They used to let you smoke on flights, kids and pregnant women be damned. Fire hazard on a plane? A lesser concern than the right to life, liberty, and lung cancer. Times changed, of course. They added non-smoking cabins, then said no smoking on flights, then no smoking in the office, then no smoking even near the front door of the office. In high school, when walking to and from the train station in the CBD, my friends and I would cough falsely and loudly when passing a group of huddled smokers. Because we knew better.

Smokers. What idiots. Would you mind killing yourselves before you wind up killing us, too?

The prevailing culture changed. As it so often does when we, as a society, learn how hideously wrong we have been about some aspect of our lives. Yet the new norm comes on so gradually, becomes so mundane, that we forget how strange the old normal was—how far we’ve come. So, why would we continue to accept as normal those aspects of our culture that we know are destructive when we know they too can change?

Take flying, for example, a far more dangerous form of “smoking”. In the face of ever-worsening climate change[1], constant updates from the media on how quickly the Arctic is melting[2], and an utter failure of our society to mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions (rather, we’re still increasing them[3), why do we continue to fly when few other activities in our lives create more emissions? Is there any more efficient way to screw with our climate than to take several hundred-thousand litres of kerosene high into the atmosphere and burn it?

Commercial air travel is roughly equivalent on a per-kilometre basis to driving a car with no passengers[4], but we don’t typically drive our cars several thousand kilometres in a single go. In a sustainable world, we would each have an annual budget of somewhere between two and four tonnes of carbon emissions[5], a budget that a return flight from Sydney to London would consume in just one go. As the noted climate scientist Kevin Anderson has stated[6]: ‘air travel is the most emission-profligate activity per hour (short of Formula 1 and possible space tourism)’.

Our global civilisation has an allocated carbon budget—for all our collective emissions from all sources—to keep the world from rising more than 2°C from the baseline temperature defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Yet, at the current rate of growth in the aviation industry, planes will be emitting more than the world’s entire carbon budget by mid-century[7]. That’s just flying. When considering all of our emissions as a whole, please listen to Kevin Anderson again (with his colleague Alice Bows-Larkin)[8]:

‘There is now little to no chance of maintaining the rise in global mean surface temperature at below 2°C, despite repeated high-level statements to the contrary.’

In other words, the situation is dire, but we’re flying more than ever. Because, maybe, the facts don’t matter[9]. Rather, this is a battle for our culture, with one side pointing to our civilisation and saying, look how far we’ve come, implicitly suggesting that progress will save the day, while the other side points to a dying earth and say, yes, but at what cost? There’s a certain amount of denial in the air about that cost, much like cigarette smoke, much like aviation emissions, much like climate change. Because faith in progress demands an expectation that the future will be better, allowing us to deny the present.

How do we deny thee? Let me count the ways. First: the carbon offset.

Why stop flying when you can purchase a carbon offset? This remarkable scam scheme involves paying the airline an additional fee to somehow absorb some other carbon emissions to offset those you’re responsible for on the flight you’re taking. In other words, it’s how you pay for your sins. A typical example might be, say, $1,500 for your flights to and from Maui, and then a further $15 or so to absolve your guilt. But what does this say about our priorities? Remember, we’re weighing up the possibility of a collapse of global civilisation this century versus an island getaway.

And does this wonderful scheme have a track record of success in reducing emissions? A record of validated legitimacy in the annals of science? No and No[10]. (Thank you again, Mr Anderson.) Instead, offsets mostly serve to encourage the status quo in terms of our behaviour. Has it encouraged a culture of local holidays, like we’ve started talking about local food? No.

The more important question is this: Did you or did you not emit a bunch of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere?

I know that you politely tried to ring the atmosphere immediately after your flight to tell them it was all okay, because you’d bought a carbon offset, but… well, no, the atmosphere isn’t taking any calls, I’m afraid. The emissions are still there, still heating the planet now, at a critical moment, while your planted seeds are taking their sweet time soaking up your carbon, or your new wind turbine is causing more emissions via its fossil-fuel supply chain. Never mind that more than two-thirds of what you paid[11] is just lining someone else’s pocket now.

So, forget carbon offsets. But perhaps that doesn’t matter, because somebody will think of something. They always do, you see. And here we arrive at our second form of denial: the future offset.

Given this optimistic future where others think of solutions we cannot, it can be comforting to think that we can do the wrong thing now because it will be fixed later. This stems from an implicit faith in technology that pervades our lives, because we are surrounded by gadgets so incredible, so beyond our comprehension, that they might as well be magic. And what need of reasoned thinking, what need of a scientific attitude, if we have magic?

It is a strange form of thinking. Have we improved the efficiency of air travel? Greatly. However, despite all those improvements, we have seen only increasing emissions since the advent of commercial air travel. The only exception? A brief window during the Global Financial Crisis. William Stanley Jevons understood in 1865[12] what many have failed to understand today, which is to say that the only proven way to reduce gross aviation emissions is for all of us to fly less.

And, no, the electric revolution currently exciting the car world cannot help either. Not only can electricity not provide the same thrust as a jet engine, which requires compressed gases to heat and expand, nor can any form of potential battery in the next twenty years hope to compete on weight with jet fuel due to a far lower energy density. Biofuels remain a long-promised panacea that have continually failed to deliver. No revolution in air travel is coming in any timeframe that matters.

What of geoengineering the climate? Negative-emissions technologies? They’re like continuing to smoke because, by the time you get sick, there might be a cure for lung cancer. ‘They’ll think of something,’ comes the refrain. But they already have: Don’t do it.

Third: the self offset.

This third point is an insidious one, because it cuts to the core of who are as a species. Robert A. Heinlein, the science-fiction writer, noted that humans are not so much rational creatures as rationalising ones. We are spectacular and terrible in how we justify our actions, believing either that we are more important or that the rules for others do not apply to us. Yes, we set ourselves apart from others and think, we need to fly. For work. Or that amazing holiday to the Maldives. Or were we going to the snow this year?

The affluence required to fly often goes unappreciated, yet only six per cent of the world’s population has ever flown[13]. If the other 94 per cent can live without it, can the rest of us? Please note, that last percentage is about the same as those who live on this planet breathing dangerous levels of air pollution[14]. A Venn diagram showing the overlap between those two groups would simply look like a circle with the faintest of shadows. Indeed, the top ten per cent of the world’s emitters contribute nearly half of all emissions[15], and many of them are most certainly flying. We talk of white privilege, male privilege, and socio-economic privilege, so perhaps we need to establish a new category: flight privilege. That’s right—before you check your bags, check your privilege.

And what if you don’t? Privileges can be revoked. We can argue over how to do this, with carrots or sticks, but better our carrots, our sticks, than Mother Nature’s, who will not be so kind. She will not care what else you are doing to better the world, what rationalisations you have made to continue flying. What is unsustainable cannot be sustained; it will end by definition. So, what if, like smoking, flying were to be increasingly taxed as the years passed? What if, like during the Second World War, tourism were greatly curtailed and commercial aviation highly limited?

That will never happen, you say. It’s easy to quibble over some point of objection—any reason to keep a bad habit. The logic we so easily apply to smoking in our society seems so dreadfully hard to imagine when applied to flying. Of course, the consequences of smoking are so personal, so immediate, whereas with flying it is the inverse: distant and abstract. Perhaps we need a sense of disgust to be associated with flying. Much like cigarettes, perhaps we need “plane” packaging, government-mandated colours for each and every Boeing and Airbus, dull beige adorned with photographs of devastated climates and starving polar bears. Beneath will be the words, Flying Kills.

But the heart of this conundrum is not about smoking or flying. It’s about faith in progress, when in the 1980s, we refused to mitigate, curtail our emissions and environmental destruction, and said, no, technology will solve our problems. But our problems only worsened. We said the same in the 1990s. And what of our problems then? The 2000s? And now in the 2010s, climate change is truly beginning to bite16, and we simultaneously despair while hoping for bigger miracles than ever—we wait to be saved. At what point do we question our faith?

At what point do we decide to save ourselves?

The simplistic logic of this faith is absurd: Even miracles take time. Mitigating emissions, restricting ourselves, starting with low-hanging fruit—optional activities such as our holidays and where we take them—such actions would give technology more time to save us even if you refuse to turn your back on the Church of Progress just yet. What would it mean to change the culture of flying? What would it mean to listen to your co-worker’s holiday stories about Paris and Barcelona, when you chose to go camping in the local hinterlands instead? What would it mean to question our flying habits against great resistance, surely to great resentment, but knowing all the same that such steps are necessary?

Perhaps a day will come when the next generation wises up, when they recognise that all those offsets, all that denial, all that faith, did nothing but worsen the problem, when smug teenagers will look up into the skies with a misguided yet much-needed sense of moral superiority.

Fliers. What idiots. Would you mind killing yourselves before you wind up killing us, too?

References:
1. Meyer, R. (2017, November 3). A Major New U.S. Report Affirms: Climate Change Is Getting Worse. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/11/a-major-new-us-report-affirms-climate-change-is-getting-worse/544952/
2. Irfan, U. (2018, April 11). Greenland’s ice is melting much faster than we thought. Here’s why that’s scary. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2018/4/11/17219020/greenland-ice-melt-climate-change
3. Chestney, N. (2018, March 22). Global carbon emissions hit record high in 2017. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-energy-carbon-iea/global-carbon-emissions-hit-record-high-in-2017-idUSKBN1GY0RB
4. West, L. (2017, July 24). Is Flying or Driving Better for the Environment? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/flying-driving-which-better-for-environment-1203936
5. Rosenthal, E. (2010, May 24). Toward Sustainable Travel: Breaking the Flying Addiction. Retrieved from https://e360.yale.edu/features/toward_sustainable_travel
6. Anderson, K. (2013, May 1). Hypocrites in the air: should climate change academics lead by example? Retrieved from http://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-05-01/hypocrites-in-the-air-should-climate-change-academics-lead-by-example/
7. Wikipedia. (2018, May 2). Environmental impact of aviation. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_impact_of_aviation
8. Anderson, K., & Bows, A. (2010). Beyond ‘dangerous’ climate change: emission scenarios for a new world. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 369(1934), 20-44. doi:10.1098/rsta.2010.0290
9. Kolbert, E. (2017, February 27). Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/27/why-facts-dont-change-our-minds
10. Anderson, K. (2012). The inconvenient truth of carbon offsets. Nature, 484(7392), 7-7. doi:10.1038/484007a
11. Kahya, D. (2009, December 7). BBC News – ‘30% of carbon offsets’ spent on reducing emissions. Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/8399740.stm
12. Wikipedia. (2018, March 23). Jevons paradox. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jevons_paradox
Di Lizio | Smoking by any other name | 6
13. Negroni, C. (2016, January 6). How Much of the World’s Population Has Flown in an Airplane? Retrieved from https://www.airspacemag.com/daily-planet/how-much-worlds-population-has-flown-airplane-180957719/
14. Harvey, F. (2018, April 17). More than 95% of world’s population breathe dangerous air, major study finds. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/apr/17/more-than-95-of-worlds-population-breathe-dangerous-air-major-study-finds
15. Chancel, L., & Piketty, T. (2015). Carbon and inequality: from Kyoto to Paris. Paris School of Economics.
16. Mooney, C., & Dennis, B. (2018, January 8). Extreme hurricanes and wildfires made 2017 the most costly U.S. disaster year on record. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2018/01/08/hurricanes-wildfires-made-2017-the-most-costly-u-s-disaster-year-on-record/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.33280986f3e7

 

Teaser photo credit: By DearEdward from New York, NY, USA – A321 final assembly, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30792663