Flying Less Is about Environmental and Social Equity


-John Stewart, author of Why Noise Matters, has been a transport and environmental activist for the past 30 years. He chaired the coalition of organizations that defeated plans for a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport. In 2008, The Sunday Independent dubbed him “the UK’s most effective environmentalist.”

Consider this: One person’s round trip from London to Miami has the same climate-damaging effect as one year’s driving around in a regular gas-powered car. In other words, 12 hours in the air equals 365 days on the ground. You can recycle, compost, buy local and organic, and use public transit, but in terms of carbon emissions, if you are a frequent flier, all your efforts to live green get cancelled out.

Not flying, or at least cutting down on how often one flies, is a matter of environmental and social justice. Here’s why.

The level of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere has risen drastically in recent years due to the burning of fossil fuels and land use changes. Scientists across the world are saying this cannot continue. The 2009 Copenhagen Accord recommended that the increase in the average global temperature must be held below 2 degrees centigrade. To hold our climate steady, CO2 emissions have to be reduced by around 80 percent in the rich world and at least halved in poor countries by 2050.

This has big implications for international air travel, which is one the fastest-growing source of climate emissions worldwide. Scientists do not believe greenhouse gas targets can be met if aviation continues to grow at its present rate, even with the introduction of cleaner planes. By 2050 aviation could account for 15 percent of all CO2 emissions worldwide.

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According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, aviation currently accounts for 3.5 percent of human-induced climate change. If you include heat-trapping cirrus clouds formed from dissipating contrails – white lines of water vapor left by jets crisscrossing the sky – airplane travel adds up to about 5 percent of global warming. The proportion is higher in rich countries like the US and the United Kingdom where flying is much more a way of life. In the UK, for example, aviation accounts for 6.5 percent of all emissions (13 percent if contrails are included).

Jeff Greenwald argues that to focus on air travel as the bad boy of climate change is a bit misguided since 96.5 percent of human-induced climate change is not caused by aviation. But he doesn’t dwell much on the other serious downsides to air travel, namely the effect of aircraft noise and air pollution on communities near airports and along airplane flight paths. Taken together with climate emissions, they make flying a very serious problem indeed.

It is estimated that 30 million people worldwide are exposed to disturbing levels of aircraft noise. The aviation industry admits that “there are no ‘silver bullets’ on the horizon in terms of new technology or operating procedures” for reducing noise pollution.

Aviation is also a major source of local air pollution. People, animals, and plants are crop-dusted by aircraft emissions as far as 12 miles from a runway and the impact of these emissions can be felt as far as 25 miles away. A typical commercial airport spews hundreds of tons of toxic pollutants into the air every day. These toxins can cause cancer, asthma, and birth defects. Any guesses on the economic status of most people who live near airports? They are usually poorer.

Meanwhile, flying remains the preserve of the relatively rich. According to a Worldwatch Institute report, only 5 percent of people in the world have ever flown. Cheaper and more frequent flights haven’t helped make flying socially inclusive. A study by the UK’s Department for Transport has shown that 75 percent of people using budget airlines are from the middle and upper-middle classes. “Cheap” flights just spur the same people to fly more for weekend getaways or business conferences.

The benefits of air travel are limited to a relatively small proportion of the world’s population and come with potentially catastrophic downsides for the entire population of the planet.

small excerpt of a poll pageReader OpinionWhat do you think? Should we stop flying in order to help reduce
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The onus must be on the rich countries to reduce their flying. Most people will not do this voluntarily. Nations must introduce fiscal measures to increase the cost of flying, which is currently kept artificially low because airlines pay no tax on their fuel and the aviation industry fails to cover its environmental and social costs.

This raises the specter of a less well-connected world, for which I have two responses.

First, if we are to have any chance of getting CO2 emissions under control, we simply have no choice. We are already experiencing the effects of climate change, particularly in the poor countries of the world. At heart this is an issue of equity. The flying habits of the rich and the relatively rich are accelerating the onset of climate change for the poor – the people least likely to fly.

Second, in the future the world will continue to be interconnected, but through different means. Flying will have some role, but the real story of this century has been the explosion of the new media. Mobile phones are connecting villagers in Africa to the rest of the world in a way that no expensive infrastructure ever could. The Arab Spring was linked to sympathizers across the globe, much more through Facebook, Twitter, and the ubiquitous mobile phone than by planes. This technological revolution is the key to future connectivity. We must grab it if we are to continue making connections at all.

For an opposing view, read what Jeff Greenwald has to say.

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