Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Should you fly if you care about climate change?

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on care2.com

If we are "addicted" to oil (as even George Bush admitted), then I guess air travel would need to be classified as heroin: Extremely harmful, and yet almost impossible to quit.

As an example of how deep this addiction runs:
I'm on an email group list of well known climate bloggers, and one of my colleagues recently asked, "So... what bloggers on this list are going to Copenhagen?" (for the UN climate meetings next month)

A few of the answers:
  • "We will have several people there."
  • "We will be sending two people."
  • "We are sending 12 Midwest delegates."
You get the idea. These folks are among the most active and engaged on the issue of climate change, and yet many will be jetsetting multiple writers to Denmark (possibly myself included).

They are almost certainly aware that in terms of personal carbon impact, flying is one of the worst things you can do: Without flying, the average person's carbon footprint in the US (the amount of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gasses we emit as individuals) is 16 tons. But for the 25% of American who fly, the average footprint is 6 tons higher. And for the roughly 6 Million 'frequent fliers' in The US, the typical footprint is 40 tons - almost triple the average. Yikes!

Flying is especially harmful because the emissions are released much further up in the atmosphere. There was a memorable scene in the movie The Age of Stupid, where a family tries to work out a reasonable carbon budget, and realizes that their holiday flying makes it impossible. As the father says, "the only thing worse than flying seems to be to set fire to a rainforest."

So what is a concerned eco-citizen to do? Waiting for the airlines to fix the problem is certainly not a good option. The Air Transportation Association is lobbying to avoid taxes or cap-and-trade on their industry, while also making vague promises to reduce emissions by 50% in the next 40 years. Unfortunately, most estimates are that airline travel will actually grow substantially as a portion of total emissions in upcoming decades.

Can we stop flying? Given the global nature of business and politics, as well as the importance of cultural sensitivity and awareness in an interconnected world, I hope not (although we can fly less, that's for sure.) I'm glad that concerned writers will be in Copenhagen to document the UN climate talks, even if they need to get on airplanes to get there.

The only remaining answer seems to be for fliers to fund activities that reduce their flight emissions via what is known as 'offsetting' -- funding other programs that do more good than the harm we create. Offsetting often gets a bad name, sometimes called the equivalent of a medieval pardon, or simply purchasing guilt reduction. But what it really does is pragmatically mitigate a potential environmental problem through a 'swap', something we do all the time. As examples, we chose to set aside national parks rather than halt westward expansion, conservation funds often trade forest tracts and logging rights with timber interests, and we support hatcheries to make up for dams and lost Salmon habitats. So why not set aside forests or support wind energy to make up for the flying we can't seem to avoid? While none of these 'swaps' are perfect, they are much better alternatives to doing nothing to mitigate activities that - for economic and other reasons - we just can't stop doing.

In the case of flying, offsetting the impact of a one way trip overseas adds roughly 2% ($15) to the price of a ticket. In an era where airlines now charge $32 for advanced seating assignments, $25 for an extra bag, and even for meals, that seems like a bargain to me.

Going back to the original heroin analogy, I suppose offsetting would be the moral and practical equivalent of Methadone -- a safe way to allow us to gradually withdraw from our addiction, rather than quitting cold turkey.

I think it's a good solution to the air travel dilemma, but I know not everyone agrees. What do you think?

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  1. Hello Dave- My view comes from the adventure and eco-travel perspective. Simply put- we run bigger risks by NOT traveling. For example- there are two species that would likely perish without the protection of tourists/tourism: Rwandan/Ugandan gorillas and Indian tigers. The saying in India is "More eyes on the tiger means the tiger is safe". Obviously there is a balance to be had here, but in both these cases, no tourists = locals have no incentive to protect the local environment and species.

    To the carbon footprint argument- again, if customers are not falling in love with the jungle, the rainforest, the mountains, new advocates are not being created and the locals who live in such areas do not value (typically) the environment and only can see economic survival through extractive eyes, understandably.

    If you must, carbon offset for now, even if it's controversial- push for new technologies to help fight the wasteful use of petroleum. And if someone's travel is nothing but a gratuitous exercise in self-indulgence, well, then perhaps the conscience is warranted there.

    Bottom line- adventure and eco travel can change people's behavior for life, so the travel is well worth the immediate (and smaller) carbon cost.

    Best regards,
    Shannon Stowell
    Adventure Travel Trade Association

  2. Hi Dave,

    Shannon is right, travel is necessary to learn and to become world citizens.

    In addition to wildlife such as the gorillas and tigers, there are also many remote communities and community based projects that are dependent on the money brought in by travelers, who must fly.

    That said, it's no good to bury our heads in the sand and hope that this will all go away. It's an important issue and it seems to me that this is a valid way for travelers to address their carbon footprint.

    Katrina Adams
    Owner / Operator
    Kosrae Village Ecolodge & Dive Resort