Grounded by low horizons

Killjoys want to reduce the number of cheap flights to sunny destinations, in pursuit of questionable targets on carbon emissions.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

A new report suggests the growth of air travel must be curbed to prevent climate change. Rough translation: all those oiks taking advantage of cheap flights to visit far-flung corners of the world should stay at home instead, and make do with Skegness.

Decarbonising the UK, published this week by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change, argues that if air travel continues to expand at its current rate, there is no chance the UK government will meet its target of cutting carbon emissions by 60 per cent before 2050 – unless, that is, all other sectors stop emitting carbon altogether (1). The report cites government figures which suggest that passenger numbers will rise from 180million to 475million over the next 25 years.

But why should we accept that air travel is the problem, and that it needs to be curtailed? It’s more realistic to say that unrealistic carbon emissions targets are the issue here. And why should we cancel our holidays just so the government can be seen to be doing its bit for the environment by achieving questionable targets?

According to Dr Kevin Anderson, who led the research at the Tyndall Centre at Manchester University: ‘If the government does not curb aviation growth, all other sectors of the economy will eventually be forced to become carbon neutral. It will undermine the international competitiveness of UK industry.’

Anderson suggests that in order to keep emissions under control, passenger numbers can only rise as quickly as fuel efficiency rises. And as fuel efficiency has only been improving by 1.5 per cent per year, passenger growth would be minimal indeed. In July, Anderson told the Guardian: ‘We’re not saying don’t fly; we’re saying that we cannot fly very much more than we do now.’ So either flights need to be made more expensive, or plans for new airports and runways and cheaper holidays must be curtailed.

Mayer Hillman, author of How We Can Save Our Planet, is much more blunt. Writing in the Independent this week, he condemned our increasingly energy-profligate lifestyles, with a particular focus on air travel.

‘An increasing majority of the population is inadvertently complicit in a process that is already reducing the quality of life of literally billions of people, and which will almost certainly cause the deaths of millions in the near and longer-term future’, Hillman wrote. He also argued that carbon use per capita must be reduced by 85 per cent by 2030. One return flight to New York from London represents about three years worth of carbon ‘allowance’. So you can forget going on holiday once – or heaven forbid, twice – a year. Hillman also said that the time for ‘awareness raising’ on green matters is over: now, ‘only urgent and ruthless government action will do’ (2).

It is right to question whether there will be substantial change in climate as a result of carbon emissions. But even if we accept that as a possibility, the dramatic cuts in consumption proposed by Hillman and others should at least beg a further question: wouldn’t our time be better spent finding ways to manage climate change, rather than trying to curb emissions dramatically and make people’s lives more boring in the process? By promoting economic growth rather than trying to curtail it, the likely effect of cutting carbon emissions, wouldn’t we be in a better position to cope with the consequences of climate change?

Environmentalists have been pointing the finger at ‘cheap air travel’ for some time now, arguing that cut-price flights encourage more and more of us to holiday abroad and unthinkingly cause pollution as we go. Guardian columnist George Monbiot has even said that ‘flying across the Atlantic is now as unacceptable as child abuse’ (3).

Behind the smug denunciations of cheap air travel and package holidays, there lurks not only a lack of imagination for dealing with pollution issues, but also a thinly veiled contempt for the masses.

This was brought home to me during a wedding reception in New Zealand a couple of years ago. The groom was a youngish, up-and-coming member of the Liberal Democrats in Scotland and there was a fair sprinkling of party colleagues at the event. Guests were soon discussing the long journey from the UK, but it didn’t take long for it to turn into a debate about the ‘problem’ of air travel.

The real problem, I was told, were all these people now making short trips to Europe by air, particularly to those sun, sex and booze resorts. Guests complained that it has become far too easy for individuals to hop on to a plane. The hypocrisy of this position being advanced by people who had made a 25,000-mile round-trip for a wedding was not at all self-evident to them. They had clearly decided that they were responsible travellers and not debauched ‘holidaymakers’.

The advent of cheap air travel has provided a vast majority of Britons with the opportunity to explore new horizons. They no longer have to accept over-priced holidays and miserable weather in the UK, when they can get two weeks in the sun for cheaper. And why spend that stag night in the Red Lion when you can spend it in Amsterdam or Reykjavik?

Underpinning the debate about air travel is the idea that people, and what people do, are a problem – and that we must reduce our ‘ecological footprint’ by reducing the number of individual footprints. What killjoys. We should celebrate the capacity to be liberated from our everyday lives as often as possible. In response to the miserable puritan morality of sustainability and reduced consumption, we need a bit more ‘blue-sky’ thinking.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Global warming

spiked-issue: Transport

(1) Decarbonising the UK, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change, 21 September 2005

(2) Your Planet: The case for rationing, Mayer Hillman, Independent, 19 September 2005

(3) Meltdown, George Monbiot

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Topics Science & Tech


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