Saturday, July 07, 2007

flying in the face of sustainability

Last Sunday's Observer had a feature called The Big Green Dilemma.

It concedes that aviation is a huge problem for a world wanting to get its carbon emissions down to a safe level. But, well, we like flying. And what about the people who we fly to, won't they miss us?

The piece opens with a picture of a Masai herdsman (who presumably, I dunno, gets his cows petted by German holidaymakers or something).

Then there's several paragraphs about the forthcoming Camp for Climate Action, before

The tourism and aviation industries are mobilising, setting up lobbying groups, and pointing out some awkward facts. Did you know, for example, that some ferries emit far more carbon dioxide than some planes?

Yes, but you're talking about per passenger mile. You travel far more miles in a plane.

And just because there are some horrendously inefficient ferries doesn't mean that high-emitting planes are OK.

That driving can release twice as much carbon as flying?

Again, just because there are people driving big cars without passengers doesn't make flying OK. Comparing one unsustainable thing with another is ridiculous. Even then, the average UK motorist emits less CO2 in a whole year than someone taking return flight to Florida (2255kg CO2 vs 2415kg CO2).

And that's before we take into account that such statistics rarely include the 'radiative forcing', the extra damaging effect of emitting at altitude that makes flying 2-3 times worse than surface travel. Keep that in mind, because you certainly won't be getting it in the article any time soon.

It's an unpalatable argument, but even if everyone in Britain were to stop flying tomorrow, in less than two years the total number of passengers worldwide would still be rising.

'I'm not going to stop doing it until everyone else does'.

Which is what all those 'everyone else' people are saying as they look at you.

Perhaps we can lead by example and so influence the world to cut back on flights too. Britons took 234m flights last year. Discounting the 20% in the population who never fly at all, this works out around five per person. To hit the government's target of a 60 per cent drop in carbon emissions by 2050, we simply need to slowly wean ourselves down to two annual flights - one return trip. Maybe, if planes get more efficient, we could still afford two.

And still we don't mention the radiative forcing. Or the total inadequacy of the 60% by 2050 target. The science is clear it needs to be a global cut of 60% in about 30 years, which means our over-emitting nation needs to cut back by around 90%.

Goerge Monbiot's new article notes

the British government is well aware that its target for cutting carbon emissions – 60% by 2050 – is too little, too late, but that it will go no further for one reason: it fears losing the support of the Confederation of British Industry.

The message is getting through to us as consumers, and we are changing. Or, some of us are.

Recent surveys have suggested that 3 per cent of Britons have already stopped flying and a further 10 per cent have cut back, but people seem slower to practice what they preach - Ryanair say they have yet to notice any effect and have certainly yet to cancel a single flight as a result of such concerns.

This thinking confuses the number of people who fly with the number of flights taken. If 10% of people stop flying but the remainder all take more flights, the emissions go up.

The increase - even with the advent of budget airlines - is about the rich binge-flying. Passenger surveys show that the richest 20% of the population take half the flights. People with second homes abroad take an average of six return flights a year. The average income of a Stanstead user is over £50,000 a year - and that's 'the budget airport'!

Moreover, with China building two new power stations per week, mostly coal-fired, it's easy to wonder if it's worth agonising about whether you should go for that long weekend in Tuscany.

Again, because someone else is doing something bad I don't have to be good. As there are so many muggers out there anyway, it won't make any difference if I go and rob one or two people.

It's about total emissions - any reduction helps. More, it's about what we can do. It's a lot easier for me to decide not to fly for a holiday I can live without than it is for me to shut down a Chinese power station.

Let's not forget why there are all these new Chinese power stations, too. We shut down our manufacturing industry, then import everything from Chinese factories and tell ourselves we're so carbon friendly while they're the bad guys.

If they're making stuff for us, the emissions are our fault.

According to last year's government-commissioned report by economist Sir Nicholas Stern, power stations account for 24 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, shipping, train and road transport account for 12.3%, while flying accounts for just 1.7 per cent.

And according to the British government, flying accounts for 13% of our emissions.

(and they use underestimates; they only count departing flights instead of the total flights taken by UK citizens, they only use a radiative forcing factor of 2; the real figure's going to be more like 20%).

All this is for an activity that most of us won't undertake at all this year, that none of us needs to do and for which there's no low-carbon alternative. What better place to start on cuts?

Compare this with deforestation, which accounts for 18 per cent (half of which is attributed to the destruction of rainforests in two countries: Indonesia and Brazil). That's not to say we're damned anyway, so let's get on the plane and keep partying till the world goes up in flames, but it does put the issue into balance - should we devote nine times more effort to fighting deforestation than flying?

Yep, devote a very short simple effort into not flying; just decide it, in your own head, right now and it's done.

Because yes, we do need to tackle deforestation and coal fired power stations as well if we're going to avert dangerous climate change. Leaving any of the handful of key industries untouched will undo the good we achieve elsewhere.

Oh and that Indonesian deforestation? Much of it is burning them down to make way for palm oil plantations, to supply the processed food industry with fat and - the new big boom area - eco-friendly biodiesel for our cars. At a carbon cost ten times that of diesel from oil. Outsourcing our destruction again.

And being aware of the balance should steer us away from extreme positions - refusing to fly at all or ignoring the issue completely - towards taking practical, realistic steps to a solution.

Show me how flying can be sustainable and I'll accept it as 'practical and realistic' to continue. Until then, abstaining from flying is the only safe and sensible way forwards.

A return flight to Barcelona, for example, emits around 260kg of carbon dioxide per passenger. By insulating your loft you can easily make up for this - it will save, on average, 1,500kg of CO² per year. Replace 10 ordinary bulbs with energy saving ones, and you'll save 380kg. Chuck out your plasma TV and you'll save 404kg. Even turning off appliances instead of leaving them on standby will save 173kg - easily enough to allow a return flight to Paris or Amsterdam with a clear conscience.

Only if you presume the wasteful overconsuming domestic situation described is sustainable. It is not. The safe level is lower than that. That insulation and turning-off need to be done as well as not flying.

And still no mention of the radiative forcing.

'Dark green' environmentalists argue there is a bankrupt logic in this kind of carbon offsetting - you are doing the equivalent of donating to the RSPCA so you can keep kicking your dog, as the saying goes. You could, after all, take all those carbon-saving steps, and still cancel your holiday in Barcelona.

You said it, daddio.

Except that assumes tourism is a frivolous, self-indulgent activity which is as pointless as leaving your TV on standby. Even putting aside the benefits to the tourists themselves, this is clearly not the case. Tourism employs around 231 million people, and generates 8-10 per cent of world GDP.

Nobody's talking about an end to tourism and holidays. But maybe the Americans coming to Cornwall and the Brits going to Florida could swap destinations. Just as much tourism, much less carbon.

Elsewhere, there are places that don't send many tourists our way to exchange with, places that bring in much more tourism than they send out

in Kenya plans are being drawn up for a very different camp. Looking out from an escarpment over the deserts of Samburuland is a stunning hotel, the Ol Malo Eco-Lodge. Revenue from the small number of visiting tourists has allowed the 5,000 acres around it to be transformed from over-grazed cattle ranch to a pristine conservation site, but that is just the start.

This sounds really good. Let's just pretend that all foreign holidays are like this and none of them involve diverting precious water away from whole villages so we can have a swimming pool, or forcibly removing people so we can have their land for a (ooh, more water there too) golf course.

At a huge proportion of tourist destinations, the wealth doesn't go to the poverty-wage employees or locals but to the rich few.

More impressive still is the Ol Malo eye project. Up to 80 per cent of adults in the area suffer sight loss, caused by the infectious and preventable disease Trachoma, so the Ol Malo Trust runs regular surgical camps, bringing doctors from the UK to treat them. In January, the camp gave 102 people back their sight

You don't have to spend a couple of grand going to Kenya to save someone's eyesight. If that's your concern, the price of just one person's holiday can save the eyesight more than 120 people.

According to a Christian Aid report, climate change is likely to kill over 180 million people this century in sub-Saharan Africa. That’s more than ten 9/11s a week. To keep flying is to inflict that. It makes a mockery of our concern about aid and debt relief, and puts those 120 eye operations into a different context.

Sea level rises have already ruined vast areas of Bangladeshi farmland. Sea temperature rises are moving the rainfall in eastern Africa, drying up farmland in Ethiopia and starving people off their land. Bangladesh! Ethiopia! The very names have practically become bywords for global poverty, yet it is they who are bearing the brunt. Climate change – driven by luxury consumption such as flying – is taking food from the poorest people on earth.

Tropical diseases are spreading further and further from the equatorial zone. Should we wait until they get here before we do something, or do we care about those who are suffering for our luxuries?

Already the inhabitants of the pacific island nation of Tuvalu are having to permanently evacuate their home because of rising sea levels. People on islands in the Maldives – a favoured luxury holiday destination – face the same prospect.

We can’t seriously suggest that depriving millions of people of their food, water and health is alright because a few thousand get some tourist money.

'Our message to all air passengers is to stop feeling guilty about flying,' said Captain Mervyn Granshaw, chairman of the British Airline Pilots Association, unveiling a major study conducted by the union last month. 'We are now going to debunk the myths about air travel and spell out the facts.' Fine words but, given the level of self-interest and degree of enmity between those involved, getting the facts is a nightmarish task. Launching the 82-page report, Granshaw pulled out one key point: 'Passengers going by high speed train to the south of France would be responsible for emitting more carbon dioxide than if they had flown there.' I rang the union to check the figures and was directed to a section of the report quoting Roger Kemp, professor of engineering at Lancaster University. I then rang him. 'No, actually that's completely untrue,' he said. 'France generates about 80 per cent of its electricity using nuclear power

The fact is that, were French electricity as fossil-derived as the UK's, then the TGV would be about the same emissions as a plane. Superfast trains, like the fast ferries mentioned earlier, are very energy-thirsty. Moving fast is high consumption, whichever way you slice it.

But the difference between the TGV and the plane isn't just French nuclear electricity. It's that the TGV figures used by Granshaw, just like the article, still fails to mention the radiative forcing of planes.

A full plane, can sometimes compete with a car too. Paul Upham, a research fellow at the Tyndall Centre, calculated that travelling from Manchester to Guernsey on a full Saab 200 turbo-prop plane produced 103kg of carbon dioxide per person, compared with 226kg for a Nissan Micra carrying one person the same difference.

Mm-hmm. And how many of us fly by propeller planes? Or even by full planes? The carbon emissions for jets are far greater, and of course for part-full planes the per-passenger emissions are higher.

On average, though, a car carrying several occupants is usually better than a plane, and trains are almost always the best of all. The UK government's calculations suggest a long-haul plane emits 110g of carbon dioxide per passenger kilometre, a medium-sized car with two occupants the same, while the train emits 60g.

However, as the pollution from planes is emitted high in the atmosphere, its effects are far worse, and vapour trails (or 'contrails') lead to the formation of cirrus clouds, which stop heat escaping from the earth.

There! He said it!

One of the most important points about emissions from aircraft, omitted from numerous points where it was crucial, and now we're three quarters of the way through the piece by which time most people have stopped reading. But still, there can be no doubt, he did say it.

Given the world's apparently insatiable appetite for flying, and accepting it is seriously damaging for the environment, it becomes crucial to develop new and less polluting aircraft. Already, there is some progress: the new Boeing 747-800, which will enter service in 2009, is 16 per cent more fuel efficient than its predecessor, while the 787 'Dreamliner', which enters service next May, uses light carbon composites to cut fuel use by 20 per cent compared with the 767

Anyone think 80% of the 767 fleet flying is sustainable?

Let alone the damage done by the vast increase in aviation?

The climate doesn't distinguish between two five-tonne emissions and one ten-tonne one. And the increase in flights is crucial; these same manufacturers and airlines who are touting their eco-friendly reductions are the same people twisting the arms of governments to build more runways so there can be more flights, meaning the total emissions from flying goes up.

Virgin is even planning to test fly a 747 on biofuel.

Oh god, Branson stuffing the fuel tank with newspapers. The solitary fact that this article mentions the Virgin thing without guffawing or even questioning it tells us all we need to know. It is denotes the desperate psychological need of the writer for it to all be OK and nobody to take his toys off him.

So should we stop flying? If no one set foot on a plane again, it would undoubtedly help to stop climate change - though at the expense of killing off the tourism-based economies of many of the world's poorest countries.

As opposed to doing it to them, and many others, with climate change.

But in the real world,

Ah, the real world. The one where we're trusting Branson and Boeing to save us. Very realistic approach this real world has.

surely we have to take a more sophisticated approach:

It's another mark of his desperation that he needs to prefix his suggested solution with not one but two bits of linguistic bullying. There's the implication that the more drastic necessary alternative is not in 'the real world', and now it is also 'unsophisticated'.

Come on then, let's get all suave and refined, let's open a bottle of pink cava, put on a Bryan Ferry solo album and join in the sophistication

choose airlines with greener, newer fleets, and thus encourage plane makers to prioritise environmental performance

Airlines can only use oil based fuels. It's like opposing war by encouraging gun makers to have bullets made out of pink fun fur that cuddle and stroke the person they're fired at.

travel to destinations that help local communities rather than destroy them

There are almost none of them available. If we all went to them we would, by definition, destroy them.

take the train where possible

What does 'possible' mean? If I choose a weekend in Barcelona, my 48 hour window won't let it be possible to take the train. If I want to go to Disneyworld, it wouldn't be possible to get the train there.

The thinking is arse about face. It's not that we need to 'take the train where possible' so much as decide what to do based on what the train makes possible.

That rules out weekend breaks a thousand miles away and casual intercontinental travel. But there are more astonishing places between here and Kenya - hell, between here and Barcelona - than you'll ever have time to visit. If you can't find interesting places to go that are nearer then you're too unimaginative and dull a twonk to deserve a holiday in the first place.

We need to let the responsible travel options guide and define our choice of holidays.

reduce carbon emissions at home

Absolutely; but keep flying and you are still emitting more than is safe. It's a both/and response needed.

and, above all, lobby politicians to tackle deforestation and to switch to green forms of energy

Yes, that really needs doing too. Although to pass the buck on to politicians and corporations is as great a dodging of responsibility as the way they say it's all down to the individual consumer.

Government is more likely to make the necessary changes, and do it sooner, if we make it plain that it won’t be political suicide. There was enough of a fuss when Gordon Brown put air duty up to £10 (which wasn’t actually a real increase, just a reversal of the cut he made in 2001). What better way – indeed, what other way – is there to show that except by cutting demand?

Do all this, and we can start to cancel flights in the knowledge that it really will make a difference.

Yes, it's right that it needs to be part of a wider effort. But why do we need to do the other stuff before we start cancelling flights? That should be part and parcel of the strategy.

As flying is a luxury we don't need, and as stopping is merely an absence of action, it's something we can all do today. It should be top of the list. You can do it right now this second.


zoe said...

absolutely brilliant post.

nice work x

Paul said...

I last flew in 2004. From Liverpool to Amsterdam for my Honeymoon, and back again.

My missus would love to go to India before she dies, but it looks like we will have to walk, coz I've made a decision that I won't fly again.

And that's mainly down to you, Merrick. Keep it up, my man. You do make a difference.

Anonymous said...

I have seen the Ol Malo health / drought & conservation projects first hand. They are amazing. But do you think Westerners are just going to sit at home and send money to them out of the goodness of their hearts, without seeing first hand what the projects are all about? If tourists stop going to Ol Malo, those people will continue to lose their sight, the cattle will die, the men, women and children will starve. Thanks for nothing.

merrick said...

Anonyperson, I don't doubt your word that the Ol Malo projects are superb. Nor do I doubt that they have been made possible by tourist money.

You imply that you don't think westerners would fund such things out of altruism. I think the millions donated every year to a huge range of charities with which we have no direct contact, and the spectacular Western response to things like the Ethiopian famines and the Asian tsunami, say otherwise.

Can you give me an answer to what I said after the bit about Ol Malo? Climate change is already starving and flooding people off their land.

The benefits of taking someone to somewhere like Ol Malo are at the very least severely dented by their contribution to climate change, which is hitting the world's poorest now, and it will continue to be the poorest of the poor who bear the brunt (not my words, but those of Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC).

180 million dead in sub-Saharan Africa alone, this century alone, if climate change is not reined in. It is those who over-emit who will be to blame if it happens. That includes everyone who flies, to Ol Malo or wherever.

Even if they do some good when they get there, they utterly undermine it not only by their emissions but by the normalising of intercontinental jet travel.

As the man said, donating to the RSPCA doesn't mean you can keep kicking your dog.

RA said...

When people look at me as if I'm silly when I say I don't want to fly to Australia or California, I tell them... ". but I haven't even seen all of Scotland yet, plus I've not started on most of Wales.."

Our next holiday will be in Shropshire, about 70 miles from home. Ideal. :-)

Anonymous said...

Per mile emission comparisons between aircraft and other forms of transportation are misleading. The greatest percentage of emissions produced by an aircraft occurs during take-off and landing, thereby increasing the environmental damage to the immediate community. This is not just a factor of how many miles are flown from point A to point B.

merrick said...

Anonyperson, you're right - there are also other factors that make exact amounts difficult to gauge too.

The type of aircraft (propellor planes are less carbon intensive than jets; newer planes are generally more efficient; Concordes flew higher so the radiative forcing factor was greater)

Seat occupancy - if a third of the seats are empty (as is often the case on scheduled flights) then the per-passenger figure is greater than for a fully occupied charter flight.

Even the UK government acknowledges the difference between long haul and short haul fights, giving 0.11kg/km for long haul and 0.15kg/km for short haul, precisely because of the extra emissions during take-off and landing.

Oh, see also this excellent blogpost responding to the Observer piece.

Grinnyguy said...

This is the best article that I have read in a long time. People continuously make inane comparisons about what is "good for the environment" or not. Emissions from power generation is about 30% and emissions from planes you say are 13%. But before you say that the power generation problem is more important, think about it. Flights are unnecessary, so we could cut that percentage practically to zero, whereas it will take a lot of investment in research, development, infrastructure and building work to cut emissions from power generation.
Thanks for putting perspective on the arguments and what we actually have to do

Anonymous said...

Which is better (if you have to make a choice), going by freighter ship from South Africa to the UK or flying and donating the difference (about £900) to the World Land Trust or Cool Earth or similar organisation??!

merrick said...


the answer is neither.

firstly, donating money to rainforest protection or treeplanting doesn't help all that much.

Trees are part of the carbon cycle; the absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. Then when they die and rot or burn, they release it back again.

Fossil fuels add carbon to the cycle. Planting more trees would take out some of that carbon, and then put it back again. It's just a delaying mechanism. Making a twisty turny outflow pipe from a tank of toxic waste doesn't alter the quantity or toxicity.

Protecting existing rainforests is important, as they are still acting as carbon sinks. But flying directly assaults their ability to survive. Saying you can fly because you've donated to rainforest protection is like saying you're allowed to stab your baby because you gave money to a children's home.

The fact is we need to be preserving forest *and* stopping flying. Doing one or the other is to encourage climate change.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Merick for a clear no nonsense article - excellent.

With reference to the rainforest I would like to add a couple of points to what you said about the carbon sink -
1) the carbon in a living peice of rainforest is locked for as long as that piece lives (hopefully millenia) so re-afforestation is not temporary, although once it is mature it will emit as much carbon as it takes in.
2) the rainforest itself has a vital climate regulating capacity in that it is an enormous solar powered heat and water pump transferring heat and water (as water vapour) away from the equatorial regions to the higher latitudes.
This aspect is ignored in most climate change models and accounts for a significant error in those that do not take it into account leading to predictions which actually are too optimistic in that the rate of deforestation is severely compromising this climate regulatory function.