Footprints in the air

The English newspaper The Guardian recently carried an article on the environmental impact of aviation. The starting point of the argument presented by the author was this:

 ‘Climate change has changed forever how we view flying. Suddenly, getting on a plane at the drop of a hat seems as morally defensible as clubbing seals.’

All of this is of course tied to the concept of the ‘carbon footprint’, which measures the impact of individuals or groups in terms of CO2 emissions. Websites such as this one allow you to calculate and offset your impact on global warming by acknowledging and then reducing your carbon footprint. In the explanatory narrative, flights are cited as the first potential source of an excessive negative environmental impact.

There is, it seems to me, a need for a more sophisticated analysis of how we should deal with global warming and greenhouse gases than the Guardian quote above might suggest. For many people rightly concerned about the environmental damage that is being inflicted upon the earth the answers seem to me to be a tad facile and sometimes dangerous. They are, very often, based on the idea that we should turn the clock back: travel less, decline to eat imported food, and so forth. But human progress cannot be so easily picked apart, and if we discard individual items of habit and conduct we may have an unexpected impact on others. The headlong rush for biofuels, for example, was badly thought through and is now a contributory cause of third world hunger.

International transport and travel has had a number of effects, beyond carbon emissions. It has put doubtful governments and regimes under the spotlight as visitors were able to observe what was going on at first hand; it has given markets and an income to third world growers of food that they could not get from resource-poor internal consumer markets; it has opened up access to diverse cultures and new influences; it has helped to create understanding and tolerance. Whether or not we could reverse all this, we certainly shouldn’t.

Actually, it has become increasingly clear that the ‘moral pressure’ approach to carbon emissions is ineffective. It may make travellers feel they are social pariahs, but it doesn’t stop them travelling. And it may even be that some of this talk is diverting us from the real solutions, which are mostly to be found in science and innovation. We must of course reduce greenhouse gases and other contributors to environmental damage, but this will be done most effectively through scientific research and common sense and prudent behaviour.

Lest I am misunderstood, I am not at all opposed to a vibrant environmentalist agenda, and I believe we have a strong obligation to be good stewards of this earth. I do not agree at all with those sceptics who still try to argue that humans actually don’t contribute to global warming, or who make similarly silly points. And I believe in the precautionary principle that says that even if we are uncertain about it, we must act on the assumption that global warming is taking place and that we are to blame. But I do believe that this important agenda must not be shot through with moral posturing and calls to return to a previous age. We can never do that, in this or in any other context. The way forward is always forward.

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3 Comments on “Footprints in the air”

  1. Wendymr Says:

    Interesting website, that CarbonFootprint one, but extremely simplistic. There’s no option for indicating, for example, that when we buy new furniture we recycle the old by passing it on to an organisation which will then pass it to someone in need. Likewise, while I buy new clothes several times a year (a requirement when working in an environment where dress-code is professional), old clothes either go to Goodwill or to Clothing Works.

    There’s no doubt that air travel is costly to the environment, but so too are the costs you mentioned as a result of cutting back on it, such as less-developed countries losing the opportunity of international trade. The high price of fossil fuels at the moment is doing far more to cut down the number of flights and even people’s car usage than any pleas for the environment – and look at the costs of that. South-western Ontario has been heavily dependent on the automotive industry, particularly SUVs and MPVs, and that sector is in massive decline. The cost to the environment there? Families with their incomes halved (average hourly pay in automotive and related manufacturing is $20+/hour, compared to a customer service or unskilled factory environment where pay is between $9 and $12 per hour) no longer able to afford to buy local produce and other goods, and driving to their nearest WalMart to buy Chinese-manufactured goods and imported produce.

    The leader of the (Liberal) opposition party in Canada proposed a new carbon tax a couple of months ago, claiming public support. There’s likely to be a federal election in the autumn, so I suppose we’ll see how right he is.

  2. ultan Says:

    Let’s not confuse matters too much, but there is a hell of a lot of waste when it comes to flying, especially business-related travel. In this day and age a lot more should be done electronically. After nearly 20 years of working around the world IT, I just don’t buy the “essential” nature of every business trip. But of course, a lot of these trips are really about something a lot less lofty than enhancing international harmony, as we all know…

    There’s a close parallel between international travel by flight and the current situation with “free” third-level fees. In other words, why should air miles, which facilitate mostly further useless air travel and pollution, in fact remain the personal property of the traveller for their use as they see fit even – if the originated ticket was paid for by a company or tax-payer on their behalf?

    Why not tax all these air miles for environmental purposes, or exchange them for carbon credits? In my correspondence with various ministers in government (inc Mr Ryan and the then Minister for Finance) I raised the question and propose it as a potential revenue source. They said they “look into it”. In fact, I believe some European countries already tax air-miles. Until then, we have a marvellous situation where the tax-payer pays for a government minister’s flights, then for the carbon credits to assuage the guilt, while allowing the same public representative to keep the air-miles from their flight to use however they like in the future!

    Moral pressure won’t do anything. Less money to spend on shopping in New York certainly will.

  3. “I believe we have a strong obligation to
    be good stewards of this earth. . And I believe
    in the precautionary principle. But I do believe that this important
    agenda must not be shot through with moral posturing and calls to
    return to a previous age. We can never do that”

    Classic perhpas deliberate misdirection. Many, I estimate the majority who are opposed to various dangerous technologies, incl fundamental ones such as modern energy use, are not Luddites. We want \ assessment of risks and precaution in the face of vast unknowns. By no means is that opposition to all modern technologies. You must not be aware that the sun pours down 8,000 as much energy as all manking uses & wastes, so we do not need dangerous fossil fuels, only a bit of the inginuity that characterzes our species.

    But a lot of us are opposed to energy pigs, and I am not convinced that you are not one. A confortable life before the industrial age required a few horsepower, today billions use undreds of horses all day (including the vast energy embedded in products). So because I want all mod cons to continue, I live in a manner that will ensure they do. Almost no developed country pigs do, as they are distracted by titlialtion & consumer advertising. Yet I enjoy the fruits of many electronic & other devices. Finally I am unconvinced that you & your ilk really have investiated the rapidly solidifying evidence that indicates that the climate game is over, whe you factor in the demonstrated impossbility of political leaders, inustrialists & all consumers to reduce their energy use.

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