Sitting in the hot seat

Air travel is growing as a contributor towards climate change. Photo by Reuters.
Air travel is growing as a contributor towards climate change. Photo by Reuters.
The impact of air travel on the environment is back on the radar, reports Tom McKinlay.

As part of its attempt to cut its carbon footprint, the World Bank is moving its executives out of airlines' first-class berths.

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, says.

''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 mechanisms.

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 retreat.

''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 decision-making.''

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 (, 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.''