Practical Action To Reclaim A Safe Climate: Air Transportation

Despite the jaundiced view of some frequent flyers, flying somewhere is probably the sexiest, most exciting thing most people can imagine. The annual holiday is usually the most anticipated event of the year. Being flown somewhere on business by your company is confirmation of how much they value your services.

Building new airports is high on the agenda for developing countries and expanding existing ones in developed countries is seen as vital to ‘maintain competitiveness’.

It is also remarkably cheap. Aviation fuel is protected from being taxed by an international agreement, which means that on a cost per mile basis, flying is cheaper than virtually any other form of transport. It is now possible to fly from London to Dublin for less than the cost of the taxi from Dublin airport to the city centre. Flying to cities in the east and north of Europe has become cheap enough to allow groups of people to go for the weekend for stag or hen parties. A growth in flying is predicted by virtually every government in the world, with the UK volume expected to double by 2030, which will lead them to provide more airports so that this growth can be achieved.

Flying, however, is the single most intensive source of carbon dioxide produced by all human activities. There may be more GHG emissions from car transport in total but in terms of the number of people participating in the activity, flying is the largest polluter. Not because the engines are less efficient than other fossil fuel engines: modern jet engines achieve a similar efficiency in terms of passenger miles per gallon as car engines do (in fact, one UK low cost airline even ran an add claiming that its planes were less harmful than a Toyota Prius on a passenger mile basis but they did withdraw it when it was pointed out that the comparison between a full plane and a car with just a driver was hardly realistic). The simple problem with air travel is the enormous distances aeroplanes allow people to travel. A typical international flight will carry a passenger in a few hours the number of miles they might drive in a year. The greenhouse effect of just a single return flight from the UK to the US, or about three return flights around Europe, is likely to be equivalent to ALL of your other activities throughout the entire year.

Just how much of global greenhouse gas emissions aviation is responsible for is a contested figure and I have seen it range from 1.6% to near 10% with the differences mostly accounted for by the differing assumptions used about the ‘forcing effect’ (i.e. the additional damage aircraft exhaust causes because it is emitted high in the atmosphere rather than at ground level).

Whatever the true figure, it is a big contribution from what is a minority activity and even for that minority, it is only a minority of their time that is spent on a plane. In the UK, for example, more than half of the population took no flights in the past 12 months and the ‘frequent flyers’ taking three or more per year number just 11%.The average American flies about twice as often as the average European, but they in turn fly 10 times more than the average Asian. Overall that means that maybe 2-4% of the world’s population is responsible for up to 10% of emissions from an activity they spend about a day a year doing! Anyway you look at it, flying is environmentally very expensive.

Apart from the sheer carbon intensity, there are two other big problems with flying. The first is that there is no practical substitute technology on the horizon. Jet engines might become slightly more fuel-efficient but any increase will be limited to a few percentage points. The second issue is the forecast in growth will quickly eat up any efficiency gains.

This causes even quite clever people great difficulties with reconciling what they know they should do with what they would like to do. Consider Tony Blair when discussing climate change on 30 October 2006:

‘Unless we act now, not some time distant but now, these consequences, disastrous as they are, will be irreversible. So there is nothing more serious, more urgent or more demanding of leadership.’

Just two months later, Tony Blair was asked if he should show leadership by not flying to Barbados for holidays: His response? ‘a bit impractical actually’.

Or consider the Mayor of London’s support, expressed during a visit to New York in September 2009, for a BA campaign called ‘Face to Face’, which seeks to get more people flying. When asked how this fitted with the Conservative Party’s call for a reduction in unnecessary air travel, his spokesman said the mayor supported video conferencing as a tool for business but was keen to bring tourists and business leaders to London.

The aviation issue is unlikely to be solved in the short-term by economic levers. It is simply perceived as too populist an issue for any democratic government to tackle in this way. Taxing aviation fuel at the same rate as car fuel in the UK would add about 260 to the price of a London to New York ticket compared with an available return fare including taxes of 216.

If the political will and economic incentive is not present to solve the issue, is it possible that the public will fall out of love with the aeroplane? Of course it is.

It would only take a couple of handfuls of celebrities to publicly turn their back on flying as a mode of transport to start making it “unsexy”. Or, how about if Sir Richard Branson, the high-profile and well-respected entrepreneur founder of Virgin Atlantic decided to carry through some of the thinking? What do you think would be the effect of Sir Richard saying to the world something like this: ‘You know, it has been a great party and we love flying. But, we have spent $500 million trying to develop bio-fuels and it still hasn’t worked. The carbon cost of flying is simply too great, so I am closing down Virgin Atlantic airlines and opening a fleet of sailing clippers instead’?

When it comes to reclaiming a safe climate, we simply need to change the way we think about things. Climate change is a very real and present danger. The biggest threat it poses is to human wealth and health. Unchecked, the children who are on the planet now will grow up into a world with empty seas, fierce storms and floods wrecking havoc with our build environment and where we have lost the ability to grow sufficient food. Tony Blair might have found it “a bit impractical” to forgo that Caribbean flight but when it comes to fighting climate change the single biggest impact you can have is, when it comes to flying and just say no.

Harold Forbes is Author of “How to be a Humankind Superhero: a manifesto for individuals to reclaim a safe climate”.

The book uses the myth of Hercules to provide individuals with twelve impactful action areas to fight climate change. It has been described by Jonathan Porritt, an eminent figure in the area of sustainable development as “An enjoyable read that hits the elusive balance between the analytic and the practical”.

Climate change has been described as the greatest threat facing humankind and “How to be a Humankind Superhero” empowers and inspires meaningfull individual action.

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