegan the exploitation of animals in the form of palm oil. We hope this time they will be inspired by their parliament and join us in banning palm oil from vegan certification. This will have the beneficial side effect of underscoring the fact that veganism is not against the molecular structure of things but the animal exploitation behind it. What is unethical about animal exploitation is not where it occurs in the manufacturing process, supply chain, or that it affects something that looks like a cow, but that it happens at all.
Unfortunately, the European Parliament also decided to consider animal fats as allowable in SAF, all but guaranteeing its increased usage, at least on the European continent. There will be further negotiations in September 2022, but we do not expect any material changes.
Our position and advice for businesses are consistent and that is to always give the consumer as much information as possible so they can make an informed choice. We encourage airlines that will not be using SAF made from animal fats to inform customers of this fact and/or get certified vegan.
It will become exceedingly difficult for people to assert whether or not their flight is using SAF made from animal fats. Since we use the precautionary principle in veganism, it becomes increasingly likely there will be reasonable suspicion that any flight will be using SAF with animal fats and therefore we should avoid flying. For example, it is thought that by 2030 about 10% of all flights will use biofuels and by 2040 we should reach 20%. Unless airlines clearly label their flights, the precautionary principle will apply.
Due to climate change via the exploitation of animals and the high emissions of flights, we should have already refrained from flying, but this additional information may prove to be a stronger motivation to avoid flying altogether, at least for those who self-identify as vegan.