By Derek Green
| Apparently I don’t swear often. Hardly ever in fact. My comfortable, privileged life might feel like it’s f***ing crumbling around me, yet still I hold my nerve. So what’s got me so riled? I wish I could say I was just choking on the backwash from some old, drunken travel yarn, the cobwebs from which will blow out with a magical puff of Pacific breeze. The facts, unfortunately say otherwise, which is how I’ve arrived in this place. F**ing is the new curse word for the modern, environmentally conscious citizen. |
We’re talking, of course, about flying.
I love to travel. It’s in my DNA. I blame my parents. Mum was a “£10 Pom”; reluctantly dragged out to the colonies as an 8 year-old, the rebellious teen returning to the old country the moment she was able and a ship was willing to transport her. The previous Mr Green was an early IT technician and trainer gradually working across our diplomatic posts throughout Europe in the late 1960’s, with mum and I in tow. Growing up with this type of family legacy, the concept of being so far removed from “the world and elsewhere” – as Spinal Tap would later put it – was quite stark. When you’re 16,893 flying kilometres from your birthplace, surrendering to the pull is always going to be more about planes than trains and automobiles.
And so it is that I am faced with my greatest travel challenge. No its not hitch-hiking in Iraq, or swimming with the piranha in the Amazon. It’s to find a shred of evidence (and convince myself) that long-haul flying for the purpose of pleasure is still justifiable in a time where it’s generally accepted that we need to step away from our reliance on fossil fuels in order to save the planet. It’s not going to be easy, but here goes. I’ve done my research, but I’m not about to present a white-paper to the UN Climate Change Summit, so I’ll try and keep it light as possible. Put your tray table up, your seat back in the full upright position, and get ready for take off!
Australia’s contribution to carbon emissions
Approaching the issue within the context of an Australian view rather than a worldview, I’ll use the figure of 1.3% our government estimates as our contribution to the world’s carbon footprint, even if some environmental commentators place as high as 5% when including the impact of our exports1. Likewise I’m separating industry and business from our personal impact, as other than sharing information, voting, and generally pressuring government to introduce something to hold them accountable, like, oh I don’t know, some sort of Carbon Emissions Scheme, there’s not a lot I can do except to reduce my own reliance on products and services.
Australia’s total carbon emission as a country is 552 million tonnes, which represents an average of 21.64 tonnes per person if spread evenly among our population of 25.5 million, excluding land use and forestry. That’s high, and very reflective of our reliance on coal2 – and if you’re sitting there thinking, “well at least we’re not America with all the McDonald’s they eat, and concrete jungles and freeways and stuff, they’re the worst!” Wrong – the average American is responsible for about 17 tonnes of carbon emission. If you are curious, there are many carbon footprint calculators online, ranging from simple to quite detailed. It feels surprisingly unsatisfying to discover my personal impact is well below the Australian average.
What about the rest of the world?
Unfortunately the world average is 4.5 tonnes and rising, as people in emerging nations gain wealth and therefore greater access to a standard of living we have taken for granted our whole lives. Although the demand for air travel grows in these regions, higher-income western travellers still have a disproportionate representation in the rise in aviation emissions3. Research4 suggests that to allow the planet to regenerate, and subsequently remain sustainable, our average usage must drop to 3 tonnes of carbon emission per human population, but at last count, only 54% of people globally saw climate change as a “serious problem”5.
So in a nutshell, scientific evidence6 tells us that global warming and climate change is caused by rising carbon emissions, and that the direct flow-on effects include the melting of the polar caps, rising sea levels, extreme weather events, extinction of many animal species, the break down of Earth’s ecosystems7, and potentially (eventually) the earth becoming either partially or totally uninhabitable8.
Pretty chilling stuff.
Can’t I just reduce my personal footprint so I can keep flying?
Let’s be clear, I don’t know if anyone holds the key to the “whole solution”, let alone be able to implement it – the climate crisis cannot be solved by next Thursday. But that doesn’t mean every single one of us shouldn’t do something, whatever we can, to contribute at all levels to reducing human impact on the earth, starting today.
So looking at the actual cause of the problems, it’s estimated that 87 percent of carbon emissions are the result of burning of fossil fuels – coal, natural gas and oil9. Aviation represents about 8% of that amount10. Further breaking down the numbers, farming and agriculture contributes about 28% of all human impacts on climate change. OK so we gotta eat, right? Yes, but not everything. The farming of beef for food, including deforestation and the production of feed, amounts to 78% of that component. Basically, if we didn’t need to eat beef, we’d save 22% of our total carbon emissions right there. That I can do – it’s not easy for an omnivore, but do-able.
Do I have to become an eco-warrior – what else can I do?
Next I’m going to try and eliminate plastic from my life in all its forms. Stop and think every time I make a purchase, from berries to bicycles, ask; is it in plastic and if so, why? I’ll give feedback to the business as to why I don’t want plastic anymore; hopefully they will receive similar feedback from others, and change the way their products are presented for consumption.
But Australia is so far from everywhere – how will we get there?
Two relevant travel considerations that apply to Australia:
- We live on an island, which if we’re being honest, is situated near the arse-end of the world
- Many of us have family overseas. Are we destined to never see them again?
The real practicality we are faced with is that it’s harder for Australians to access international destinations – we can’t just get on a train and visit our friends and family in London, Milan, or Thessaloniki. But It’s hard to deny we haven’t become comfortable, even a tad entitled. Flying is so easy and affordable, it’s become a thoughtless habit. My first long-haul return flight to Europe was in 1987, and cost about $1700. That sounds about the same as now right? According to the RBS inflation calculator, that’s $4,215.67 in today’s money. It took me two years to save that. Even if you flew economy, that would knock a lot of overseas trips on the head right there, with or without the “flightshame” hashtag.
Won’t the tourism industry collapse if we all stop flying?
At last count, tourism accounted for about 10.5% of global GDP and provided 320 million jobs – about 10% of total world employment11. But not everyone needs to fly. Much of Europe is accessible internally by train, car/bus or ferry, it’s only Australia that relies heavily on air travellers. Even Americans can technically drive to 9 other countries, and if it weren’t for the treacherous Darien Gap, a 90km stretch that somewhat links Panama and Columbia, that number of countries would swell to 22. So yes, tourism might collapse in Australia, but perhaps not in other parts of the world.
On the flip side, what percentage of the world’s flights either arrive in, or depart from our shores’? World passenger traffic annually is about 4.5 billion, with less than 1% – about 42 million of those being international passengers arriving or departing Australian ports12, thought it’s worth noting that a higher percentage of the Australian flights are long haul, as opposed to short haul international.
Still, 1% is surely a blip that the global industry might not even notice.
Isn’t the growing travel industry ruining the world anyway?
Many long-suffering locals would argue that limiting human movement is a good thing, with the residents of cities like Barcelona and Venice apparently at breaking point from the weight of visitors they receive annually. Mass tourism not only places a strain on local resources and infrastructure, but can be invasive, destructive and outright exploitative – for an example look no further than the once idyllic sleepy Cambodian beach town of Sihanoukville, where residents have faced mass displacement as a result of the development of over 100 Chinese casinos and hotels in the last 10 years.
Add Bali, Thailand and basically anywhere a cruise ship can dock to the list. These places are literally being loved to death13.
Aren’t airlines responding?
Airlines are gradually working through changes such as modifying engines, flight plans and weight restrictions to be more fuel efficient, but the results have shown only minimal improvement, with emission reductions from these initiatives ranging from .24% to as little as .05%.
Biofuels are another possible solution, but barriers exist within the cry-poor aviation industry; their development, testing and implementation is apparently prohibitively expensive. According to a study by Susanne Becken, Professor of Sustainable Tourism and Director, Griffith Institute for Tourism:
“Nineteen of the 58 large airlines I examined invest in alternative fuels. But the scale of their research and development programs, and use of alternative fuels, remains tiny14.”
So if the automobile industry can build electric vehicles, where are the electric planes?
Hmm. My thoughts exactly. Marty McFly had an electric hoverboard in 2015 and yet here we are in 2020, apparently still a minimum of 10 years away from even short domestic electric-powered flights. What are we waiting for? Battery storage capabilities, the overcoming of technical difficulties relating to weight and mass, and of course, the aviation industry to stop dragging its feet and wean themselves off fossil fuels.
Either way we will likely see hybrid – part fuel, part electric – planes years before any long haul fully electric commercial solutions are ready to be rolled out around the middle of the century15. Depressing isn’t it?
Carbon offset “Greenwashing” programs
Half of the world’s major airlines have carbon offset programs, basically a “green” premium you can pay to feel good about yourself and envisage some trees being planted in a forest somewhere while you fly over them. The reality is the measurable impacts of these initiatives are dubious at best and flat out fraud at worst. Having said that, Air New Zealand has a FlyNeutral program restoring native forests which on the surface seems both useful and legitimate. But could greenwashing programs eventually work if enough effort and money was ploughed into them? Not unless the trees you paid to plant start absorbing CO2 immediately, which of course, they won’t. In fact it takes a tree 5 years to absorb any meaningful quantities, and incredible as it seems given all that we now know, current levels of world deforestation are still higher than our annual planting efforts by a factor of 3 to 116.
If you want to analyse all these programs in one place, then estimate and buy your own carbon offsets, you can – though it will cost you a lot more than if you were to tick the airlines’ greenwashing checkbox. Check out atmosfair.de/en for more on that.
Long haul flights are a big part of the problem
“This is your Captain Obvious speaking: Today’s flight will be on an aeroplane that uses fossil fuel. Lots of it. The bigger and heavier the plane and longer the flight, the greater amount of fuel will be required to take off, fly and land. Keep that in mind, and enjoy your flight!”
Seriously though, short haul flights, although still problematic, have a lesser impact, as they burn far less fuel, typically fly direct, and don’t always reach the same altitudes as long haul flights and are therefore less likely to create contrails – the white condensation trails you see in the sky which can directly impact the earth’s atmosphere17. They also have fewer, or no business and first class seats (which take up more passenger space). When long haul flights stop-over, they require additional fuel to take off and land – about 10% of the fuel carried is burned during the take off and climb phase of the flight. It’s no coincidence that Greta Thunberg doesn’t fly.
If you have to fly long haul
It makes sense environmentally to go for longer – a minimum of 3-4 weeks, and fly direct to a single location, using other means to get around once you’re there, preferably scheduled services such as trains. Combine your family visits with holidays – you’re better off doing one long haul return to Europe every 5 years than one short trip every second year for different purposes. Finally, consider meeting in the middle. I know many people with family and friends in Europe or the US employing this technique, meeting in places like Thailand, Singapore and Hawaii. They get to see their loved ones, yet can enjoy an exotic holiday at the same time.
An out of left field solution
It used to be that we were told that the mindful traveller would take nothing and leave only footprints. Now even that is problematic, as the modern footprint isn’t made by our feet, it’s a result of our getting there, and overall consumption while we’re there. A novel approach, and apologies if this sounds like the plot to some futuristic dystopian movie starring Will Smith or Kevin Costner, might be this: assign carbon credits to each individual in Australia and let them use them as they choose. Government would have to regulate industry and business, but let’s say that left the rest of us with a sustainable personal carbon emission limit which takes into account our need to reduce our carbon footprint as a nation.
So in this scenario each person gets to “spend” their credit limit as they see fit within a 12 month period – we could eat meat, run our A/C 24-7 365 days a year, or fly long haul – but not all 3. Credits would expire on a given date each year, and a new allocation given for the following year.
But here’s the kicker – cue Steven Spielberg – we could also trade or on-sell our credits. That’s right, as an example I could stay at home for 12 months, never go anywhere or do anything, deny myself meat, heating and cooling, and then sell my carbon credits to you for an indexed trade value.
How’s that for a slice of fried gold?
So, have I convinced myself?
Maybe, it’s now down to the individual. The real solution might be to keep striving to reduce my personal impact on the planet, continually agitate for government and industry change, and try to help raise awareness amongst friends and in the community. Make sure everything I use is either sustainable, recyclable or reusable and at worst biodegradable. Somewhere in all that, along with paying the actual cost of carbon offsetting when flying, there’s a spark of hope. In the meantime I will drive less, resist products and packaging, and continually search for new ways to lower my C02 “score”.
At the end of the day it’s going to be hard to complain – I’ve lived a privileged life. I’ve been and seen plenty, and there are many others waiting their turn both at home and abroad. That’s my wake in fright moment right there – have I used my entire hypothetical allocation of long haul flying for one lifetime?
A f***ing dilemma indeed.
- https://theconversation.com/climate-explained-how-much-does-flying-contribute-to-climate-change-127707 Shaun Hendy, Professor of Physics, University of Auckland
- Stopping Climate Change: A Practical Plan, Roy Morrison, Centre for Research on Globalization.
- https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/04/18/what-the-world-thinks-about-climate-change-in-7-charts, Richard Wike, Pew Research Center.
- Global Research on Carbon Emissions: A Scientometric Review by Lebunu Hewage Udara et al
- Climate Change, Health and Existential Risks to Civilization, Colin D. Butler, National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, ANU.
- The Uninhabitable Earth,David Wallace-Wells.
- The global carbon budget, Le Quéré, C. et al
- World Travel & Tourism Council