As I write, I'm 36,000ft above the Atlantic ocean on a Boeing 747. It's hardly moral ground from which to argue against personal air travel, but I am the first to admit how difficult it is to keep action in line with principles. My personally allocated ‘love miles' - the distance travelled to be with my loved ones - are being redeemed on an annual flight to a family reunion just outside Washington DC. This flight is necessary. Not taking it would mean never seeing my family; my kids wouldn't recognise their grandparents. At the same time, aviation is the UK's fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, and at this rate will exceed this country's entire carbon allocation by 2050. If we are to have any chance of reducing CO² emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, air travel needs to ground to a screeching halt. I can almost hear George Monbiot over the loudspeaker: ‘If you fly, you destroy other people's lives'.
How many of the 200 million passengers using British airports every year are boarding flights for weekend shopping trips to New York and Bank Holidays in sunny countries, I don't know. Over 10 years, the average growth in CO² emissions from aviation has been 4.5 per cent per year. Everyone agrees behaviour change is vital to emissions reductions, but appealing to people's consciences to stop
flying has only worked to a certain degree.
Putting love miles aside for the minute, business is still business. Neither of the people I'm seated next to - both of whom have been bumped from business class as it was too full - are in a moral quandary about flying. On my left is a man going to DC on a 24-hour business trip - for one meeting. What justifies the flight? ‘The meeting was "business critical",' he says. What does that mean? ‘It's a new policy. You need to write a longer email to the boss to make your case.' It's more heartening to hear the man on my right hasn't flown in six months. ‘My company has drastically cut down on air travel. I need to ask the executive vice-president in order to fly,' he says. Even with a $1 million investment in video conferencing equipment his company has recently made, the ‘telepresence' effect wasn't enough to keep him off this plane. Companies are capping corporate air travel, which helps, but in these cases at least, the decisions were cost-saving measures and not based on any corporate social responsibility policies.
Questioning unnecessary travel really means considering the modes of travel available to reach your destination and choosing the one with the least carbon intensity. Virtually all destinations around Europe are reachable by train and bus, but despite this, 45 per cent of air journeys in Europe cover less than 500km - the distance between London and the Scottish border. As Plane Stupid activist Graham Thompson says, ‘One important type of unnecessary flight is the flight you didn't know you wanted to take until a billboard told you that you did'.
And we need to take a critical look not only at how much we fly: road transport already accounts for 26 per cent of the UK's carbon dioxide emission, half of this is from cars alone, and over the past 25 years, road travel has increased by 80 per cent. A Sustrans survey shows almost half the car trips within three UK towns surveyed could be replaced by walking, cycling and/or public transport. Shockingly, more than 40 per cent of children aged five to 10 are taken to school by car.
Even if you have fallen into the habit of reducing unnecessary travel, there are further pitfalls when it comes to evaluating ‘green travel'. In his Greenwash column on the Guardian website, Fred Pearce has argued
that trains are given an easy ride over their emissions. Depending on occupancy rates and type of train, emissions per mile on a train can
be about the same as taking a ‘fullish' plane. ‘Quick-fix' solutions such as carbon offsetting have mainly been discredited; many schemes are based on planting trees, which is at best a short-term solution, and can end up being a net source of carbon if mismanaged.
Where does this leave us? As of November 2009, changes to the Air Passenger Duty mean that airlines will be taxed per plane, rather than per passenger. This means that airlines will be much more concerned with flying planes that are full, thereby reducing the overall tax burden per passenger. So by this autumn, taking a conscious decision not to fly will have even more of an impact - as it will have a direct impact on the cost of aviation - and therefore its prominence.
The idea of a one-flight-per-person annual allowance, with further flights heavily taxed, has already been floated by one political party, and quickly shelved. By and large, what we are lacking is a national transport policy that manages demand instead of one that ‘predicts and provides'. The solutions may not seem palatable to us now, but in the future they will be something over which we have no choice. Everthing we do, use and buy contributes to our carbon footprint; should carbon rationing become a reality in future, the thoughtless ease with
which we currently take flights will have to be replaced with a conscious calculation of its true cost.
Travelling better, travelling greener
• The Campaign for Better Transport Campaigns to improve public transport, change policy and reduce traffic.
• seat 61 Get anywhere by train.
• Sustrans - Transport charity that runs the TravelSmart programme, helping households reduce car use.
• Environmental Transport Association
• plane stupid ‘Bringing the aviation industry back down to earth'.
• no flights