New Internationalist

Is flying still beyond the pale?

January 2014

Climate researcher Kevin Anderson and business adviser Brendan May go head to head.

Every month we invite two experts to debate, and then invite you to join the conversation online.

Kevin

YES: Kevin Anderson is Professor of Energy and Climate Change in the School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering at the University of Manchester. He is Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and has recently been published in Royal Society journals and Nature.

I attended my first international negotiation on climate change COP19 in Warsaw last November. To reduce my own carbon footprint I decided eight years ago that I could no longer justify flying. So it was a 23-hour overnight train journey for me - time to catch up on work and get a night’s kip - arguably quicker, and certainly more productive and with far lower emissions, than flying.

But why the focus on flying if, after all, it’s less than three per cent of global carbon emissions? Well, the three per cents all add up. More troubling is the rapid rate at which aviation is expanding when, unlike virtually all other sectors, there are no technical fixes capable of reducing the sector’s emissions in the medium term.

Does it matter? From a climate-change perspective the answer is an emphatic yes. To stand an outside chance of avoiding dangerous climate change - levels of warming that would be devastating to many communities, species and ecosystems - we need immediate and radical reductions in our consumption of carbon-based energy, while simultaneously building low-carbon energy systems. Either that or we knowingly plunge millions of vulnerable people into still deeper hardship.

The ‘elephant in the room’ is who makes these reductions? Simple: the small group responsible for the lion’s share of emissions, including virtually everyone at the COP19 event. Flying is a growing portion of our emissions and emblematic of the carbon-profligate lifestyles we have normalized, locking us into a transport infrastructure with no low-carbon alternatives.

Expanding aviation is numerically, technically and symbolically incompatible with commitments to avoiding dangerous climate change, and responsibility for reductions falls squarely on the shoulders of an elite few: mine, yours, and most of our readers.

Brendan

NO: Brendan May is Chair of the Robertsbridge Group, which he founded in 2010 with other prominent green campaigners. He is a former board director of the Rainforest Alliance, and also former Chief Executive of the Marine Stewardship Council. He is a regular writer and commentator on corporate sustainability and NGO issues.

It makes good sense to travel by train from Britain to Warsaw (doubtless a far more pleasant experience than flying, which frequent travellers such as myself do with no sense of enjoyment!). I’m certainly not an aviation lobby type who takes refuge in the ‘small percentage of global emissions’ argument. I well recall palm-oil buyers trotting out tedious refrains such as we only buy 0.5 per cent of the world’s palm oil. We all know where that led - a deforestation disaster. But for me, flying is a necessary evil. Of course one should avoid it when practical. I wonder whether you would have boycotted the skies had the COP19 meeting been in, say, Bali, Mumbai, or Durban? I don’t believe the loss of working time spent fighting for change would make such a decision justifiable. I’m in favour of environmentalists flying, provided the work makes a tangible difference. When it comes to intergovernmental climate summits one could well ask whether the rewards are worth the risks, given the decades of political paralysis that is their trademark.

Years ago I stopped attending UN marine conservation meetings, concluding they were both a waste of time and carbon. I’m strongly against flying to sustainability conferences to give or sit through PowerPoints relaying nonsense such as ‘consumer behaviour change’, ‘net positive’ or ‘disruptive innovation’. I fly to help large companies transform their business practices. I don’t believe it’s wrong for campaigners or business people to board a plane, provided they can show clear benefits of their interventions. Travelling to some of the places where the sustainability and development challenges are most acute is possibly more useful than sitting at home pontificating about them on email and in green retreats here in Britain.

Finally, the notion of blanket bans on things such as meat consumption, flying or drinking milk, is, in my view, fundamentally unrealistic, and a major obstacle to mainstreaming environmentalism. Especially when the fastest growth in all those phenomena is likely to come from growing middle-class aspirations in emerging economies. Are we saying they should stop their air travel, too? And if so, how can that battle possibly be won?

Kevin

You say flying is ‘a necessary evil’, but miss the crucial issue of cumulative emissions depleting the small and rapidly dwindling carbon budget available for a two-degree Celsius characterization of dangerous climate change.

The rapid rate at which aviation is expanding is troubling when there are no technical fixes capable of reducing the sector's emissions in the medium term - Kevin

Global emissions are now 60 per cent higher than at the time of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, when we hoped that changing the practices of big business would deliver the necessary emission reductions. This approach has failed - despite well-meaning policymakers, environmentalists and scientists travelling the world, arguing for change. It created an industry of consultants, carbon financiers and offsetting - but without any drop in the rate of increase of emissions!

Your arguments may have been valid in the past but, in 2013, I suggest they are inappropriate for the scale of the climate challenge and the unprecedented rate of reductions now required.

You advocate flying if it delivers ‘clear benefits’. But I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t think that they’re part of the solution, rather than the problem - environmentalists, business leaders and policymakers alike. Where does that leave us? If we are to avoid dangerous levels of climate change, someone has to catalyze a radical change in emissions. I believe it’s our responsibility. We know the maths and the repercussions of failure, so it is incumbent on us to deliver tangible differences while radically reducing our emissions. Since flying represents so much of our individual carbon footprints, we should start there.

Brendan

As someone who shares your gloom about how little has been achieved in the past, I am now only interested in battles that environmentalists can win. My problem is that your solutions are not realistic, even if scientifically optimal. Whether we are part of the solution or not, a handful of greens flying (and please accept there are many in the developing world too; not all environmentalists are Western!) is an infinitesimal part of the problem. Are you or I going to stop the fact that there will be 800 million more air travellers in five years’ time? And that the vast majority of these will be on routes connected to China?

I don't believe it's wrong for campaigners or business people to board a plane, provided they can show clear benefits of their interventions - Brendan.

We should surely focus, as other industries facing similar growth and demand have done, on how we produce the supply for that need, which is unstoppable. Aside from the fact that there would be no global environmental (or fairtrade) movement without aviation, this is an argument that goes nowhere. What are your proposals to accelerate fuel, aircraft design, and route efficiencies, and would devising those not be a better use of the time spent on a train from London to Warsaw? Without flying, we wouldn’t know half as much about the state of the world’s climate had people like you not taken to the skies, and onwards to space.

Kevin

I am concerned that you fundamentally misunderstand the repercussions of failing to mitigate dangerous climate change. You paint two degrees plus warming as just one of a succession of ‘planetary crises’. Make no mistake, the ‘battles that environmentalists can win’ will not be won in the face of climate-change impacts. Ecological, conservation and equity problems will all be severely exacerbated.

Downplaying the gross overconsumption of carbon-based energy in wealthy nations as ‘an infinitesimal part of the problem’ is disingenuous. Recall that Britain’s consumption emissions are among the top 10 global emitters, of which its per-capita emissions are the third highest - disproportionately emitted by just a privileged few of us.

You present a baffling mix of fatalism and unfounded optimism. Certainly, grand climate jamborees have failed abjectly to cut emissions, but that doesn’t mean all other approaches should be abandoned. Moreover, the short-term (and welcome) emissions growth in emerging economies is precisely the reason why a step change in industrialized countries is urgently required (much faster than low-carbon technologies can deliver). Profound reductions from us high emitters (including a minority in China and elsewhere) are certainly more realistic than barely surviving in a four degrees plus future.

Brendan, you and I need urgently to illustrate how we can operate in a globalized society but with radically reduced emissions. It will be difficult but failure is not an option. Asking others to do as we say not as we do is futile.

Brendan

You’re confusing my view that flying isn’t ‘beyond the pale’ with indifference to the consequences of climate change. Let’s be honest - you and I aren’t going to stop the expansion of aviation that is forecast.

I know this pains you but environmentalists are flying, day in day out. This is infinitesimal in the overall scheme of global flight statistics. Many academics and skilled professionals, like a Chinese engineer I met on a flight recently, are travelling around the world’s cities to build new infrastructures to help them adapt to the consequences of climate change.

When I feel I am making more of a difference by flying than sitting at home, I’m afraid I will fly (offsetting it as best as I can). I wish you would, too. It’s not beyond the pale - it’s actually an imperative. I have yet to meet an active global environmentalist who has adopted your remedy. They can’t, they won’t, and they shouldn’t.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 469 This feature was published in the January 2014 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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