by Imran H. Khan

As Muslims across the world prepare for, typically, once in a lifetime travel to Mecca to fulfill their religious obligation, it is time to ponder upon its impact on our planet Earth. With the rapid growth in Muslim populations, the advent of aviation and relative prosperity, an increasing number of Muslims are performing Haj.  Last year three million people performed it and the number of Hajis ( as they are called) are only going to increase with time as the facilities at Mecca are improved and the availability of aircraft like Airbus A380 and Boeing747.

A little bit of  calculation results in 2.3 tonne of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere per each Haji for performing Haj. This is based on  43.13 Passenger miles flown per gallon of jet fuel and on an estimate that on the average the Haji travels 4000 miles.  Typically 23.88 pounds of carbon dioxide are produced per gallon of jet fuel use. In reality many Hajis travel a lot more than 4000 miles and the impact of air travel is not only carbon dioxide.

Aviation is different from other energy-using activities as the majority of emissions occur at altitude, and their influence on the atmosphere can be highly localised and short-lived. Emissions from aircraft are responsible for other atmospheric chemical processes that also have atmospheric warming consequences. Aviation emissions are therefore more significant contributors to climate change, than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted at ground level. Combustion of fuel in aeroplane engines results in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen oxides, (termed NOx), as well as water vapour and particulates. It is the emission of NOx, water vapor and particulates at altitude that account for the extra impacts of aviation emissions.

Carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and alters the balance of incoming and outgoing radiation from the earth’s surface and contributes to warming of the atmosphere. Aviation emissions of carbon dioxide have the same effect on climate as terrestrial emissions, from power stations, industry or transportsources. Carbon dioxide has an atmospheric lifetime of up to 200 years, so ends up well mixed in the lower atmosphere over this timeframe no matter where it is emitted.

Nitrogen oxides

Emissions of nitrogen oxides initiate a series of chemical reactions in the atmosphere. Nitrogen oxides form ozone (O3) in the presence of light, and light intensity is higher at altitude, so more ozone is formed at altitude than from terrestrial sources of NOx. Emissions of nitrogen oxides from sub-sonic aircraft accelerate local generation of ozone in the lower atmosphere where aircraft typically fly. The increase in ozone concentration will generally be proportional to the amount of nitrogen oxides emitted from aircraft. Ozone is a potent greenhouse gas whose concentration is highly variable and controlled by atmospheric chemistry and dynamics. The increase in radiative forcing from ozone is greater than carbon dioxide emissions. However, the ozone is responsible for the destruction of atmospheric methane (CH4). Methane is also a potent greenhouse gas, with an atmospheric lifetime of 14 years. The destruction of methane as a direct result of aviation therefore reduces the extent of warming caused by aviation emissions.

Water vapor
Water vapour is also an important greenhouse gas, but emissions of water vapour from aviation only have a minor direct warming effect. Water vapour has a short lifetime in the atmosphere and is controlled by the hydrological cycle. Emission of water vapour at high altitudes will produce contrails – the cloud-like trails behind aircraft that are visible from the ground. These contrails also trap heat in the atmosphere and their warming effect is believed to be equivalent to that of carbon dioxide alone . Contrails do not form at lower altitudes, so could be avoided by flying lower. In practice this is not done as the fuel burn, and therefore running cost, is greater when flying at lower altitudes where the atmosphere is denser. The contrails themselves are implicated in the formation of high altitude cirrus clouds, which are believed to have a strong warming effect on the atmosphere, although quantification remains poorly understood.

Recent MIT study on global warming estimates it to be much worse than previously estimated. The most comprehensive modeling yet carried out on the likelihood of how much hotter the Earth’s climate will get in this century shows that without rapid and massive action, the problem will be about twice as severe as previously estimated six years ago – and could be even worse than that.

The study uses the MIT Integrated Global Systems Model, a detailed computer simulation of global economic activity and climate processes that has been developed and refined by the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change since the early 1990s. The new research involved 400 runs of the model with each run using slight variations in input parameters, selected so that each run has about an equal probability of being correct based on present observations and knowledge. Other research groups have estimated the probabilities of various outcomes, based on variations in the physical response of the climate system itself. But the MIT model is the only one that interactively includes detailed treatment of possible changes in human activities as well – such as the degree of economic growth, with its associated energy use, in different countries.

In my previous post I had highlighted the emphasis on using rational thinking in Quran. I think it is time for Muslims as responsible denizens of this planet to reflect and reconsider their options on performing Haj in the coming years. There are provisions in Islam whereby rituals like prayer and fasting can be deferred or not done based on extenuating circumstances. I believe the health of the planet is one of such extenuating circumstance. Organization of Islamic Countries should formulate a responsible policy that balances the desires of Muslims with the impact on the ecology. Such a step might also lead to other responsible interpretations of Quran in response to the changes in technology and increases in population.

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8 Responses to “Ecological Impact of Haj”

  1. SR on September 29th, 2010 3:07 am

    Hajj, as it has come to be (a mass production), besides being an environmental hazard, is also a major Public Health hazard.

    Mortality and morbidity resulting from the mass gathering of the pilgrims is heavy. Some years there are large scale episodes due to burning with fire, drowning in floods, trampling in stampedes, etc. It is also an ideal opportunity for spreading pandemics of water-borne diseases.

    There is a novel and rational compromise that could serve as a partial solution.

    In this day and age of internet dating, online shopping, electronic banking etc., I propose the concept of ‘Virtual Hajj’ …

    Perhaps techies like you at MIT and elsewhere can come up with a virtual reality ‘Hajj Helmet’ that could be attached to the H-Box or the HS-3 or the Hii or the Hajtendo or something similar. I am not joking.


  2. Mario Moreira on September 29th, 2010 4:56 pm

    I think some of the policy should be focused on limiting the number of visits to Hajj. Maybe once is enough. I know some people who have gone multiple times. Hajj is definitely not for the faint of heart.

    On the other hand, while there are certainly ecological concerns with Hajj, congregating at locations (Spring break, Disney, etc) for far lesser reasons than religious should also be focused on.

  3. Imran N on October 2nd, 2010 11:17 am

    An interim solution could be, as Mario suggests, a one time visit. His second point is well taken. Certainly, at the time of the Prophet could anyone have imagined over 6 billion people on the planet? of which 2Bn are Muslims? Or that air travel en masse was even possible? Would the Prophet countenance the destruction of the planet for the sake of religion?

  4. Mehwish on October 24th, 2010 6:17 pm

    Interesting article. I clicked on the linking thinking it would be an article about the benefits of hajj on our Ecosystem :D

    I agree with the author but agreement does not mean that we start making policies on reducing the number of pilgrims to reduce air pollution. There are innumerable other causes of air pollution so why focus on haj alone ?

    A quick search on google reveals that Riyadh/Jeddah airports do not even come in the top 50 busiest airports (in terms of number of passengers). To my surprise Melbourne airport was handling 25 million passengers in 2008. Those of you who have traveled to Australia would agree that a long haul flight from Dubai to Australia, over the pacific makes you wonder that human beings are so widely dispersed over the planet. It is unbelievable that Sydney and Melbourne airports handle more than 58 Mn passengers yearly.

    Ecosystem is a matter of great concern but believe me there are are 87000 daily domestic flights in USA. As compared to the stated statistics, 3 Mn muslims traveling for Hajj is a very minuscule figure.

    @Imran N: Look if I believe in my Prophet, then I do believe that God must have imagined that there would be 6Bn people on Earth someday. So He made Hajj a compulsion on all those who can afford the journey. Reducing the number of Hajj’ to one is a good idea, not because it would lessen the pollution but such a policy would give others a chance to perform hajj.

    I am a very moderate muslim but I found this interesting article to be a wrong example.

    Hope my comment gets through the scrutiny :)

    Have a good day!

    Imran Reply:

    You are absolutely right that there are many more areas where a change in behavior will bring a much bigger impact on ecology and as Mario has also suggested that everything should be on the table. As it is there are many more important issues facing us in the Muslim world than this.
    Having said that I still think that given the current state of no agreed to policy governing Haj, is also not the right thing. What I was suggesting in the post is a discussion around it where we can start making it more equitable and responsible in who gets to go for Haj, what is the best transportation mode to use and how many should go.
    With the current limit of 3 million and a life expectancy of say 70 years, leaves only 150 million who can go for Haj.
    There are 25000 flights in the US daily, which is still a lot.
    As far as I knew the only one worthy of calling herself Muslim is a moderate one. In my dictionary an extremest Muslim is an oxymoron of a label:-)

    Mehwish Reply:

    I agree to the part that there should be a policy dealing issues in Hajj. For example, I read a concluding report on haj 2010, on The author profusely mentioned issues such as over flowing toilets, floods etc. These are the things to be dealt with. SR mentioned, “Hajj, as it has come to be (a mass production), besides being an environmental hazard, is also a major Public Health hazard.” I read in the newspaper yesterday that 7 football fans were killed in a stampede in Nairobi. The thing is everything brings along its potential hazards. For example, before the advent of cars there were no road accidents.
    Mostly, people going on Haj are the less frequent travelers. People like us, scientists, technologists and business people travel more frequently. We are causing far more pollution then a Hajis.

    This article is giving the impression that pilgrims are increasing Air pollution. I cant see the difference between ‘need for corrective measures’ vs. ‘criticism’. And when the world gets such a messages then its only the moderates who suffer not the ‘oxymorons’ :)

    imran Reply:

    I think it is when we cannot differentiate between the need for corrective measures and the ability to debate in healthy and rational manner, that is when we give space to oxymorons.

    To start with we should agree that:

    a. Any person should be allowed to perform Haj only once in a life time.
    b. The elders should have preference over the young.
    c. Monetary advantage should be given to those who go about doing it in an ecologically sensitive manner. All Air travel should have a heavy carbon penalty included.

    These are some of the obvious ones.

  5. Imran J. on November 22nd, 2010 3:30 am

    Just like all forms of worships to Allah subhan o watala, Hajj is between Allah and His servant. By imposing quota on the number of times one could perform Hajj would be stopping someone from performing his/her religious duties. We humans do not have such authority. If we succumb to the idea of one Hajj in the lifetime, then tomorrow we will be limiting the number of times a Muslim could perform salat at his/her local masjid for the sake of pollution; especially in non-muslims countries where mosques usually are not walking distance away.

    Regardless of the type of Muslim one think he/she is, as long as he/she is a Muslim he or she knows and believe that Allah is the creator of everything, it is not very difficult for Him to fix the little bit of pollution caused by the Hajjis each year. I know we do not have to destroy the planet but there are billion other things we can consider before limiting number of Hajj one can perform.