Is flying still a possibility?

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Is flying still a possibility?

Climate researcher Kevin Anderson and business adviser Brendan May discuss the question.

Kevin – no, flying is not still a possibility


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 written for the Royal Society journals and Nature.

I went to my first international meeting on climate change in Warsaw in November 2013. I wanted to reduce my own carbon footprint – to use less carbon. So eight years ago I decided that flying is no longer possible. So I went to Warsaw by train overnight for 23 hours. I did some work on the train and I slept. So, I think it was quicker, and I did more and with far lower carbon emissions, than flying.

But why is there a problem with flying if it’s less than three per cent of global carbon emissions? Well, three per cent and three percent and three per cent become a lot. A bigger problem is that there is more and more flying now. And there are no technical ways to reduce the carbon emissions at the moment.

Is it really a problem? When we think about climate change, the answer is certainly; yes. To have a small chance of stopping dangerous climate change, we must reduce the use of carbon-based energy. We must find ways of making energy with low carbon emissions. If we do not, the levels of global warming will be very serious for many communities, animals, and ecosystems. If we do not, we will make life even harder for millions of people. The problem is: who will reduce these carbon emissions? It is simple: the small group of people responsible for most of the carbon emissions. Flying is a growing part of our emissions. Flying is a sign of the lifestyles which make carbon emissions and which we think are normal. We have made a transport system with no low-carbon alternatives.

We cannot continue with these carbon emissions and hope to stop dangerous climate change. And we are all responsible for reductions in emissions. You, me, and all our readers.

Brendan – yes, flying is still a possibility


Brendan May is Chair of the Robertsbridge Group, which he started in 2010 with other important green campaigners. He was a board director of the Rainforest Alliance, and also Chief Executive of the Marine Stewardship Council. He is a regular writer and commentator on corporate sustainability and NGO issues.''

It is a very good idea to travel by train from Britain to Warsaw. And I think it is more enjoyable than flying. And people like me who fly often find flying not very enjoyable! I’m certainly not someone who pretends that flying only uses a ‘small percentage of global emissions’. I remember well the palm-oil buyers saying they only buy 0.5 per cent of the world’s palm oil. We all know what happened - so many forests were cut down. But for me, flying is bad but necessary. Of course we should not fly if possible. I wonder if Kevin would have said no to flying with the Warsaw meeting in Bali, Mumbai, or Durban? I don’t think the time lost for work in flying when we are fighting for change makes a difference. I think it is OK for environmentalists to fly if the work makes a real difference. With meetings between governments on climate change I am not sure, Years pass by with no real political decisions.

Years ago I stopped going to UN marine conservation meetings. I decided they were a waste of time and carbon. I’m against flying to sustainability conferences to give or sit through PowerPoints which talk about nonsense such as ‘consumer behaviour change’ and other ideas. I fly to help big companies change what they do in their businesses. I don’t believe it’s wrong for campaigners or business people to go by plane, if they can show clear benefits from what they do. Travelling to some of the places where the sustainability and development problems are very great is possibly better than sitting at home emailing in Britain.

Finally, I think the idea of stopping everyone eating meat, flying or drinking milk is not practical. And it makes getting people to agree on environmental problems more difficult. The fastest growth in all of these problems is likely to come from the growing middle-classes in the new economies. Are we saying they should stop flying, too? And if so, how can we win that argument?

Kevin – no, flying is not still a possibility

Brendan, you say flying is ‘bad but necessary’. But you forget the problem of emissions which are reducing the small carbon budget for a two-degree Celsius situation for dangerous climate change.

Global emissions are now 60 per cent higher than in 1992 at the time of the Rio Earth Summit. Then we hoped that changing what big businesses do would reduce carbon emissions. This idea failed. People with good ideas, environmentalists, and scientists travelled the world and argued for change. It created large groups of consultants, carbon financiers, and carbon offsetting – but carbon emissions continued to increase!

Brendan, your arguments were perhaps OK in the past but, in 2013, I think they are not OK when we think about the fast increase in carbon emissions, more than before, and in climate change and the need for reductions now.

You think flying is OK ‘if the work makes a real difference’. But all the people I meet -environmentalists and business leaders - think that they are part of the solution and not part of the problem. Where does that leave us? If we are to stop dangerous levels of climate change, someone must do something to make a real change in carbon emissions. I believe it’s our responsibility. We know the maths and the results of failure. So it is for us to make a real difference and reduce our emissions in a big way. Because flying is a very big part of our individual carbon footprints, we should start there.

Brendan - yes, flying is still a possibility

Kevin, I agree with what you say - little has been done in the past, I am now only interested in what it is really possible for environmentalists to do. My problem is that your solutions are not practical. A small number of environmentalists flying (and please accept there are many in the developing world too; not all environmentalists are Western!) is a very, very small 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 most of these will be on routes to China?

We should think about how we produce the supply for that need, which we cannot stop. And don’t forget that there would be no global environmental (or fairtrade) movement without flying. What are your ideas on how to improve fuel, aircraft design, and routes? And surely those ideas would be a better use of the time than sitting on a train from London to Warsaw. Without flying, we wouldn’t know very much about the state of the world’s climate.

Kevin – no, flying is not still a possibility

I am worried that you do not understand the problems of dangerous climate change. You say two degrees plus global warming is just one of many problems for the planet. ‘What it is really possible for environmentalists to do’ will not help with the results of climate change. Problems for the environment and social equality will all be much worse.

You say that the use of carbon-based energy in wealthy nations is ‘a very, very small part of the problem’. This is not a good argument. We must remember that Britain’s carbon emissions are in the top 10 in the world. Its carbon emissions for each person are the third highest. These are carbon emissions from just a privileged few of us.

You are pessimistic and optimistic at the same time. I don’t understand that. Yes, big climate change meetings have not reduced carbon emissions, but that doesn’t mean we must give up all other ideas. And the short-term (and welcome) carbon emissions growth in new economies is the reason why a change in industrialized countries is very necessary now. We need this faster than what low-carbon technologies can do. Big reductions from industrialised countries including a small number of industries in China and other places are more practical than trying to live in a future world with four degrees plus.

Brendan, you and I need to show others how we can live in a globalized society but with much reduced carbon emissions. It will be difficult but we cannot fail. It is a very bad idea to ask other people to do as we say but not as we do. Brendan – yes, flying is still a possibility

Kevin, you don’t understand what I am saying. I think that flying isn’t a bad idea but, yes. I am still worried about the results of climate change. We must be honest - you and I cannot stop the increase in flying that people predict.

I know you don’t like it but environmentalists are flying every day. This is a very, very small part of all flights. Many academics and professionals, like a Chinese engineer I met on a plane recently, are travelling around the world’s cities to build new infrastructures to help them with the results of climate change.

When I think I am making more difference by flying than sitting at home, I’m afraid I will fly. I wish you would fly, too. It’s not a bad idea - it’s something we must do. I have not met an active environmentalist who agrees with you. They can’t, they won’t, and they shouldn’t.

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see: [[Category:Travel]