Think before you fly

| 11th April 2008
No one believed Big Tobacco could ever be snuffed out - until health warning stickers were made law. If the same principle of science, information and activism were applied to the aviation industry, argues Mark Anslow, the air we breathe could get cleaner yet

In 2006, slightly more than two billion passengers were carried by plane worldwide. The aviation industry is growing at five per cent every year and, once the effect of releasing greenhouse gases at high altitudes is taken into account, is already responsible for close to 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Even with more efficient engines, the climate change impact of aviation is set to double within 30 years, and if we aim for an 80 per cent cut in CO2 emissions by 2050, air travel will be responsible for 135 per cent of that allowance by mid-century.

The industry is inherently unsustainable, but also immensely popular, with the economics of cheap flights now so favourably skewed that, in April, budget operator Flybe could afford to pay actors to fill its planes in order to avoid a £280,000 penalty for flying with too few passengers.

Faced with a problem of such scale, it is worth remembering that recent history has seen a comparable problem with an industry now so heavily regulated that it seems only a matter of time before its product loses all credibility. That industry is tobacco.

No smoke without fire...

Christmas 2002 can’t have held much cheer for tobacco manufacturers. Where once they had looked upon their product packaging as prime marketing real estate marred only by small, tired NHS warnings, they suddenly faced a law requiring them to print over 30-40 per cent of the box huge, indelible warnings of painful death and loss of virility.

It worked. Within four months of the new warning labels appearing, the NHS Smoking Helpline had logged a 12 per cent increase in calls from smokers anxious to quit, 10,000 of whom said the new labels had encouraged them to pick up the phone. Come 2005, as many as 4,000 people a month were calling the helpline out of concern caused by the labels. Research in the Netherlands on an identical scheme showed that 13 per cent of smokers were less likely to buy cigarettes on account of the warnings.

It is breathtaking to think such warnings ever became a condition of sale for a product that was once one of the most lucrative in the world, grown and distributed by some of the most powerful corporations ever seen. At the peak of its popularity in 1948, some 82 per cent of British men smoked some form of tobacco, at a rate of 12 cigarettes per man, per day.

So what changed? The first ingredient was sound science. In 1950, Sir Richard Doll and Sir Austin Bradford Hill famously began to publish research that suggested an incontrovertible link between smoking and lung cancer. The size and accuracy of their sample made the results very difficult to challenge, and Doll’s statistical rigour saw off the regular attempts by the industry to discredit his research.

The second ingredient was public opinion. Despite smoking’s popularity and cultural resonance, the public was quick to absorb the implications of Doll’s research. Reader’s Digest was active in publishing anti-smoking articles as early as 1954, and within 20 years of the first evidence appearing a fiercely active pressure group, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), had begun a carefully coordinated campaign of sciencebased activism and use of the media. ASH was staffed by professionals and activists – a potent combination of talent.

These factors catalysed a series of progressive actions by government. In 1965, cigarette adverts were banned from television screens and, by 1971, the first official health warnings were introduced on cigarettes packs, to be further enlarged in 1986. Although much lobbying took place in the intervening years, the tide had turned against a ubiquitous habit.

Son of cigarettes

Although booking a flight is nowadays almost as easy as lighting up a cigarette, it is almost certainly the biggest single annual greenhouse gas contribution an individual will make in a year, and your biggest single easily avoidable source of emissions. So what chance is there that the flight will go the way of the fag?

The science of the environmental effect of aviation was effectively settled in 1999, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its landmark report ‘Aviation and the Global Atmosphere’. The IPCC confirmed that emissions at altitude were between one and four times more damaging than the same gases produced at ground level. The aviation industry has been quick to focus on the degree of uncertainty in the IPCC’s predictions – just as the tobacco industry was in the 1950s – but nearly all leading climate research institutes accept that the impact of flying is greater than just the total CO2 emissions from kerosene fuel.

Group action against the industry was given a significant boost by the Camp for Climate Action at Heathrow last August, as well as continued action by innovative pressure group Plane Stupid. Recent protests, such as the dropping of a banner reading ‘BAA HQ’ from the roof of the House of Commons, has helped catapult the issue of aviation growth into public consciousness.

Quiet inroads have even been made in Westminster itself. A little-reported House of Commons Treasury Committee document released in January 2008 called on airlines to make information on carbon emissions and the fuel-efficiency of aircraft readily available to the public, and reprimanded the industry for ‘dragging its feet’ in co-operating on environmental schemes. It recommended the Government introduce a labelling scheme 'at the earliest opportunity’.

Finally, and critically, it seems as though public opinion towards aviation is beginning to shift. While still a wildly popular mode of travel, MORI research shows that 56 per cent of the public would be willing to change their behaviour to ‘help limit climate change’, and 44 per cent realise that flying to Edinburgh is the most damaging way to reach the city.

Interestingly, although Government research in 2006 found 90 per cent of people thought they should be free to fly as much as they wanted, the number dropped to just over 40 per cent when the phrase ‘even if this harms the environment’ was added to the question. This may have prompted aviation campaigner Jeff Gazzard, interviewed in Leo Hickman’s The Final Call, to claim: ‘I think within a few years we will start seeing health warnings on adverts for flights akin to cigarettes.’

As if to mark his words, campaign group Enough’s Enough launched a website – – mocking up smoking warnings to refer to flights, and a petition on the Number 10 website is calling for a total ban on flight advertising. The parallels between the fight against tobacco and the fight against aviation are now simply too stark to ignore.

Arranged across these pages are a series of illustrative flight adverts, with comparative warnings calculated and added by the Ecologist. We sent these adverts to a number of groups (see panel below). The spread of support seems broad.

We are asking Ecologist readers to let us know what you think. Would these warnings make you think twice before booking a flight? Should the wording become more stark? More general or precise?

By showing a groundswell of support for the proposals, it’s just possible the critical mass that catalysed the beginnings of the anti-smoking movement can be brought to bear on an industry that is peddling a product far more dangerous for global health than the most addicted smoker ever could be.

Mark Anslow is the Ecologist’s senior reporter.

Methodology for the warning text is available at

What they thought...

‘Flying is one of the most polluting activities an individual can choose to take part in. These adverts provide a stark, clear and easy to understand illustration of this’ – Friends of the Earth

‘People need to understand the impact of their actions so they can make an informed decision about how to act. For that reason, we would endorse advertisements like these being proposed by the Ecologist’ – Campaign for Better Transport

‘Advertising by airlines has done a very good job of enticing people to take more holidays abroad. With global greenhouse gas emissions continuing to rise, it’s time to redress the balance, and for that reason we’d fully support the kind of emissions warnings for airline adverts that the Ecologist is proposing’ – Aviation Environment Federation

‘The cigarette packet warning is a nice idea, but this needs some tweaking. The warning on cigarette packets is starker and more clearly delineated from the rest of the packaging’ – Greenpeace

‘The Government recognises that there is a need for clear information being available to the public about the climate change impact of their travel. Last year, the Government launched the Act on CO² campaign, which [includes] a web-based carbon calculator that enables people reliably to calculate their carbon footprint from flying and makes personalised recommendations on reducing that footprint’ – Department for Transport

This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2008

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