So just how damaging is flying for the environment and what can be done about it?

Last week I attended a conference for a campaign to gain legal rights for all living beings from trees to tigers, which argued that only when they have such rights can they be properly represented in a court of law. Aside from being truly fascinating and considerably brain stretching at times, it was remarkable for how diverse was the range of its attendees – international lawyers, hippies young and old, direct action activists, a UN ambassador and a bearded man in his fifties who arrived (in the centre of London) barefoot.

All these different people meant lots of different voices. Sometimes the lawyers seemed arcane, the hippies idealistic and the direct action activists a bit confrontational. This meant that various people in the audience connected more with one group than another. But what mattered was that everyone wanted the same goal, was willing to listen to each other’s points and ways of putting them even if they didn’t totally tally with their own.

We need to do this across the board of issues. Which for this blog means the topic of flying, and how to address it’s impacts.

Many of us know some of the salient facts. That when Michael O’Leary from Ryanair says it accounts for just 2 per cent, he is taking the lower end of an estimate of  global emissions as stated by the Stockholm Environment Institute last year. And that in the UK, where it accounts for more like 5 per cent, that radiative forcing and various other issues mean it actually has the impact equivalent to a great deal more (about 18-19 per cent). That it’s also the fast-growing contributor to CO2 emissions in the UK, and over the next 20 years flight numbers across the UK are predicted to rise between 4 to 6 per cent. And that even if they just rose at the rather meek sounding 2.5 per cent a year, that would still mean a doubling of emissions in 30 years.

It’s when people try to put this in perspective that the voices really begin to diverge. Some argue that there are far worse culprits, such as deforestation. According to Nicholas Stern, over the next four years the destruction of rainforests will pump more CO2 into the atmosphere than every flight in the history of aviation to 2025. Others remind us that flying is a privilege enjoyed by a minority, pointing to, for example, a poll which found that 75% of those who use budget airlines are in social classes A, B and C. Which says nothing of the billions across the world who who will never use any airline, budget or not. More generally, the problem, as George Monbiot states it, is: “the people who are most concerned about the inhabitants of other countries are often those who have travelled widely. Much of the global justice movement consists of people – like me – whose politics were forged by their experiences abroad. While it is easy for us to pour scorn on the drivers of sports utility vehicles, whose politics generally differ from ours, it is rather harder to contemplate a world in which our own freedoms are curtailed, especially the freedoms that shaped us.”

So what do we do?

Most people ‘concerned about the inhabitants of other countries’ agree we need not just to limit the growth in number of flights by stopping building extra runways and airports, but dramatically to reduce them from where they are now. Monbiot and others say to 5 per cent of their current figure. Whatever the exact figure turns out to be, it’s incredibly high; but rather than waiting till we know the exact number for sure (by when it will be too late) we need now to work out how we get all people to change their travel choices so as to reduce their impact upon the environment. And we have to do this in a multitude of ways, just as the lawyers, hippies and activists did at the conference last week, so that we will be heard by as many different people as possible.

Some, probably those considering giving up flying anyway, will only need a nudge. And for them, hearing Craig Simmons of Best Foot Forward do the sums and say: ‘one person could die, be made homeless, require urgent medical attention or face starvation for every 102 tonnes of carbon dioxide we add to the air.’ may well be enough. But others may not respond to this approach and make no change, or worse still, react negatively.

Some people are more likely to choose what they feel is a better option for themselves, one that doesn’t feel like sacrifice. Just as more and more business travel to Paris and Brussels from London is now by train, because it is quicker, more comfortable and less stressful, so, for example, skiers need to be introduced to the snow train to the alps, travelling overnight with no baggage restrictions and gaining an extra day on what’s left off the slopes. There’s even a disco on one of the trains. For many people it might be enough to rediscover how trains and boats and bicycles and horses put the joy back into travelling, joy lost in the rush for cheapness and convenience and in endless degrading security queues, soulless departure lounge shopping malls and sickness inducing microsized seats. It’s like farmers markets and local farm shops – they may take longer than supermarkets, but that’s not the point. The food’s better and they are more enjoyable, more connected and more about the experience than just the end result.

But some people aren’t going to stop flying at all. Some of them are inveterate long distance travellers, for whom its not a holiday unless they’ve crossed continents. Some have the moral quandary posed by ‘love miles’,  as in what to do when we have relatives and close friends on the other side of the world. Do we never see them again? Some see only the cheapness and shortness of the flight. All these people are going to fly, and neither shouting at them nor providing them with sobering statistics is going to stop them. But they can’t be ignored, as they make up the largest percentage of the flying population. For them, another tack is needed.

If someone is going to board a plane, then it’s still possible to get them to do something different at the other end. Rather than once again staying at an identikit international hotel, they can be can be shown local alternatives that may well a) give them a better experience, b) be better for the environment and c) introduce them in a unique and powerful way to issues they had never even considered. For while they may not be the sort of person to respond well to a placard waving activist or a blog on the Ecologist website, a week spent relaxing in a solar-powered ecolodge, eating local grown food from the onsite permaculture garden and trekking with guides drawn from the village who were previously working as poachers or loggers – and all the while having fun and being introduced to a new way of seeing the world – might this not have some impact, on some people, sometimes?

Flying to South Africa for next year’s World Cup? You could do all of the above at somewhere like Bulungula, an off-grid and solar powered ecolodge, providing meaningful employment to impoverished amaXhosa villagers who otherwise would be forced to head down the mines looking for work. Owner Dave Martin also has his own take on what to do about emissions.: The fair way to attribute CO2 emissions generated by holiday travel is to “give” them to the destination country,” he argues. “In South Africa, we have 1 million foreign tourists flying here annually, each emitting about 2,300kg of CO2 in the process. When divided by our 45 million population this would raise our average emissions by a mere 51kg per person per year. It would be utter hypocrisy to demand that South Africa reduce its average emissions by 51kg a year when Africa is by far the least polluting continent on Earth, and in the process destroy its tourism economy creating widespread poverty.”

I’m not saying that anyone should stop worrying and book the cheapest flight available for their next trip. 

Rather, that we need to acknowledge the issue’s complications and the many differing approaches required to address them, for in so doing we stand more chance of reaching the solutions. Take the Maldives, not a word synonymous for many with tourism having positive benefits. When the country finally got its first democratically elected president last year, one of his first announcements was to declare that in order to help his people survive into a future where climate change meant rising sea levels would drown the country’s many low islands, the Maldives would be looking to buy land somewhere nearby and move its people en masse. And that the purchase would be funded by money levied from visitors flying in on their holidays . Should tourists fly there now, or not?

I don’t have a simple answer to this, or to the problem as a whole, because it isn’t a simple problem. If pushed it would be something like ‘reduce the number of flights you take to as small an amount as possible, and if you do ever fly, stay somewhere where your visit will be contributing positively to the well being of local people and their environment’. I’m just struggling to fit it on a banner.