Long-haul travel and climate change

| 14th May 2019
Airplane wing
In an era of climate breakdown, do we need to stop flying?


Emma Thompson travelled 5,456 miles from Los Angeles to London to take part in a ten-day climate change action organised by the Extinction Rebellion protest last month.

It didn’t take but a moment for hundreds on social media to call out Thompson’s actions as “counterproductive” and “hypocritical” since her participation at the protest could have easily been held virtually.

Thompson announced that she was offsetting her carbon footprint (1.67 tonnes of CO2) flight by planting trees. Despite her goodwill, Thompson’s answers to her critics do not resolve the current dilemma we face regarding long-haul travel in an age where work and family often necessitate frequent trips across the planet. 

Short distances

It's is not uncommon to hear people in New York or Los Angeles announce that they are “bi-coastal”, or others discuss incorporating weekly long-haul travels into their careers or complex familial arrangements. 

But it is time that we ask ourselves if we can speak of ethical long-haul travel today.

This is a moment where the personal is political and the changes to combat climate change must take root in all our travel choices.

Short-distance travel solutions have had better results as municipalities experiment with solutions to carbon fuel transportation. Sacramento, CA is about to launch a 260-vehicle fleet for its electric car-sharing program Gig Car Share.

Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti announced a comprehensive plan for the elimination of all CO2 emissions in transportation, housing and industry to be completed by 2050, stating, “We will have zero days of unhealthy air quality by 2025.” 

Electric cars

Other cities like Canberra, Australia are enticing drivers to ditch their private vehicles by offering a free month of travel in its public transportation system and Tallinn, Estonia offers completely free and unlimited public transport 365 days a year.

State-sponsored programmes are already having a positive impact for those who were already public transport users. 

The greater challenge to short-distance transportation solutions rests in getting car-owners to rethink their transport habits, which is proving to be a far greater challenge than many analysts imagined.

Even among the groups that we might expect to be more open to alternative transportation, these are proving to be the hardest to convert to public transportation. 

For instance, a high percentage of millennials are uninterested in electric vehicles (EVs) and the reputedly ecologically-minded Germans are equally attached to their gas-guzzling vehicles. People love the speed and privacy of traditional vehicles as well as the ease of filling up without waiting for a two-hour battery charge. Many people are also put off by the price tag of electric vehicles which is offset by tax incentiveswithin the EU and a €4,000 within Germany. 

Personal priorities 

The problems plaguing private car ownership are similar to those of long-haul airline travel, such that we are seeing the need for people to rethink what they classify as a “need” and what is unnecessary travel. This will require a shift in priorities.

Addressing how people move around their cities or states does not answer those like Emma Thompson who must travel for work, protest and family.

Is it even possible to balance our social, personal and professional needs when the carbon footprint for a trip halfway around the world hardly balances out the damage done to the planet?  

A UK-based NGO, Tourism Concern asks this very question. On their website they state: “We believe that consumers need to take a responsible attitude to flying. Fly less and switch to other forms of transport, particularly for shorter journeys.

"If flying long-haul, try to go to destinations in developing countries and to stay longer, so that your contribution to the host economy is greater.” 

Carbon offsetting

Certainly in the EU where many people have anywhere between 20 and 25 days a year of annual leave, it might be an option to take these days all at once. However, this is highly unlikely to be a viable alternative to holiday travel given that most employers are unwilling to grant such large chunks of time to their employees so they might take their leave each year in order to  abridge their contributions to climate change.

While many ask “How can I offset my carbon footprint?” this too is a superficial treatment to a problem that today needs actual change, not money thrown at the problem. Indeed, half the world's biggest airlines don't offer the option of offsetting. 

The issue at heart is that airline travel is highly damaging to the planet, no matter how many times you calculate your flight’s emissions and tally up a guilt tax to pay to charity.

The environmental impact of aviation is tremendous, from the noise that aircraft engines emit  in addition to the particulates and gases which contribute to climate change and global dimming.

In addition to the emission of CO2, there are many other toxins like hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, sulphur oxides, lead, black carbon and nitrogen oxides created by air travel. 

Lax regulation 

Airline transportation needs to be completely rethought from how it is engineered to our personal choice to use it and how often.

Long-distance travel is also getting more difficult in terms of bureaucracy in addition to the ecological pressures. And the two are often intertwined. 

For instance, the US has recently implemented a system for EU nationals who must obtain an Electronic System for Travel Authorization before travelling to the US through its ESTA system. But, to apply for this authorisation, you must already have your airline ticket which means that if your request is rejected, you cannot travel and the airplane is obliged to fly with an empty seat. 

Relatedly, airlines are often critiqued for how they fail to fill their planes before take-off since fuller planes translates to fewer flights. It will take better regulation of airline travel to ensure that flights are not taking off with ten passengers aboard.

Another obstacle to environmental health is the promotion of low-cost airline tickets. Today, people take airplanes as they once took trains, keeping residences in two countries while viewing this as a necessity. 

We need to ask ourselves as a society and as individuals whether we should maintain such damaging lifestyle choices. 

Fly less

The reality is that ecological solutions are within our reach.

George Monbiot has suggested two solutions which, if everyone were to enact, would have immediate impact: “drive much less” and “fly much less.”

Also, pack lightly and avoid layovers since the takeoff of airplanes is what consumes the most fuel. Take direct flights or better yet, take none. Instead of attending that conference, present your work through any number of online video forums such as Skype.

Aside from this, many of the improvements to airline travel must come at the end of airplane design and management: the manner in which planes are filled with fuel and humans, how much time planes spend on the tarmac, engine and seat design, the need to introduce electric wheels and mandatory forced retirement of planes over 25 years of age.

Better yet, take trains! Train travel is more time-consuming but its carbon footprint is anywhere from 85 to 90 percent less than air travel. This will mean that British train companies need to start making fares competitive with plane travel and for travel on the continent. Mark Smith offers some useful tips as to how to purchase affordable tickets.

Connecting the dots

Technology has created an amazing choice of how we organise our urban travel with the fastest bus to work or the best deals for the most fuel-efficient airlines to use for our annual leave.

Until electric airplanes are a viable option, the only alternative to airplanes is earth-bound electric transport, from trains to electric busses now being rolled out all over the planet. 

For while I sympathised with Emma Thompson’s predicament last month. She fits what Monbiot describes in his 2006 book, Heat: “Thinking like ethical people makes not a damn of difference unless we also behave like ethical people.”

We need to connect the dots between thinking and acting on the ecological front today.

This Author

Julian Vigo is an independent scholar and filmmaker who specializes in anthropology, technology, and political philosophy. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She is a contributor to Forbes, Quillette, TruthDig, Dissident Voice, Black Agenda Report, The Morning Star, The Ecologist, and CounterPunch.

Image: Epicantus, Flickr. 

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