Can you be an environmentalist—and fly?
Anna Guyer | 20.07.10
The writer and documentary filmmaker Pamela Nowicka recently wrote on flying and the impact that it has - and it got me thinking: how can we justify flying when we begin to understand the impact it has? Pamela wrote:
"I researched flying and its climate change impacts for my just completed half hour documentary, 'Climate Change? No Thanks'.
Average carbon footprint of a person in the UK is 10 tonnes. A long haul fight emits approx 1.2 tonnes of climate change (CC) gases per person. The CC impact of this is about three times as much as CO2 alone because of the altitude and mixture of gases released. See also in George Monbiot's 'Heat'. Flying is of concern as it is one of the fastest growing CC sectors.
The Indian farmers I spoke to who are now experiencing CC impacts like monsoon failure leading to water shortage, crop failure and the destruction of their livelihoods were not impressed by the tourist argument of 'it broadens my mind'. "They can read about our country or see it on the internet" was a typical comment. I was filming in 40c+ (100f+) and that is 3C above the seasonal average. The tourists took the view that 'the plane will go without me, I'm just one person, I don't weigh very much'.
In terms of the unabashedly rosey view which western tourists have about their activities, I can recommend a trawl though the anthropology of tourism literature, as I did for my book,"The No-Nonsense Guide to Tourism" (New Internationalist 2007). Land annexation, water shortages, negative cultural impacts, alcoholism, sex tourism, community breakdown and loss of livelihood, are all part of the host country's experience of tourism.
The much vaunted economic benefits mainly accrue to the rich, and a few entrepreneurs, and are a drop in the financial ocean compared with millions invested by governments in soft loans, tax breaks, subsidies and often dubious land acquisition practices to support the vocal and powerful tourism promotion lobby."
Pamela's story really struck me and reminded me of a recent meeting with a group of passionate environmentalists who were telling me about their travel (by air) to far-flung places to see new green technologies in action, to educate, inform or share information on climate change, or to lecture. I was left thinking about the irony and the impact. Can you be an environmentalist and fly? Does the idea of environmentalists flying around the world seem odd to you? It does me.
Getting systemic change to happen for something as huge as air travel isn't going to happen overnight. I accept that. For me, I chose to give up flying two years ago. First because I am trying to leave as small a carbon footprint as I can, so flying just isn't an option. But second, my career is focused on advancing green causes, products and ideas -- all of which would seem pretty futile to me if I was also jetting around for business or for pleasure. And yet, it seems a really contentious issue to bring up, one that no one wants to talk about or address.
Surely if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem? If giving up flying doesn't start with people who care about the environment, then who?
Seriously and totally without being preachy, I am putting the question out there: Can you be an environmentalist -- and fly?
Some facts about air travel:
On a return flight from London to New York, every passenger produces roughly 1.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide: the very quantity we will each be entitled to emit in a year once the necessary cut in emissions has been made. The potency of the emissions are at least 2.5 times CO2 emissions as it is high in the atmosphere.
Aviation has been growing faster than any other source of greenhouse gases. Between 1990 and 2004, the number of people using airports in the UK rose by 120%, and the energy the planes consumed increased by 79%. Their carbon dioxide emissions almost doubled in that period - from 20.1 to 39.5m tonnes, or 5.5% of all the emissions this country produces. Unless something is done to stop this growth, flying will soon overwhelm all the cuts we manage to make elsewhere. (Source: George Monbiot, Guardian, On the flight path to global meltdown)
About 'Climate Change? No Thanks!
'Climate Change? No Thanks! will be previewing in London later this year. For more information contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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