To Fly or Not to Fly

Air travel is becoming as controversial as wearing a fur coat or smoking in pregnancy. But do we need to feel guilty about flying? Tom Robbins reported in the Guardian Weekly last week

We still have time, but not for long – it all comes down to us now. There is no doubting the seriousness or sincerity of the protesters putting the final touches to plans for a campaign of direct action next month.
Sometimes their communications even assume a biblical tone: “Should we not change our ways, we’ll see forests burn, soils decay, oceans rise and millions of people die.” Their methods, including a huge protest camp and co-ordinated civil disobedience, echo those of past campaigns against the Vietnam war, nuclear weapons and oppressive regimes abroad. But this time, the mission is not to stop wars, bombs or torture, it’s to stop people going on holiday.

Thousands of activists are expected to descend on London’s Heathrow airport for a week in mid-August. There will be workshops on issues from carbon offsetting and biofuels to campaign strategy and skills for direct action, and the camp will climax with a day in which demonstrators will try to disrupt the airport as much as possible.
Never before has flying been so controversial. In the space of two years, the environmental damage done by planes has gone from being an issue quietly discussed by scientists and committed environmentalists to one that grabs headlines no one can ignore. Politicians are pilloried in newspapers for flying to meetings. Travellers checking in for domestic flights are confronted by Greenpeace campaigners urging them to take the train instead. Travel agents’ shops are daubed in protesters’ paint and travel magazines get hate-mail.
Even those who fly once or twice a year on holiday can’t help but feel a growing sense of guilt, while those opting for trips by car, train or ferry have a self-righteous spring in their steps. Now, however, the backlash is beginning. 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? That driving can release twice as much carbon as flying? A report from the British Airlines Pilots Association (Balpa) even claims flying can be better than taking the train. And at last month’s Paris Airshow, Airbus unveiled its own solution to climate change – promising to “save the planet, one A380 at a time”. That’s A380, as in the vast double-decker airliner about to enter service. So whom do you believe?
One thing on which all sides agree is that aviation is booming. There are about 17,700 commercial aircraft in the world. Over the next 20 years, manufacturers expect to deliver 25,600 new planes, with massive growth coming from China, India and Russia as economies develop and flying is deregulated.
“Aviation is here to stay and will grow faster than people expect,” said Praful Patel, India’s civil aviation minister. “India is a country of 1.1 billion people and fewer than 10 million fly even once a year.”
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. This year there will be 2.2 billion air passengers worldwide and the number is growing by 4% a year, according to International Air Transport Association forecasts.
Airbus predicts the UK will buy 1,282 airliners over the next 20 years, while America, China and India will buy 10,492. UK passenger numbers are expected to grow over the next four years by 4% per year on international flights and 3% on domestic flights, but India and China are predicted to grow by 8% on international flights and 23% and 12%, respectively, on domestic flights.
Perhaps Britain 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 at about five per person. To hit the government’s target of a 60% drop in carbon emissions by 2050, Britons simply need to slowly wean themselves down to two annual flights – one return trip. Maybe, if planes get more efficient, it could be two.
And yet the kind of mass change in behaviour that would make this work still seems to be a long way off. Recent surveys have suggested that 3% of Britons have already stopped flying and a further 10% have cut back, but people seem slow to practice what they preach – Ryanair says it has yet to notice any effect and has not cancelled a single flight as a result of such concerns. (It could be lying, but then why would it have 30 new planes on order?) Even if a route from the UK became unviable due to boycotts by green travellers, the airlines, loath to give up a landing slot, would simply switch to a new destination – likely to be one further afield in a developing economy where demand is growing fastest.
Moreover, with China building two 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. According to last year’s British government-commissioned report by economist Sir Nicholas Stern, power stations account for 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions, shipping, train and road transport account for 12.3% and flying accounts for just 1.7%. Compare this with deforestation, which accounts for 18% (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? And being aware of the balance should steer us away from extreme positions – refusing to fly at all or ignoring the issue – towards taking practical, realistic steps to a solution.
A return flight from London to Barcelona, for example, emits about 260kg of carbon dioxide per passenger. Insulating an average loft 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 that saves 380kg. Chuck out a plasma TV and save 404kg. Even turning off appliances instead of leaving them on standby will save 173kg – easily enough to allow a return flight from London to Paris or Amsterdam with a clear conscience.
“Dark green” environmentalists argue there is a bankrupt logic in this kind of carbon offsetting – you are doing the equivalent of donating to an animal charity 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.
Except that assumes tourism is a frivolous, self-indulgent activity, which is as pointless as leaving a TV on standby. Even putting aside the benefits to the tourists themselves, this is clearly not the case. Tourism employs about 231 million people, and generates 8-10% of world GDP.
While the campaigners plot their Heathrow action, in Kenya plans are being drawn up for a very different camp. Looking out from an escarpment over the deserts of Samburuland is the Ol Malo Eco-Lodge. Revenue from its few visitors has allowed 2,000 hectares around it to be transformed from over-grazed cattle ranch to a pristine conservation site, but that is just the start. The tourist-funded lodge provides infrastructure and backup for a range of community work. About 100 women are employed in the workshop making traditional beadwork for export, and the children come along to paint for fun.
More impressive still is the Ol Malo eye project. Up to 80% of adults in the area suffer sight loss, caused by the infectious and preventable disease trachoma, so the Ol Malo Trust runs surgical camps, bringing doctors from the UK. In January, the camp gave 102 people back their sight. “It’s very simple – all of our visitors fly here,” said Julia Francombe, the trust’s founder. “If they stopped coming, it would kill us.”
Captain Mervyn Granshaw, Balpa’s chairman, says: “Our message to all air passengers is to stop feeling guilty about flying,” he said. “We are now going to debunk the myths about air travel and spell out the facts.”
However, getting the facts is a nightmarish task.
“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,” Granshaw said.
The report quotes Roger Kemp, professor of engineering at Lancaster University, in support of this statement. However, he disputes the claim. “No, actually that’s completely untrue,” he says. “France generates about 80% of its electricity using nuclear power, so if you wanted to go to the south of France, by far the best way to go is by TGV.” But he goes on to say that plane travel is not always automatically the worst choice environmentally. “The worst way to get to the south of France is to take a car ferry then motorail, where you can end up with a diesel engine hauling a huge train with cars on wagons.”
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 distance. He was quoted as concluding: “Planes aren’t the evil things relative to cars that people imagine.”
Ferries clearly cannot claim automatic green superiority. “I have to admit that I rather enjoy ferry travel,” says Kemp. “But if you start to do the analysis of that, it starts to look rather unattractive too, because of the power used to move not only the people, but the cabin, space for their car, the bars, nightclubs, and so on. I don’t think there’s much in it between taking the plane and taking the ferry.”
Analysing how modes of transport compare is fiendishly complex. Some trains are worse than others (faster trains consume up to four times as much energy, and diesels can emit more than twice the carbon dioxide of electric trains). Some high-speed ferries use double the fuel of conventional ships, making them several times worse than planes for carbon emissions. Ultimately, experts admit that given the right circumstances, any method of transport can be made to come out on top. 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. Most scientists agree that this “radiative forcing” effect is real – and point to the cooling in America after all planes were grounded on 9/11 – but few agree on the scale of its effects. Estimates are that before comparing a plane’s emissions to those of a car or train, you would first have to double or triple them. “The big problem is that there is no consensus on this and people seem to be becoming split along ideological lines, with NGOs accepting the multiplier and industry not,” says Upham.
His Manchester to Guernsey calculation has made him the unwitting poster boy for the pro-aviation lobby, but his actual views are different: “Taking into account the contrails, flying is usually about nine times worse than taking the train, and three times worse than a car with two passengers.”
Given the world’s apparently insatiable appetite for flying, and accepting it is seriously damaging for the environment, it becomes crucial to develop less polluting aircraft. Already, there is some progress: the Boeing 747-800, which will enter service in 2009, is 16% 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% compared with the 767, and 70% compared with the 727 launched in 1963. Airbus’s claim that it can save the world with the A380 may be far-fetched, but its “gentle giant” plane is far more efficient and quieter than those of 20 years ago and Virgin is even planning to test fly a 747 on biofuel. Moves to reform air-traffic control so planes are not stuck in circling patterns are also vital. In Europe, this would cut carbon emissions by 12%.
Some environmentalists, however, scorn these advances, saying such measures are a “delusion”, “like holding out for cigarettes that don’t cause cancer”. “The aviation industry is prone to vastly overstating the gains that can be made from technological improvements but sadly a climate friendly plane isn’t on the horizon,” says Emily Armistead of Greenpeace. “The only way to deal with aviation’s impact is to limit its expansion.”
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. But in the real world, surely we have to take a more sophisticated approach: to choose airlines with greener, newer fleets, and thus encourage plane makers to prioritise environmental performance; to travel to destinations that help local communities; to take the train where possible; to reduce carbon emissions at home; and, above all, lobby politicians to tackle deforestation and to switch to green forms of energy. Do all this, and we can start to cancel flights in the knowledge that it really will make a difference.