The Flying Taboo and Carbon Reductionism

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I’m about to go where few environmentalists and sustainability-types dare to tread – in defence of flying.

Wait! Wait! Hear me out.

I am not an apologist for the airline industry – we should be traveling mindfully, and flying only when there is no other way.

cover of Frank Sinatra's single 'Come Fly With Me'

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I’ve worked in the green/environmental movement for twenty years, I’m aware of the energy and resource impacts of flying, and I still see travel as one of life’s great pleasures, one of the most effective consciousness-builders and barrier-breaker-downers.

The issue of flight is a vexed, emotive question among even the greenest, who grapple with various deeply felt desires (even if they don’t admit it), especially if they’re in a discussion where the subtext is a game of environmental credibility one-upmanship. There is the feeling that any admission of just having flown, or being about to fly, now has to be accompanied by a justification or explanation.

Very few people working in environment and sustainability have renounced flying completely. Arguably those who have may have hamstrung their message and work with their admirable commitment to walk their talk. There is no getting away from the fact that there is a contradiction inherent in people who are espousing climate change mitigation to be flying around the globe. Yet if Al Gore had decided not to travel anywhere or use a computer, or make a movie, climate change may not have made it into the consciousness of people beyond the environment movement so quickly and effectively.

I once asked Mathis Wackernagel, co-creator of the Ecological Footprint concept, how he reconciled his work with his own footprint, particularly the carbon footprint associated with all the flying his work requires of him. My point to him was that surely part of his Footprint is justifiable because its being incurred for the ultimate benefit of us all? His response was no – the planet did not differentiate between flying by a Footprint messenger and flying by, say, a football player or a supermodel. And he would have to live with this situation and work out how he could best compensate for it. It was the answer I hoped he’d give, but I still believe there is a difference in the purposes for which C02 emissions are generated.

With genuine respect for others and their decisions and commitments around the issue of carbon and travel, I’d like to offer a view on behalf of people who need or want to travel, and especially those who can’t reasonably travel beyond their own country without flying.

While it is all very well for Europeans to talk about how they have given up flying, they can still get around by car and train to a multitude of different countries. Given my mob live on an island, there’s not really much other choice for us unless we are never to leave our country. Travel will once again be the domain only of the super-privileged who get more than four weeks’ leave a year to be able to afford the time to go somewhere by boat. Even to get to somewhere across my own country, which still lacks a fast train system, would take days by car just in one direction.

Most of us rarely have the time or the money to fly (or certainly to fly long haul, which for Aussies is on average a commitment of $AUD 2,000 and twenty four hours on a plane in both directions just to get there and back), and now there’s a pile of guilt when we do. It irks all the more to hear it from people who already got to do all their travelling before it became a carbon sin.

In 2011 I applied for a fellowship with the intent of studying communications approaches in the UK and was essentially told ‘you’re from Australia, don’t come – don’t fly’. It infuriated me. How about we ask some of our jetsetters to occasionally put the brakes on before the rest of us go into a state of self-denial?

In addition, while we get all uptight about flying, probably because it’s more visible, research by Gartner a few years back showed that the global IT industry* has a similar C02 impact to the aviation industry:

The global information and communications technology (ICT) industry accounts for approximately 2 percent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, a figure equivalent to aviation…

So…are we all also willing to switch off, shut down, disconnect? I’m betting no – and I’m not.

The good news is there are many other things we could stop doing that are wasteful first before giving up travel for pleasure and connecting with family and friends.

Here are five examples of massively wasteful uses of fossil fuels that we could/should be abandoning if we want to adopt a carbon reductionist approach (by ‘carbon reductionist’ I don’t mean reducing carbon – I mean perceiving and ranking activities according to carbon impact):

5.     ‘Frequent Flyer’ Processing

It is cheaper for prawns (shrimp) caught in Scotland to be sent to Thailand for shelling, and shipped back again for distribution in the UK, because the labour in Thailand is cheaper:

Instead of transporting UK-caught langoustines the relatively short distance from sea to factory to distributor, Britain’s leading seafood supplier will send them on a 13,000-mile round trip to Thailand – in the interests of cost-cutting.

The shellfish will then be repackaged and shipped back to the factory where they began their journey. Eventually, they will be breaded and sold across the UK.

Research by Germany’s Wuppertal Institute cited in Natural Capitalism revealed that a typical container of strawberry yoghurt clocked up over twelve thousand miles of transport in the process of being made, assembled into its pot and delivered to the point of sale.

The prawns and yoghurt are just two examples of a multitude of long and unnecessarily carbon-intensive supply lines.

How can we wag the metaphorical moral finger at someone who finally has the opportunity for the trip of a lifetime when dead crustaceans are clocking up more air miles?

4.     Urban Sprawl

As peak oil (ie. passing the point of access to cheap, easy to reach sources of oil) looms, dispersing places dependent on fossil-fuel transport systems is creating resource traps that will lock us into energy intensive living patterns.

Then there is the truly silly, the even greater nonsense of building new cities that NO ONE lives in:

And you were worried about your light bulbs.

3.     Boomerang Trade

In its 2009 report, the new economics foundation cited the following research into ‘boomerang trade’:

All around us still, are ships, lorries and planes passing in the night, wastefully carrying often identical goods from city to city across the globe and back again to meet ‘consumer demand’.

These are just some of the most recent examples involving the UK. For example, we export 4,400 tonnes of ice cream to Italy, only to re-import 4,200 tonnes. We import 22,000 tonnes of potatoes from Egypt whilst exporting 27,000 tonnes back again. Then there are the 5,000 tonnes of toilet paper heading from the UK to Germany, with over 4,000 tonnes returning, and 10 tonnes of ‘gums and jelly’ sweets going back and forth to Thailand. At the last count, 117 tonnes of ‘sweet biscuits, waffles and wafers, gingerbread and the like’ (to use the category used by trade statisticians), came into the UK, rumbling passed 106 tonnes headed in the opposite direction.

Utter nonsense. Award-winning US author and food activist Michael Pollan also cited examples of wasteful trade:

…we are exporting sugar cookies to Denmark while we import sugar cookies from Denmark: a mind boggling trade that one economist said, when he was told of it, “Wouldn’t it be more efficient to swap recipes?”

Boomerang trade is a whack in the back of the head for a would-be traveller trying to work out how to offset their trip by paying for carbon credits.

2.     Fossil Fuel Addiction

What is the carbon cost to GET the energy? To burn squillions of litres of fossil fuel to find, extract, refine, transport oil – not to mention the energy cost of invading countries to gain control of fossil fuel sources.

EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) anyone?

1.     Wasting Food

Agriculture is the biggest part of our collective Ecological Footprint globally, and when we throw away food, we throw away so much more than the food itself – food waste has massive amounts of embedded energy (and water and nutrient) in it.

Natural Resources Defense Council study showed that Americans throw away nearly half their food, $165 billion annually.

Love Food, Hate Waste calculated that the UK throws away over 7 million tonnes a year, over £12 billion.

Foodwise reports that Australians waste four million tonnes of food a year, almost $8 billion a year in a country of 22 million.

And horrifyingly, a vast amount of food waste occurs even before it reaches the consumer, as Tristram Stuart, author of  Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, reveals in his TED Talk:

Travel at least has benefits for the carbon cost – wasteful consumption and trade do not.

So eschew carbon reductionism and guilt, because unless we cut the abhorrent waste our society produces (everything from food to boomerang trade) which has a far greater carbon impact, we’ll be prioritising waste over enjoyment.

Travel, including to other countries by plane, offers the most wonderful adventures and experiences. Let’s hope someone is inventing a super-turbo-fast submarine-type contraption powered by the energy of the ocean as we speak.

In the meantime, I’d rather ground those frequent-flying shrimps before discouraging anyone wanting to learn more about or enjoy the world, or reconnect with loved ones.

* addendum August 2013: The Cloud Begins With Coal: Big Data, Big Networks, Big Infrastructure and Big Power – An Overview of the Electricity Used by the Global Digital Ecosystem, report by the Digital Power Group, Tech Pundit (sponsored by the National Mining Association and Americans for Clean Coal Electricity), in TIME:

Mills estimates that the (global) ICT system now uses 1,500 terawatt-hours of power per year. That’s about 10% of the world’s total electricity generation or roughly the combined power production of Germany and Japan. It’s the same amount of electricity that was used to light the entire planet in 1985. We already use 50% more energy to move bytes than we do to move planes in global aviation.

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Comments

  1. About to fly halfway around the planet to a green conference… I needed this blog!

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about behaviour change.
    Regards

  3. Re: food waste being a huge, and often under-recognised, carbon impact, this just released:

    Wasted food is world’s third-biggest carbon emitter after China and US: UN

    ‘The food the world wastes accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than any country except for China and the United States, according to a United Nations report.

    It says every year about a third of all food for human consumption, around 1.3 billion tonnes, is wasted, along with all the energy, water and chemicals needed to produce it and dispose of it.

    Almost 30 per cent of the world’s farmland, and a volume of water equivalent to the annual discharge of Europe’s River Volga, are in effect being used in vain.

    In its Food Wastage Footprint report, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimated the carbon footprint of wasted food was equivalent to 3.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.

    If it were a country, it would be the world’s third biggest emitter after China and the US, suggesting that more efficient food use could contribute substantially to global efforts to cut greenhouse gases to limit global warming.

    The FAO estimated the cost of the wasted food, excluding fish and seafood, around $US750 billion a year, based on producer prices.

    The wasted food consumes about 250 cubic kilometres of water and takes up about 1.4 billion hectares – much of it diverse natural habitat that has been cleared to make it arable.’

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-09-11/un-says-wasted-food-is-third-biggest-carbon-emitter/4952126

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