The impact of air travel on the environment is back on
the radar, reports Tom McKinlay.
Air travel is growing as a contributor towards climate
change. Photo by Reuters.
As part of its attempt to cut its carbon footprint, the World
Bank is moving its executives out of airlines' first-class
Yes, things are that grim. The suited coterie is moving
purposefully back into business class to save the world. The
downgrade comes after the Washington-based organisation found
up to 70% of its footprint was down to air travel. A report
prepared for the bank identified that a first-class passenger
has almost 10 times the carbon footprint of someone back in
economy. A business class traveller's footprint is just three
times that of economy.
The initiative focuses further attention on the role air
travel plays in carbon emissions and associated global
warming. Attempts to address the issue and ''green'' travel
are not new. Carbon offsetting programmes have been available
to travellers for some years, while the World Wildlife Fund
recently co-sponsored a list of ''green travel tips'' to help
travellers get about in a more environmentally friendly
fashion. Significantly, the WWF list did not include
remaining grounded as one of its recommendations.
Prof James Higham, of the University of Otago Department of
Tourism, says that might be considered an oversight.
''The most pressing issue facing the travel industry is
greenhouse gas emissions and contributions to climate
change,'' Prof Higham, who has been researching public
perceptions of climate change and travel behaviour,
particularly long-haul air travel, for the past four years,
''Up to 95% of all energy consumed when on holiday can be
attributed to transportation and of this the vast majority
arises from air travel.''
Aviation consumes hundreds of millions of tonnes of fuel per
annum and accounted for about 3700 megatonnes of CO2 in 2004,
2.6% of total anthropogenic CO2 emission in that year.
However, aviation is projected to emit 15-40% of total global
CO2 by 2050. And tackling international aviation emissions is
made more difficult as planes fuel up in different places and
travel across borders. Meanwhile the United Nations World
Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) forecasts global growth of 43
million international arrivals per annum (2010-2030) and 1.8
billion international arrivals in 2030.
Some of this travel has been dubbed ''binge flying'', as the
middle classes of the developed world have become somehow
addicted to cheap carbon-intensive leisure mobility. It is
travel on a scale incompatible with the sort of reductions in
global carbon emissions required to rein in climate change,
Prof Higham says.
''Given this level of growth, and the limited scope for
technical solutions in the form of aviation efficiency gains,
it is apparent that behaviour change is necessary to achieve
climatically sustainable tourism.''
The best advice is to modify air travel behaviour by moving
away from frequent air travel, over long distances for short
stays, he says. Travellers could halve air travel emissions
by replacing two one-week holidays per annum with one
two-week holiday. And halve them again by choosing a
destination that is half as distant. Or eliminate them
completely by taking a holiday that doesn't involve flying.
''It is clear that we have to urgently rethink our speed and
distance-intensive lifestyles'' he says.
''I think time is a crucial variable, because in contemporary
Western society time has been destroyed by its co-variables,
speed and distance. We need to restore the importance of time
in the `speed equals distance divided by time' equation. We
have given so much focus to speed and distance that time has
effectively been destroyed. We are going to have to
rediscover the importance of time in our travel habits.
Instead of getting from point A to point B at breakneck
speed, perhaps the future of tourism will involve restoring
the experience of getting from point A to point B with more
time and less speed.''
That is perhaps easier than it sounds. A study by Prof Higham
and colleague Dr Scott Cohen (University of Surrey) looked at
the perceptions and behaviours of travellers from Norway, a
country committed to carbon neutrality by 2030, and found a
willingness to make behaviour changes to address climate
concerns. But even among the community-minded Norse, there
was a reluctance or unwillingness to reduce levels of
personal air travel, including both short- and long-haul
travel. The researchers found ''air travel has become deeply
embedded in contemporary affluent Western lifestyles, to the
point of intransigence''.
In another published study Prof Higham found different
attitudes depending on country - more UK travellers tended to
be in denial about climate change when making travel
decisions, some practising a ''willing naivety'' - but again
encountered a ''profound reluctance to compromise established
and entrenched air travel behaviours''.
Part of this is the ''flyers' dilemma''. On the one hand, the
individual taking the flight achieves the immediate personal
benefits of leisure travel, on the other the consequences of
climate change are a collective (global) problem that will
play out with increasing intensity over time. Given the
reluctance or inability by individuals to take responsibility
for reducing air miles, the research suggests other solutions
may be required, whether through carbon pricing, government
policy, provision of better travel alternatives or some other
One potential solution, carbon offsetting, has not fulfilled
its promise. Under carbon offsetting, a traveller pays an
extra sum, and that money goes towards an initiative that
will help address their carbon footprint. For example, a
scheme operated by Atmosfair charges a little under 1000
($NZ1700) for a family of four travelling economy class to
Britain, and generating a footprint of 42,700kg of CO2. That
money is then used to buy efficient firewood stoves for
families in Nigeria, cutting their use of wood, as well as
saving ''the CO2 emissions equivalent to those created by a
German car in one year''. But uptake of such offsetting
programmes has been very low.
''I guess there's a general feeling among the travelling
public that it is not their responsibility to offset their
carbon,'' Prof Higham says. Some people might also question
whether the woodstoves they bought for Nigeria will really
make the difference to atmospheric carbon promised.
''I think, logically, the consumer doubt around carbon
offsetting is perfectly reasonable.''
In any event, carbon offsetting may simply be unable to cope
with the rapidly increasing volume of air travel.
''In other words it doesn't really address the real problem,
which is high and growing levels of air travel consumption,''
Prof Higham says.
Sceptics also question the ethics of producing carbon
emissions by flying today, in the hope that planted trees (a
popular form of offsetting) will capture carbon as they grow
in the future. That equation makes various potentially
problematic assumptions; that those trees will be carefully
tended, and indeed will survive at all in a climate of
increasing flood and drought intensity.
It also makes significant land-use commitments (in some cases
internationally) for the medium-term future. And those
land-use commitments are not insignificant themselves. A
University of Otago study found New Zealand could only offset
the carbon caused by visitor flights in and out of the
country by setting aside 26,300 sq km of regenerating forest.
That is the size of 15 Stewart Islands or 10% of the
country's total land area.
''My view is that carbon offsetting is quite badly flawed,''
Prof Higham says, particularly in view of the growing air
travel appetite of developing world countries such as China
and Brazil. For those in developed societies, the challenge
will be to take a lead on demonstrating sustainable
consumption, Prof Higham says, so that the consumption gap
closes between the developing and developed worlds.
''Those in Western societies must take a lead in becoming
more restrained in the consumption of air travel if global
temperature rise is to be stabilised within 2degC.''
Ironies abound in much of this. Tourists jet off to low-lying
island destinations in the Caribbean and Pacific, many of
which are in the front line in terms of climate change and
rising sea level. Others fly to observe wildlife at first
hand, in habitats that are coming under pressure as a result
of global warming. Or to dive in the Coral Sea where
increasing sea temperatures are associated with catastrophic
coral bleaching. Or to heli-ski on glaciers that are in rapid
''Flying for many reasons is full of irony,'' Prof Higham
suggests. Another recent study, this one out of Britain,
provides further reason for frequent fliers to take the
matter seriously. It found that air travel will get rockier
with accelerating global climate change, as the atmosphere
becomes more volatile.
''It is a challenging predicament and consumers must become
more mindful of the consequences of their air travel
The World Bank's executives might need to move further back
in the plane yet, or even step off. The future of aviation is
up in the air in a world that, according to the Tyndall
Centre for Climate Change Research (www.tyndall.ac.uk), now requires
''urgent and radical emission reductions''.
In that future, tourist air travel could share the fate of
the tobacco industry, becoming socially marginalised, and
accompanied by consumer warnings on travel websites, tourist
brochures and in-flight safety cards that read: ''Danger: Air
travel damages the planet's health.''