We’d love to know what you think about this debate, between David, treasurer of Transition Town Tooting, and Dave of Lowimpact.org about whether giving up flying has any effect on climate change. Here’s a bit of background. David and Dave are both members of a south London ‘Philosophy Club’ – 15 members, who take turns to host the club at their homes on the first Wednesday evening of each month. They discuss a different topic each month, accompanied by food, drinks and general merriment. Recently, the topic was about flying – and whether, in the face of climate change, we should stop doing it.
The topic caused lots of controversy – and actually, one member decided to stop flying altogether because of it (three other members already don’t fly). David’s position was that it didn’t matter if he didn’t fly, because the flight that he didn’t buy a ticket for would happen anyway, and it would be much better to avoid driving or unnecessary consumption, which would have immediate results in terms of reducing carbon emissions. The debate wasn’t conclusive, and so Dave asked if we could continue it here. David agreed. His position is below, and underneath is Dave’s response. Let us know what you think.
1. David (Transition Town Tooting): the plane is going anyway, whatever I do
The continued and escalating emission of greenhouse gases from human activities evidently negatively affects the viability of life on earth for humans and other species. The emissions from aeroplanes have a greater impact in terms of greenhouse gases per passenger mile than any other form of transport, particularly due to the increased effect of emission at high altitudes, and this area of human activity is also rapidly on the increase due partly to the increase in flying in emerging economies. So it would undoubtedly be good to act to reduce the environmental impact of air travel as soon as possible, just like all other greenhouse gas producing human activities. I seek to argue that individual action is relatively ineffective however, and that it is governments that need to act.
Some people choose not to fly given the negative climate effects and, while I agree such a choice might be worthy or inspirational, it has no direct effect on global emissions. If I personally choose not to fly, it does not reduce the CO2 emitted or stop the plane flying. Not only will another backside take my seat on the plane, the 80,000kg behemoth will take to the air anyway and the fossil fuels required to power it will not be altered. My choice will be immaterial.
Ascribing carbon emissions to me if I take a flight is also misleading. It is mathematically spurious and serves to distract from who is really responsible. I do not affect aircraft emissions by choosing whether or not to fly. The current norm is for carbon emissions from flying to be allocated to an individual, broadly calculated by dividing the emissions of the entire flight by the number of bodies on the plane. This is erroneous and arbitrary because, as above, the plane is flying anyway. Allocating CO2 to the individual distracts us from who is actually responsible: the corporations who fly the planes and the governments who legislate to allow them to fly. Until governments act to restrict flights or stipulate clean energy must be used, the negative environmental effects will continue. The same applies to other major greenhouse gas sources like power, housing and land transport where the individual can only make small impacts.
Not procreating aside (already achieved, tick), for me there are much more effective climate change combatting actions than choosing not to fly. My day-to-day travel choice in London for example can have an immediate direct climate impact. Every time I cycle and walk instead of driving I am having that direct impact.
In the current set-up it requires a mass movement of people worldwide to stop flying to reduce the number of flights and the greenhouse gases they emit. I do not believe this will happen in the near future. In fact the opposite is likely to happen. Only radical action by governments worldwide to legislate to control airline activity and mandate cleaner energy options will reduce air travel emissions. I can lobby my MP or get out on the streets with XR to push for this. In the meantime, I am better off using my limited energy to reduce global CO2 in ways other than refusing to fly.
2. Dave (Lowimpact.org): as long as there’s demand, the aviation industry will continue to drive climate change
We both understand the damage caused by the aviation industry, and we both understand the potentially apocalyptic consequences of climate change, so we don’t need to dwell on those things. This is about the individual’s contribution to that damage. I’ll organise my responses into various headings:
Ironically David, you were the one who introduced me to the importance of eco-footprints. You gave a talk in which you explained that humanity has a 1.6-planet footprint and rising (it’s now 1.7), which means that we need 1.7 planets to keep living as we are. The figure for the UK is 3, and for the US, 5. So we’d need 3 planets for everyone to live like Brits and 5 for everyone to live like Americans. As we only have one planet, that’s a very dangerous situation, which isn’t going to change as long as so many of us insist on flying.
But by your logic, if passengers don’t need to share the overall footprint of a flight, then that can extend to every industry. So everyone can fly, drive and consume as much as possible without affecting their footprint. Everyone would have an eco-footprint of zero, however they live. No, the footprint of a flight has to be shared by its passengers / customers. Where else is it going to go? Ultimately, if humans are to survive, humanity’s footprint has to come down to below one planet – and that’s impossible as long as we’re all entitled enough to believe that it’s OK for us to fly.
Revenue for airlines and oil companies
Each flight ticket bought increases revenue for airline and oil corporations, which will continue to concentrate wealth, which will be used to corrupt democracy (which will also prevent your preferred solution – that governments do something about it). Airline and oil lobbyists will continue to put pressure on governments to ensure that they build more runways / airports, that they don’t regulate their industries properly, and that aviation fuel remains tax-free and aviation zero-rated for VAT (which means that airlines can reclaim VAT on their purchases, even though they don’t have to charge it).
Also, it’s this revenue that causes flights, rather than whether your bum’s on a seat or not. If the airlines have less revenue, their ability to put planes into the air is reduced. The more money they get, the more flights there are. Every flight you take is more money for the aviation and fossil fuels industries, which increases their power and means more fossil fuels are burnt. So let’s stop giving them money.
Government and corporations should ‘do something’
Leaving aside the fact that they won’t (it would be bad for economic growth), are you really saying that as individuals, we shouldn’t do anything to contribute to sustainablity / democracy / better communities etc. until and unless governments force us to do it? In that case, why are you in the Transition movement? You must care – the state didn’t force you to do it. Plus recycling, buying organic, cycling, installing renewables, growing veg – we shouldn’t do any of those things until the state makes us do it?
Also, all parties know that coming out against flying would damage their chances of being elected.
The right example
People in Transition excusing / promoting flying provides an excuse for people thinking of giving up to keep flying. And of course if rich Westerners can do it, why can’t everyone (soon, all 10 billion of us)? It’s a recipe for disaster. You’re not going to change things alone. But if lots of people decide to give up flying, aviation revenues will fall and so will the number of flights. That’s not going to happen if we don’t start with ourselves and give up flying. I think it’s the job of people like you (Transition) and me (Lowimpact.org) to inspire people to do the right thing. If you’re helping to give people justification to continue flying, then you’re helping contribute to climate change. Btw, Rob Hopkins doesn’t fly, apparently.
Why fly anyway?
There’s something decidedly unpleasant about rich Westerners’ poverty tourism, destruction of cultures and once beautiful places like Majorca, Goa or the Thai islands, bringing pollution, concrete and consumerism. This article says it beautifully. If you go on package tours, you will never see the real country. The dances, songs, performances you see will be staged. You won’t get to meet locals, apart from waiters, shopkeepers, bartenders. They will see you only as one of many – a source of money.
It does feel important that we get around our planet at least once in our lives, to meet, talk with, play with, do business with and fall in love with people from different cultures – otherwise we become isolated from each other, which breeds resentment, misunderstanding and fear. But let’s be a bit more adventurous than flying. When you’re young, just travel, overland. Cycle, walk, hitch-hike, take the train, bus, horse and cart, sail. Then you’ll really experience places and people. Make it worth it. Don’t damage the world you want to see with air travel. Then later, when you have a family, career, home – help make your own region beautiful, so that you can take holidays close to where you live. You’ll have experienced the world, but you won’t keep damaging it by flying.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Steve Richards November 3rd, 2019
I don’t follow the “plane’s going anyway” argument, that might apply if there were only one plane a day to each destination and no additional planes would ever be allowed, prices would then go through the roof and that would control demand. In the real world each time someone flys they stimulate demand, the more demand, the more flights to that destination, the more planes are made, the more airports and runways, the more economies of scale, the lower the prices and the more demand. Surely it’s obvious when you see 14 airlines flying from the UK to the USA and goodness knows how many hundreds of flights, that if demand reduces, there will be less flights, airlines and runways.
2Amanda Holley November 3rd, 2019
Well, ‘Low Impact’ Dave (sorry Dave!) has made lots of good points. I don’t think it’s necessarily better to do one thing than another … everyone has their contribution to make. If I fly every day … giving that up is better than my committing to that, as I rarely (used to) fly once every two years or less. However, NOT flying is also a commitment to evolve a lifestyle that doesn’t depend on flying … so we all get those benefits ultimately. By declaring not to fly we are pulling for that world on every level. I made the declaration no solidarity with Greta because her leadership warranted some following on my part. And we can also do all those other things … which clearly you can put numbers to. Much of what goes on is not about numbers but about inspiration which can’t be measured… you just do all you know to do because we have no idea where the scales will tip or how or why. I say, pull the stops out .. to say what Tranaition David is saying is immediately ‘well we can’t make a difference so what the he’ll’ … and that’s where we go. I don’t like his opening statement here … if you leave it to Governments well we are done for. It’s up to us. No one else is coming. Do it all I say … and don’t over think it. And if you really want to fly Transition Dave … it’s your choice without excuses!!!
3Jan November 3rd, 2019
Absolutely agree with the latter argument. Most airlines need planes to average around 80% full in order to be financially viable so you only need 20% to stop flying to have an impact. We need to show a declining number to stop continuing over development of airports and above all we need to get away from the mind set that many now have of always flying to holiday and often doing that several times a year.
4Daniel Scharf November 3rd, 2019
My American family are flying for a visit this Christmas when we will be holding a ‘family assembly’ to hold an honest and truthful discussion about how we will, as an extended family of about 30 adults, reduce the carbon emissions for which we will be responsible to zero by 2030 (heavy lifting by 2025) and lobby/rebel to have systemic emissions reduced. We will also be discussing offsetting and swapping credits between us. This is not systemic change but the use of the affinity within the group to do more than is possible or effective acting as individuals. No blaming or shaming, but acting responsibly in the enlightened self-interest of us all, including the younger members. those not yet born and those thinking and worrying about having children. I hope that family emergency declarations could result in a significant reduction in flying (and the demand for all the associated paraphernalia). As an affinity group we can offer emotional support and encouragement during what could be a traumatic transition with reduced ‘love miles’.
5Theresa November 3rd, 2019
What a good debate.
I agree with David’s point that it will take a mass movement of people to end flying but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reduce our own use of planes as a regular form of transport in the meantime. And I think it’s down to laziness of thought to say that one person can’t make any difference. If I think about cruelty free cosmetics, for example, in the 70s there was only one provider, now we see more and more untested products from washing up liquid to eyeliner, and many of these are environmentally friendly too. Vivisection is one of those areas that also falls under the umbrella of “what can one person do on their own?” but change happens eventually, albeit slowly sometimes.
I live on one of the flight paths into Stansread – 40 mins drive away. When I bought the house 17 years ago, from my back door I could see planes come into view to my far left and just as they passed out of sight to my far right, another one would appear to the left. Now there are frequently 3 planes in view at the same time. So if it is possible to increase the trend for flying, it must be possible to decrease it too.
I read the Rob Hopkins article that Dave highlighted and like the idea of being ahead of the game for when the crash happens. It’s one of the things we can prepare ourselves for at least. Walking and cycling, growing your own food, buying what you need secondhand or passing things on to others, repairing damaged items of clothing or furniture, these aren’t only environmentally sound things to do but good habits to get into for when times get hard, as they inevitably will, and for making us less dependent on the system, which is on the verge of collapse.
I fly very rarely, maybe five times in the past ten years and two of those flights were for my job, which I no longer do. The first time I got in a plane I was over 40 years old and I haven’t flown for a year and I’ve just turned 60. I loathe the feeling of the cattle market that pervades airports, being herded here and there at given times. I much prefer the slower option of trains, the views from the windows. It’s just a habit that needs breaking, or not encouraging in the first place. I don’t think I’ll fly again – I managed without it for two-thirds of my life.
6Susie M November 3rd, 2019
I’m with Dave on this. We need to reduce demand, cut subsidies and tax breaks to aviation and people pay the actual cost of their first flight with taxation on further flights in any year which would be a disincentive to anyone to fly. Private jets should have a particularly high taxation, based on the amount of carbon emitted per person on board for instance. For years I barely flew, mainly because I could not afford to with a young family. We did a lot of camping and ferry travel if we went to France. More recently I have flown, and one of the reasons for this is that I have a daughter and granddaughter who live in NY. I like the idea above from Daniel Scharf, to have a proper family debate about how to spend time together when the only travel option is by plane.
I live in North London and during the past few months we have had far more flights over our area, from much earlier in the morning and much later at night. There is speculation locally that this was done to coincide with the Heathrow expansion consultation so that those nearer the airport were potentially having a marginally quieter time while the consultation was happening.
I now find myself constantly tormented by the sound of planes, the thought of each tonne of carbon that is entering the atmosphere, and the implications that has for humans and all life, animal, insect, amphibian and plant.
I would welcome a face to face debate about this to be better informed and to consider options about how we might challenge the assumption that we should all be allowed to fly as often as we want to and can afford. I do not buy the argument that ‘the plane is going anyway whether I’m on it or not’.
7annbeirneanimalwhisperert November 3rd, 2019
I want to see the end of flying so often if at all, We can’t ask for the end to flying without limiting the number of cars on the road there should be an end to car production completely, The car argument is the one I find the most urgent as chest disease caused by inhaling fumes on our streets and cities is at an all time high with children being the top of this list, but I don’t think the people flying should be allowed to get away with it either, We only have one planet and we need to start really caring for in now, Greta Thunberg puts it in a most succinct way, shame on us all for ignoring what dreadful harm we have inflicted and still are inflicting on this wonderful planet, We need to stop being so selfish and consider everybody else and all of the plants, animals, insects, trees and everything that we need to survive on this planet. We need to consider our children, grandchildren and hopefully the many generations to come, which will not happen if we carry on with the business as usual, Status Quo behaviours. We need a different mindset, and a willingness to change our ways NOW!!!
8Doctor Hilary Jones November 3rd, 2019
Ok, the plane will be flying anyway[ but not with the help of my money
9Malcolm Purvis November 3rd, 2019
Yes, a very good debate. Thank you Dave and David.
It seems that these sort of conversations are becoming very commonplace now. They may be about flying, oil fired central heating, car use, minimalism, consumerism, plastic, etc etc. However, IMHO they are not really about the subject matter, they are about grief.
I would find it difficult to believe that someone who is a member of the transition movement does not know in their heart of hearts (intuitively), that flying is far from ideal. The stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Many people will deny the obvious and that is OK – in the short term, but we are all in a ‘transition’ from giving up the life that has been ingrained in us from birth by all sections of society, family, media, government policy etc. Change is often very difficult but this transition is bigger than any that humanity has had to cope with before and we all need to support each other through the grief process and look at ways through the difficulties we will face.
Once we get to the ‘acceptance’ stage of our grief we will all be better equipped to deal and thrive in this new world. Rob Hopkins has some good visualisations for this future and this is one of the most important things that we can do (again IMHO). And of course we need to ‘live in the now’ as there are many disaster scenarios that may or may not come true and there really is no point in dwelling on these as long as we plan as much as we can and envisage the solutions we want. Strangely it could actually be a world where the massive gap between rich and poor disappears, racism becomes a thing of the past, working weeks shrink, communities become connected, health improves, food is nutritious, pollution disappears, social care is all inclusive, true democracy is normal. No doubt there is more we could individually include here?
The decision is ours to make, once we get through the grief and dismantle our current systems. Only a very small percentage of the world population has a vested interest in seeing ‘business as usual’ continue and even they know, in their heart of hearts, change is coming!
10Claire November 3rd, 2019
The F Word: It needs to also be remembered that some passenger air services exist only because of demand from FREIGHT. Heathrow is Britain’s biggest air freight terminal by far and you could say that often the plane IS going anyway and as a passenger you ride atop the cargo… Yes, the reverse in some cases will be very true ie. the movement of freight by air is only happening on some routes because of the passenger demand. Charter and low-cost flying from other airports are likely to be very passenger traffic driven in comparison though. If we don’t fly AND don’t buy anything that has needed to be shipped by air either as whole product or component parts… And perhaps give a home market to those great things we send abroad by air but are ourselves buying cheap imports of instead…?
11Ian Lillington November 3rd, 2019
Thanks for the debate and the comments. Like many ‘low impact’ people, this is a very real challenge for me. I decided in the early 1990s to migrate to Australia. I knew that here I could build and live in a house that did not need winter heating. And grow far more of my own food, and grow more trees, than in England. I have thought that if I could measure my carbon fuels use, then what I have saved in my day-to-day use will compensate for flights. I live in an almost cashless world, but when I fly occasionally I have to step into that other world. Now, with sick[dying] parent[s] to return to, the emotional pull is stronger and I’m flying more often. I consider that I’m drawing on my ‘carbon savings’ from previous years. But I may be deluding myself.
If our currency was measuring environmental impact, flights would be [much] more expensive. I dont make short ‘frivolous’ flights but I see that many people will, until prices go up and they cant afford it. Overall, when I do travel I am always multi-tasking and do it all with good planning and intention. Eg. My stop-over in early Dec will be in HK to meet colleagues and plan a permaculture course there next year. I’ll stay for 5 weeks, not the 2 weeks that many others would do, etc. Here’s a thoughtful piece from David Holmgren – https://holmgren.com.au/why-i-havent-been-flying-much/
Amanda Holley – I wondered if you can expand on “I made the declaration no solidarity with Greta because her leadership warranted some following on my part.” Some of the original climate strike teenagers live near me and there are some fruitful discussions here about ‘to fly or not to fly’ from a younger person’s perspective.
12usfoodpolicy November 3rd, 2019
The argument that “the plane was flying anyway” is a fallacy. Airlines are not in the business of flying empty planes. Decisions about route scheduling depend on consumer demand. Our FAQ at flyingless dot org has an item on this.
13Ian Lillington November 4th, 2019
tried to comment a few hours ago; just testing as the last one did not appear
14Ian Lillington November 4th, 2019
I dont fly much, but I did recall this from 2013 – https://holmgren.com.au/why-i-havent-been-flying-much/ and I fly in from Oz on 5 December !! Great points here, loving the thoughtful responses.
15Dave Darby November 4th, 2019
David and I had lunch together yesterday. Now our disagreement can be boiled down to one crucial point – should the total carbon footprint of a flight be shared between the passengers or not. My point was – well, where else would it go? Surely it’s down to the passengers, who are providing the demand for flights? David asked an interesting question – who shares the carbon footprint of a bus that picks up no passengers? The bus company staff? Shareholders? Everyone in the city / country?
OK, that wouldn’t happen with aviation – planes don’t fly without passengers. But it was an interesting question anyway. My position is still that people who fly have to hold up their hands and take responsibility for their share of the plane’s carbon emissions. No-one is holding a gun to their head, or forcing them to fly.
In the early days of Lowimpact, we did an ‘eco-footprint’ audit of the staff at the National Energy Foundation. Everyone was well over 3 planets except one person, who was around one. She was the only person who didn’t fly. The footprint of humanity ultimately has to fall to below one planet, or we will continue to destroy ecology. That fall will come – we will either do it ourselves, or nature will do it for us by drastically reducing our numbers (potentially to zero). But ‘drastically reducing our numbers’ doesn’t really capture the horrors that that will involve. To be avoided at all costs, I’d say. Which means we have to do it ourselves, and for me, that means dismantling the aviation industry, in the same way that the CFC industry was dismantled. Most people would say that that’s unrealistic, I guess. But even less realistic are the current projections for the increase in flights and passengers this century – which are not going to happen without extremely damaging consequences for our species.
16Dave Darby November 4th, 2019
Claire – good point. This is a much bigger argument, but buying lamb from New Zealand, computers from China or beans from Kenya makes no sense, ecologically, when they could just as well be produced in this country. But I realised at uni that economics has no understanding of or connection with ecology (I dropped the economics part of the degree in frustration at the fact that not one of the tutors understood that global GDP can’t grow forever on a finite planet). [nb some of those goods will be shipped rather than flown, but the argument is the same.]
Ian – agreed re price. A good start would be for VAT to be payable on flights, and tax payable on aviation fuel. Not sure how that happened in the first place, but I guess lobbying by the aviation and oil industries had something to do with it.
Hilary – yes, that’s my main point. I could have just said that, and saved a lot of time.
17Theresa November 4th, 2019
@Claire – good point about the freight. The amount of food we import is often cited as being about 60% of what we consume. But I wonder what percentage of non-perishable goods is imported – it must be much higher, I’m guessing. I used to know someone who worked as a freight forwarder in Felixstowe and he said you wouldn’t believe what tat is shipped half way around the world. So reduction of consumption has to be the number one aim
18David November 4th, 2019
Great responses everyone. I would like to emphasise that yes I am part of a Transition Group but am in no way representing it with these personal thoughts. Dave I’d like to respond to your initial response. Just seen all the others but I’ll have to come back in again later. Good lunch yes!
Obviously we need to act immediately to reduce our environmental impact and “eco footprint”. I have some points on that:
1) I can have an immediate effect by not driving a car or not buying a product and this is qualitatively different to joining a flight that is going anyway. In the former I make a choice with a direct carbon effect, while in the latter I am statistically ascribed some carbon but carbon is not reduced.
2) Carbon footprints are interesting statistical calculations. But the degree to which the CO2 emitted is controllable by the individual is ignored.
3) With mass transport, for example, what happens if the bus, train or plane has no passengers but still travels? (Scarily this does happen). To whom will you allocate those carbon emissions?
4) This suggests the wider question of the consequence of allocating the largely invisible carbon effects to individuals. Is there any? I do not think it resonates much with the average person and does not convince people to change behaviour.
Governments, Corporations, Regulation:
I am not saying we as individuals should not take sustainable actions. I believe we should and I personally do what I can. I am just saying that not flying is an action with only a very marginal current effect on carbon and I would rather focus on direct effects – not driving, less plastic, less consumerism, local food etc.
With aviation we can’t have much personal effect so have to lobby government to restrict the negative impacts of burning fossil fuels and as Dave suggests stop giving tax advantages to airlines and oil companies. As with choosing a renewable energy power supplier for the home, it would be great if we could choose renewable not polluting transport providers.
The Right Example
I agree that my position could be seen as controversial from a green standpoint and could give people justification for flying. I am not seeking to justify flying however and think that your no fly policy is iconic, inspiring and has influenced me to fly less. I am merely saying that it’s erroneous maths to allocate me that bit of flying carbon footprint. In contrast my heating, driving and purchasing emissions are all much more directly related to my choices. I choose renewable energy, cycle a bike and don’t buy much, and I talk to people about these choices.
19Dave Darby November 4th, 2019
David – mathematically, you’re correct that if you, as one individual, don’t take a particular flight, it won’t affect carbon emissions. But cumulatively, if thousands of people start to give up flying, it will. Currently, India and China are bringing on board millions of new fliers, and so flights, passengers and carbon emissions are definitely going to rise in the near future – but if there’s a move in the opposite direction in the West, then emissions will rise less than they would have otherwise.
And for sure there are people in the West who don’t fly. I’m one of them, and I know there are many others (thousands, tens of thousands, millions – I don’t know), and so those people’s refusal to fly have kept the carbon emissions from aviation at a lower level than they would have been otherwise.
So it would be a very good thing if the number of non-fliers increased. And we can only increase that number one at a time – individual-by-individual. And so I would encourage you to be one of those individuals. You won’t make a difference alone, only cumulatively, but I stress this point – a maillion people means a million individuals, making individual decisions. We can’t force a million people not to fly – we can only make that decision for ourselves, and hope that others follow our example. I ask you to join the people who have made that decision. You know the damage caused by aviation, after all.
At the moment, not only are you not making that decision, you are putting out an argument that might persuade others not to make that decision either, which is really bad news.
And so it’s cumulatively / collectively that we will make a difference. You can’t win a battle on your own, only together with others – an army. Each individual soldier could refuse to turn up, because their individual contribution won’t change the overall result. But if everyone on your side thought that, your side will lose. The same can be said for voting. No constituency is ever won by one vote, so your individual vote won’t change anything. But that doesn’t stop canvassers knocking on doors and chasing every last vote. As someone who understands the issue, I guess I’m canvassing you to vote with your wallet, and refuse to give any more money to the aviation and oil industries (which is something that really does change if you choose not to take a flight).
20David November 6th, 2019
Hi Dave, responding to your latest comments:
1) DD: mathematically, you’re correct that if you, as one individual, don’t take a particular flight, it won’t affect carbon emissions.
DT: Thank you! That’s one of my main points. Allocaion is arbitrary, does not affect carbon or persuade me. You might persuade me but that’s another matter!
2) DD: India and China …carbon emissions are definitely going to rise in the near future
DT: so aiming to de-carbonise fuel is a better option and use of activist resources and as @annbeirne says above we need to be de-carbonise land vehicles NOW, it’s a much bigger issue!
3) DD: people in the West who don’t fly … have kept the carbon emissions from aviation at a lower level
DT: a very micro effect in face of 2) above (China, India, Cars)
4) DD: it would be a very good thing if the number of non-fliers increased.
DT: prior to apocalypse it won’t sadly.
5) DD: you … might persuade others … which is really bad news.
DT: I think I am highlighting a big flaw in the no fly argument as currently made. On this blog no one is going to start flying more because of my point.
6) DD: voting.
DT: Dave don’t get me onto this. As you well know under our corrupt FPTP system most people’s votes do not count. It is only worth voting in a marginal constituency (<20% of them) for a party with a chance. See https://www.makevotesmatter.org.uk/first-past-the-post
Although I am again going to use vote swapping https://www.swapmyvote.uk/ to attempt to get round this.
7) DD: money to the aviation and oil industries
DT: you can do that right now by not driving, buying local, avoiding @Claire 's F word (air freight), turning down the heating, growing your own etc. I am afraid flights are still going anyway. Look there's one now. Sorry 3 now as per @Theresa @Susie
We urgently need to decarbonise transport NOW. All transport. Governments internationally must enforce this action on the providers of the transport.
21Dave Darby November 8th, 2019
David – the problem is, if you personally, as someone who understands the issues, won’t give up flying, then you can’t reasonably expect anyone else to, and therefore the damage caused by flying will continue to increase. Asking governments to do something about it won’t work I don’t think – not within the context of global capitalism, when they have to chase perpetual growth to compete internationally. Now that’s a context I’d like to see change, and will do everything I can to help it change. Meanwhile, although I have zero faith in governments, yes, I’d encourage them not to build runways / airports, to make VAT payable on flights and tax payable on aviation fuel (in which case we’d be asking them to put ‘we’ll double the price of flights’ in their manifestoes – hmmm), but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Right now, in the absence of government will to do anything, all we can do (and we can do it immediately, without waiting for anything else to happen), is to stop giving money (or, more accurately, to give less money) to the aviation and oil industries, which means not flying. Yes, you’ll still give money to the oil industry by driving etc., but not flying doesn’t preclude anything else we can do. I’m not saying ‘let’s give up flying, but drive more and consume more.’ If the aviation industry has less money, there will be fewer flights. I guess that’s the best argument to counter the ‘plane’s going anyway’ position.
Plus – no, you won’t persuade people to fly with your argument, but you might persuade people on the cusp of not flying to continue flying. But – judging by the comments here, the ‘planes’s going anyway argument’ isn’t really working for anybody.
We live such extravagant lifestyles in the West, which damages nature and starves other parts of the world of resources. I think the ‘plane’s going anyway’ argument is just a justification for maintaining those lifestyles. It’s a selfish approach, to justify privilege (I’m not saying that you’re selfish, just that the approach is). The world is moving in a consumerist / competitive / neoliberal / growth-oriented / possibly fascist direction, so why not just give up and accept our fate? The number of flights is dependent on demand, so it’s up to people who understand the damage it causes to stop funding it.
22Dave Darby November 8th, 2019
PS – yes, I agree that liberal ‘democracy’ within capitalism is utterly corrupt, but that won’t change with a FPTP system.
23Dave Darby November 8th, 2019
There’s an organisation trying to get academics to stop flying around the world for conferences – https://academicflyingblog.wordpress.com/.
They have an FAQ page – https://docs.google.com/document/d/1URRRh4zMSpvtZY08F9-Rkbx0qkNNmfzIzqOlqZWKxkE/edit#heading=h.p2x674bqieoq – which includes a specific counter to the ‘plane’s going anyway’ argument. They show that there’s a lot more to the maths. Have a look, but summary: there’s always one person on the plane who tipped the balance – the one who’s ticket purchase ensured that the plane flew (airlines don’t fly empty planes). This person’s marginal contribution to carbon emissions is huge in mathematical terms (and it needs to be if everyone else is going to claim that they should add nothing to their carbon footprint), but can’t be justfied in reality, as it’s just the same as anyone else on the flight. The answer – share out this huge marginal contribution equally amongst all passengers. You can’t expect to fly and to avoid any extra carbon on your footprint – that just doesn’t work, mathematically.
They also address the individual change vs policy change argument. Have a look – but to summarise: ’… people taking action in their personal lives is actually one of the best ways to get to a society that implements the policy-level change that is truly needed. Research on social behavior suggests lifestyle change can build momentum for systemic change. Humans are social animals, and we use social cues to recognize emergencies. People don’t spring into action just because they see smoke; they spring into action because they see others rushing in with water. The same principle applies to personal actions on climate change.’
You’re wrong on this one David, and we have to counter the ‘plane’s going anyway’ argument wherever we find it, to persuade as many people to lessen and hopefully give up flying, so that we can move society in a direction that will enable policy change (and ultimately, system change).
Best quote from the FAQ linked to above: ‘flying multiple times each year is inconsistent with all meaningful strategies to address climate change.’
24Richard November 10th, 2019
Good debate. Let’s have more of it, Here’s my effort to distill the essential issues as I see it:
1. Ascribing a specific number of tonnes of carbon to a particular person is clearly not a mathematical “truth”, it is a shorthand “inspirational” tool that is readily comprehended by most people. If you fly you are probably leading a lifestyle that is indicative of a larger eco-cost than if you don’t fly. If you fly a lot you almost certainly have a lifestyle that is carbon-heavy. If you don’t fly (for ecological/ethical reasons) then it probably indicates you are aware of the eco arguments and you want to do something about it with your own lifestyle.
2. How change happens: Obviously one person not flying, or one person not buying a Chinese cordless drill, is not going to affect the carbon output or the lifestyle changes required to reduce the CO2. The most significant thing we can do is set an example to others, throughout the whole of our life activities, If we declare that we don’t fly but we actually drive 20 or 30,000 miles per year much of it at 80 mph, and consume lots of plastic-wrapped un-fresh food, and we use our tumble dryer 5 times every week, we are not going to convince very many people to reduce their carbon footprint. On the other hand if we emphasise reducing our consumption/purchasing of everything, and we re-use, upcycle and recycle almost everything including water and other “waste” products, our kids and relatives and friends will be somewhat spurred on to think about doing the same. All of us are very heavily influenced by the habits and expectations of the people around us.
And a small editorial point: there are two references in the long discussion above to “no solidarity with Greta”. Surely these should read “IN” solidarity with Greta”?
25Josef Davies-Coates (@jdaviescoates) November 10th, 2019
Not flying (and taking other individual actions) does make a difference, as it contributes to a shift away from unlimited flying as a social norm, see e.g. https://theconversation.com/climate-change-yes-your-individual-action-does-make-a-difference-115169 (and https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3283157 )
26king1394 November 13th, 2019
I have often wondered what the carbon footprint would be if all the individuals on the plane were to drive instead. This argument relies on the idea that the plane is flying anyway, but ignores the fact that the people are travelling anyway. Take the hundreds of of people who fly off the plane and work out their carbon emissions if they drive a standard car to the destination, and then see how it adds up. I really want to know as I have family that I could visit by flying or by driving. The difference for me is about taking 2 days and arriving exhausted or taking 2 hours.
27CarolineJF November 17th, 2019
I’ve two points to make.
One is about the empty bus.
The other is about increasing tax on flying.
Regarding the empty bus, people are wrongly (IMHO) just calculating a carbon footprint in terms of the fuel they use on a bus journey or flight.
In fact they’re participating in an industry and funding it and are liable for a share of the whole thing. Therefore the fuel the pilot used to travel from his hotel to a flight, the electricity used in the terminal, the manufacture and development of planes and the fuel to fly empty planes and in fact EVERY carbon cost of that business is shared between its customers.
How that is fairly worked out is the fine print. Same as for busses and every other industry.
Leading to my second point.
Every person should have a non transferable carbon budget. If we go for making polluting too expensive (via tax for example) for the average person but easily affordable for the rich, who already release carbon beyond reason how is that fair?
Carbon footprints for every item and service should be ball-park worked out right now. Information is power. This should be advertised and labelled by law.
Then we are all given a personal budget. Large to start with and decreasing. Spent like nectar points with every transaction.
I can’t see the downside.
28Dave Darby November 17th, 2019
Caroline – I agree. The impact of any product or service has to be shared between the people who put their money in and therefore caused it to happen. Companies don’t produce things if there are no customers for them. Funding an activity and then pretending it has nothing to do with you is a cop-out, and mathematically incorrect, as pointed out by the academic flying group, above.
Shaun Chamberlin told me about David Fleming’s idea on Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) – https://www.flemingpolicycentre.org.uk/teqs/. I’ll try to interview him soon to find out more about them.
I guess the downside is the near impossibility of getting them implemented. I’ll ask him about that.
29Ian November 20th, 2019
Some facts and figures from Uni of Bristol – https://cabot-institute.blogspot.com/2019/11/to-fly-or-not-to-fly-towards-university.html
30Dani December 2nd, 2019
Super interesting discussion!
My two cents
– I used to work in the travel industry and planes WONT FLY/will be cancelled if there isn’t enough people on them. It’s shocking how often airlines just cancel and change things on people.
– David, you may change people’s minds. I currently live the other side of the world to all my family (but near all my partner’s family) and I’m on the fence about a visit back. What I hear others doing, be it not flying or flying, affects my decisions.