What is it about air travel?

Thea Ormerod & Miriam Pepper

Manna Matters November 2013


Despite the growing social movement towards living more sustainably, there is one matter that few dare to address. It’s the one topic that will have the most ardent environmentalist shifting about in their seats. Any challenge to this highly prized lifestyle option will rapidly kill a conversation around the dinner table. We’re talking about air travel.

Naturally, most of us get excited thinking about it. We enjoy telling our friends about our next trip. We seek opportunities to travel even when it’s not a “necessity”. International aviation is a fast-growing industry, despite peak oil and climate change.

What is it about air travel? George Monbiot in Heat refers to “love miles”. By this he means that many individuals meet friends or partners overseas, which lead to relationships between people from different parts of the world. Also there is the migration of individuals and whole families – in a search for a better life, or to escape persecution and danger. After that, there’s the pull to visit the relatives, friends or homelands again, and vice versa. Thus, air travel begets air travel.

Academics today believe they would be consigning themselves to professional invisibility if they didn’t attend conferences and the like. And who could begrudge a friend the personal enrichment of experiencing unfamiliar parts of the world, other cultures and historic places? Ironically, some of this travel is to visit beautiful wilderness areas.

Global annual aviation growth is currently estimated to be 4% to 5%. Improvements in energy efficiency have not kept pace with this growth, resulting in a net increase in global emissions.

Flying is now so culturally accepted, it’s become sacrilegious to question it. The globalization of businesses continues apace and virtually all areas of human endeavor are increasingly staging international tournaments, festivals and the like. We now have the dubious benefit of the World Paper Planes Championships! Even environmentalists repeatedly set mining against tourism without acknowledging the climate impacts of the tourist industry.

Religious institutions are as much a part of this trend as anyone else. World Youth Day has a very substantial carbon footprint, but this is rarely questioned. International relationships are fostered to maintain overseas aid and development work, and inspirational speakers are hosted from across the globe.

Conveniently overlooked is the fact that air travel brings with it a heavy carbon footprint. Estimates vary regarding aviation’s proportion of global emissions, from 2% to 6% or more, depending on who’s counting. Confounding the calculations is the fact that burning fuel at high altitude has nearly three times the climate impact of burning the same fuel at ground level. Complexity is added because of the creation of nitrous oxides that are 310 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, and the effects from condensation trails (contrails), which are difficult to quantify.

George Marshall, author of Carbon Detox, has calculated that a holiday to Australia for a family of four living in the UK has the same climate impact as heating their average size house for a decade.

Unfortunately, the “carbon offsets” that people buy in good faith go only part of the way to offsetting the real effects of flying. Offset companies routinely underestimate flight emissions and over-estimate the amount of carbon that offset projects save. Perhaps what is most effective about such offsets is the way that they assuage our own consciences.

At the same time, they conflate non-fossilized and fossilized carbon. For example, the amount of carbon that a tree supposedly soaks up over decades is conflated with the amount of carbon released by burning ages-old fossil fuel in a single flight. Similarly, carbon emissions saved by reducing meat consumption is conflated with a certain number of cars taken off the road. Thus, the complexity of the ecological and social issues of everyday lifestyles is a reduced to a matter of disembodied greenhouse gases.

The reluctance to curtail flying habits derives in part from the belief that our small actions are not going to make a scrap of difference to the planet anyway. Some people who believe in sustainable living argue that the key to reducing emissions is structural change, not individual sacrifice. This position is seductive, but it evades the obvious gap between the talk and the walk.

Ghandi’s “Be the change you wish to see in the world” comes to mind. Actually, it seems these weren’t his words exactly, but we know that he believed personal and social transformation go hand in hand. The image of the great Mahatma, one so vigorous in his engagement with structures that perpetuated injustice, walking barefoot in his dhoti is one that remains potent for our time.

The simple truth is that, to live authentically, those of us concerned about the future of this planet need to review this area of our lives – not only in terms of so-called “luxuries” that we might allow ourselves, but also in terms of the travel that we feel is so essential in our personal and professional lives. If we don’t, how can we call upon others or society as a whole to change their ways? It is this very tendency to hold that others must make the necessary changes that has delayed progress at international climate negotiations. Because air travel seems so sensitive, intractable, and hard to give up, is precisely why we should consider it and discuss it more.

Consider the possibilities. What would be so bad about holidays closer to home, to other parts of our own country, with all its legendary beauty and diversity? What could we gain from travelling more slowly through the environment, appreciating its subtleties and changes, rather than transporting ourselves at speed from one context to another? Instead of international meetings, consider webinars, videoconferencing, group Skype meetings and bi-annual gatherings rather than annual ones.

As aviation fuel becomes less available, these options will be forced on us at any rate. Perhaps by travelling less we would not achieve what we currently do, but we could achieve other outcomes, equally valuable and less environmentally damaging.

If humanity is serious about the mitigation of carbon emissions, we are going to have to do something about this idolatry of air travel. The alternative is to allow the expansion of aviation to add to an already quite unbearable burden for our grandchildren, for the world’s poor and for all of life on this fragile planet.

Thea Ormerod is the President of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC), a multi-faith member-based organisation. Miriam Pepper is also a member of ARRC and a founding member of Uniting Earthweb, a Uniting Church ecology network.