Fitting Flying into the Eco-Conscience

It’s not often talked about, but there is a shameful secret amongst the environmentally enlightened. The very same people that conscientiously recycle, that cut meat from their diet, that put on a jumper instead of turning up the heating, often remain unwilling to change one significant part of their lives: flying. I myself am as guiltily as anybody. But there’s good reason.

The truth is, the world is more accessible than ever before and — let’s face it — we love it. Never has it been easier (or cheaper) to hop on a plane and find yourself somewhere exotic within a matter of hours. That’s incredible. Only a hundred years ago this level of global mobility seemed a barely-conceivable pipe dream. Now, if you are fortunate enough to be a relatively well-off Westerner, the world truly is your oyster. Yet there remains a hefty environmental cost to all this flying about, and although we don’t like to talk about it, it cannot just be brushed under the carpet.

Flying is bad for the climate. Very bad. There’s no escaping that fact. For the typical Westerner, one transatlantic return flight adds about as much to your carbon footprint as a year’s worth of driving. Aviation is said to be responsible for 2–2.5% of global CO2 emissions, which might not sound like that much, but there other factors to take into account.

For a start, it’s only the privileged few that do fly: less than a fifth of people will ever step on a plane and under 3% will fly regularly, and it is therefore this fraction that are principally responsible for some mighty emissions. Secondly, there’s the altitude, meaning the greenhouse gases emitted go straight into the stratosphere where they have the biggest warming effect. And thirdly, burning jet fuel pumps out a whole range of other noxious things, nitrogen oxides most notably, which all in all means that aviation’s contribution to global warming is twice what might be expected by going off CO2 emissions alone.

This guilty knowledge is what leads to the “flyers’ dilemma”. How can you identify as eco-conscious yet still step on a plane without addressing this huge elephant in the cabin? Of course, cognitive dissonance is the easiest solution; in other words, just don’t think about it too much. Some people justify it to themselves by changing other aspects of their lifestyle to ‘compensate’, but this still doesn’t solve the problem.

The trouble is, the end result of flying — ending up in another country — is generally a good thing, a little segment of life that we really enjoy. If you’re a tourist, you experience a different culture and hopefully contribute to the local economy (if you do tourism right, anyway); if you have relatives who live abroad, it’s a chance to reconnect with family; and if you’re travelling for business or politics, it’s a great way to build international relationships.

In fact, aviation is so moreish that some people have even tried to classify frequent flying as an addiction, drawing attention to the telltale symptoms of guilt, suppression and denial. We love to travel, and there is no denying that tourism has been a huge boon to the economies of many countries. Ironically, it’s often these countries that benefit the most from tourism that are also the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. But are there any alternatives — can we keep the good and get rid of the bad?

Not really, is the short answer. But that doesn’t mean we should shrug our shoulders and give up. We’ll come onto the future of air travel shortly, but first let’s consider a possible work-around. We could try giving up planes altogether and use other modes of transport for our international travel, taking journeys by rail, road or sea.

This inevitably involves sophisticated transport infrastructure, which is a big investment for any nation. The train-heavy EU is well on the way to cracking it, but even there it often remains cheaper, faster and more convenient to fly. There are some mighty political and economic barriers to overcome to change this, not least the aviation industry’s strong resistance to tax. And, of course, many places are simply only accessible by plane, unless you fancy spending a claustrophobic month or two on a cargo ship or trying your luck tiptoeing across a war zone. There are the few adventurous martyrs that manage to continent-hop whilst refusing to step on a plane, but to be able to do that well you generally need a fair amount of time and money, not to mention excellent forward planning, some serious bravado and a penchant for foreign languages. It’s not for everyone.

So, travelling by land or sea is useful to some extent, but it can never replace air travel. Nothing really comes close. Yet lots of industries are changing — as renewable energy becomes more and more widespread, the advent of ‘clean’ electric vehicles, appliances and produce is here.

To chase the jetstream or to ride like the wind?

Are aircraft getting in on the action? Well, it’s very difficult to make an electric passenger plane, principally because the batteries that would be needed are just way too heavy. People are working on finding a way to efficiently store energy, and there’ll be a revolution in all kinds of sectors if they are ever successful, but that day hasn’t come yet — and might not anytime soon. As with anything, crossing our fingers and hoping some technological breakthrough will save us from our woes is a very risky tactic.

What about other renewable energy sources? Biofuel is the most promising by far for the industry, and there are some airlines testing it out, although it currently remains substantially more expensive than traditional kerosene-based fuel. Biofuel’s ‘renewable’ status is also sketchy to say the least, as growing the crops to make the fuel takes up land that might otherwise be used for food or be left alone as a natural landscape. One promising solution is using waste products from forestry or agriculture, or even by growing microalgae. So there is definitely scope for improvement, but it would be naive to expect that sort of change any time soon.

Or, we might redefine air travel completely. People are talking about changing the way passenger jets are built entirely, drawing inspiration from the ‘flying wing’ aircraft found in the military and in sci-fi flicks. Another potential innovation is the rebirth of propeller aircraft, which would go a bit slower than current turbofan planes but would emit only half the amount of CO2.

These are all promising, and if you happen to have a lot of money you’re looking to invest in a worthy cause, maybe get involved — but if you’re just a regular schmuck like most of us, all of this isn’t much use for debating whether you take the family/spouse/dog abroad next year or not.

There is one thing we haven’t talked about yet. Over the last decade, there has been a widespread response to this well-justified sense of guilt, and it has come in the form of carbon offsetting. It’s a simple concept: you go about your CO2-releasing business as usual, and just pay somebody to ‘offset’ these emissions by planting trees, developing renewables or investing in better waste disposal, to name a few. As well as tackling carbon emissions, it often has other positive side-effects: alleviating poverty, encouraging sustainable development, and safeguarding biodiversity are some good ones.

It’s a nice idea, and people got very excited when the concept first started to take off in the aviation industry. One optimistic study from a decade ago calculated that voluntary carbon offsetting could pump over £26 billion of funds into mitigating climate change every year.

Unfortunately, that was based on what people said they would be willing to do; in reality, not so many people were on board, as people as a rule want their holidays to be as cheap as possible. And who can blame them — a decent trip is a chunky financial investment for most. That also points to why we would should hesitate before slapping on the economic ‘solution’, just simply raising the price of airline tickets: this would essentially just stop poorer people travelling. That’s not fair.

There’s also a more ingrained problem with carbon offsetting. Ultimately, it’s treating the symptoms rather than the root of the problem. It’s been likened to the Catholic ‘indulgences’ of the Middle Ages, where the wealthy could pay the church to ‘cleanse’ them of their sins, without ever having to take any personal responsibility for their hijinks with the lord of the manor next door. The point is, it allows — even encourages — the maintenance of the status quo and does little to bring about the systematic change we so dearly need. That being said, there is no alternative at this moment in time; so it’s not a solution, but it’s a ‘better than nothing’ patch for the time being.

So what to do? Simply not fly, and forget about all those countries on your bucket list? That’s a big ask, and although some admirable people are prepared to do it, the truth is that the majority of us just won’t make the sacrifice. And that’s just amongst the eco-conscious; for the general population, who have few qualms about flying at all, this behavioural change is never going to happen of its own accord, so it seems barely worth our time and energy to try and push it.

That’s not to say there’s nothing we can do. Let’s do our very best to put pressure on policy makers and help usher in changes to the system, whether that’s renewable fuels, better transport infrastructure on the ground, or simply educating about the effects of aviation and moving away from treating frequent flying as a societal norm. Maybe we could pressure for a means-tested tax, where airline tickets are more expensive for richer people, but that would certainly encounter resistance from some powerful influences.

When we do fly, we can make sure it’s worth it: by going less frequently and for longer periods of time, by injecting cash into the local economy rather than package deals, and by integrating into the local culture in a meaningful but responsible way. Carbon offsetting (with a bit of research) is definitely worth it at the moment, as long as we don’t become complacent and accept it as a permanent solution.

We have spent a century developing a system to our tastes, but it hasn’t looked very far into the future. Now is the time to do that. Our flying habits, ignored for so long, are an excellent place to build a brighter — but hopefully no less adventurous — future for everybody. The sky’s the limit.

Having studied zoology at university, I have now turned to scientific communication. I write a bit of everything, but climate change features most strongly.

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