We must reconsider our need to fly


Airliner emitting CO2

The travel advisory 'you should reconsider your need to travel' has taken on new meaning now that we’ve had a commercial jetliner shot down while it was flying through air space above a conflict zone.

International airlines were immediately challenged to fly safer skies, even if it meant using more fuel. At first Qantas was not going to deviate from its established flight path over Iraq. But it was subsequently influenced by other airlines to re-route its Dubai to London flights around Iraqi airspace, even though this would make the flights uneconomic.

In the long-term, more circuitous routes will put upward pressure on fares. Will we grin and bear the extra financial burden, or might there be other factors at play?

Human fear is a strange thing. As a counsellor, I understand that the intensity of fear is often not matched by real levels of danger. For example, in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, large numbers of Americans switched from flying to driving, even though it was in reality less safe, and it led to a proportional rise in deaths on US roads. 

It seems to me that most people are fairly oblivious to the most dangerous aspect of air travel. That is its impact on the long-term viability of the biosphere. The latest research is pointing towards a terrifying 4 degrees or more global average temperature rise by 2100. That is a good reason to apply the ‘you should reconsider your need to travel’ advisory to all air travel.

Yet people manifest, at best, a collective blindness and, at worst, a kind of idolatry. Notice how excited your colleagues become around the water cooler as they talk about their next trip. Ever tried challenging the wisdom of their plans? I have. Even ardent climate activists will push back on the suggestion they should exercise restraint. 

International events are taking place in virtually all areas of human endeavour. In addition to professional conferences and sporting competitions, there is everything from the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture festival to the World Paper Planes Championships.

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

What is conveniently overlooked is the fact that aviation’s contribution to global emissions varies from two per cent to five per cent or more, depending on who’s counting. Compounding these 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. There is added complexity because the nitrous oxides created are 310 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, and the effects from condensation trails (contrails) are difficult to quantify.

Furthermore, global annual aviation growth is currently estimated to be around five per cent each year. Improvements in energy efficiency have not kept pace with this growth, resulting in a net increase in global emissions. 

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. Climate scientist, Kevin Anderson, calculates that air travel is the most emissions-profligate activity per hour. 

Unfortunately, as Marshall argues, 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 under-estimate flight emissions and over-estimate the amount of carbon that off-set projects save. At the same time, they conflate non-fossilised and fossilised carbon. For example, the carbon that a tree soaks up in a few decades is equated with the carbon released by burning ages-old fossil fuel in a single flight.

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 anyway, and that the key to reducing emissions is structural change, not individual sacrifice. This position is convenient, but it exposes the gap between the talk and the walk in our personal responsibility.

We can enjoy holidays in our own country, take part in webinars, video conferences and Skype meetings. 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 something equally valuable but less environmentally damaging.

Thea OrmerodThea Ormerod is President of Australian Religious Response to Climate Change.

Airliner image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Thea Ormerod, MH17, carbon, environment, aviation, ethics



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Existing comments

A strategic opening of a significant conversation Perhaps we can begin to look at the ecological and economic value of airships as PART of the answer Thanks Thea

john Cranmer | 12 August 2014  

Great piece, Thea. A wake-up call. Sad as it is that we shouldn't go on making many of those pleasurable mind-stretching trips around the globe, you bravely suggest that we should stop and think twice about taking them. Travel has become a 'lifestyle glamour' part of the 'economic growth for ever' mantra. The structural element of our response as you rightly call for is that unless we confront that ethos, we may never make a dent in aviation's part in its serious global warming effects. Paul Gilding's scenario of 'the Great Disruption' needs to enter our consciousness more widely. Congratulations too to Eureka Street for giving space to Thea Omerod's very perceptive writing on this eco-spiritual issue.

Len Puglisi | 12 August 2014  

Controlling emissions is remarkably simple really. We simply ban all plane flights, replace cars with bicycles, horses and horse-drawn carriages, bring back steam trains, replace road transport and road trains with bullock powered transport, get rid of refrigeration and air conditioning and re-establish wood burning for warmth and cooking. Simple!

john frawley | 12 August 2014  

Thank you Thea for your courage at the water cooler and here. I hope this topic gains "legs".

Janet | 12 August 2014  

“World Youth Day comes with a substantial environmental cost, but this is very rarely questioned.” Spot on, Thea! Toan Nguyen

Toan Nguyen | 12 August 2014  

Thank you Thea. I really struggle with this issue. I don't travel from NZ to conferences anymore BUT I DO travel to see a daughter in Australia and another daughter and elderly father in North America. It is a tension with my desire to live more sustainably that I live with and have yet to find a satisfactory solution to.

Mary Betz | 12 August 2014  

Two things: unlike one commenter I think we are capable of inventing new and better ways of doing things, rather than having to return to the past. But also I would like to keep air travel but ask that people use it for its best purpose. We don't need it so much for holidays: to go and lie next to a pool at a resort hotel, but it's a fantastic part of education for younger people. I was lucky, as a university student, to go on the grand tour of Europe, with lecturers accompanying us to explain things, and it was a terrific experience which really affected my whole life.

Russell | 12 August 2014  

People are NOT going to stop travelling. As for all the issues surrounding climate change, the answer is in much better and cleverer technology and that is where the money, should be going, and indeed where huge amounts of money will be made in due course. I`m not sure if I include very expensive and ecologically-destructive current wind technology in that ...but perhaps it us a starts in the right direction. I`m sure the big aero companies are working on clean engines and what we now have are much better than even a decade ago.

Eugene | 12 August 2014  

Some of us have family overseas such as elderly parents. So still need to fly to get there

Irena | 12 August 2014  

Dear John Frawley, why is any level of restraint cast in these extreme terms? This only further disadvantages those who will be most disadvantaged by our excesses - our children and grandchildren, people on low-lying Pacific Islands and other vulnerable populations. We can surely be bigger than this. Thea

Thea Ormerod | 12 August 2014  

Dear Thea, I'm not sure that I understand your question. Nor do I understand how my tongue in cheek comment further disadvantages people living on 'low lying islands' or in other 'vulnerable populations'. My point is that progress always incurs a price and that price can only be avoided by doing away with the progress and reverting to those systems which did not pose a threat to the climate. Clearly that can never happen and we need to work towards modifying the present systems by inventing better, more friendly technologies as suggested by Russell. Fairy tales don't come true in the modern world!

john frawley | 12 August 2014  

Thanks Thea. It behoves us all to look at the way we use resources and to tread lightly. I did read the aviation emissions are a small percentage compared with of all things the making of cement and concrete with which we are busy covering up areas of the planet. So we need to look at all parts of the way we use resources and energy.

jorie | 13 August 2014  

I'm waiting for so-called greenies to walk their talk and support nuclear power as the only economical, shovel-ready, baseload energy alternative to coal in Australia. Only at that stage will I begin to take their wailings about global warming as more than pure confection.

HH | 14 August 2014  

Sorry Eugene, but 'very expensive and ecologically-destructive current wind technology' ? Wind technology is equal in cost to coal in some countries and half the cost in places like Denmark. http://reneweconomy.com.au/2014/half-price-coal-natural-gas-wind-power-denmark-97515

Damo | 15 August 2014  

That's great news Damo. Obviously we don't need to mourn the repeal of the carbon tax then, and we don't need to subsidize wind farms companies either, do we, because wind's cheaper anyway! However, hold the horses: the (pro-Big Green) Danish Energy Association, author of the study cited, stressed that "the analysis was not based on a full cost-benefit assessment of different technologies that included an assessment of environmental benefits, taxes or subsidies." So they're arguing that wind is less costly ... without doing a full cost benefit analysis? I wondered where our NBN wonks disappeared to.

HH | 15 August 2014  

This interesting piece raises a number of issues. Having been through the Irish-Australian doctrinaire milieu in my youth, where "the Faith" was accepted unthinkingly in toto, including bits which were not, actually, doctrinal and having seen, in my lifetime, since the 1960s, those doctrines go out the window and a great mass of what were once "devout Catholics" leave, I sometimes wonder if the RCC is becoming a bit like other mainstream denominations and throwing Faith (whatever that may mean) and Spirituality (I'm talking the stuff Ignatius; Benedict; Theresa of Avila etc. were into rather than pew warming) away and adopting a new sort of religion with Theology Lite and Ecology (whatever that may mean) as its two mainstreams. Of course great saints like Francis predated modern ecological trendoids and had a much closer genuine relationship with nature and our nonhuman fellow creatures than most bushwalkers etc. I must say, as someone who tends to vote Green (because they're honest and uncompromising on certain matters) I find some of the arguments about non-travel a bit elitist. Many less well educated and poorer people - especially some older folk of Indigenous and NESB cultures - may not be as au fait with modern communication technology as middle class tertiary educated people. This is a topic on which one needs to tread softly and not be too doctrinaire which would tend to be incredibly counterproductive. A little moral earnest goes a long way.

Edward Fido | 15 August 2014  

Thanks, Thea, for your excellent thought-provoking (and hopefully behaviour-changing) article. Dear HH, I suggest that you look at the Zero Carbon Australia plans by Beyond Zero Emissions at http://bze.org.au/

Gill | 17 August 2014  

Thanks Gill for the link, which nevertheless fails to answer a nagging question: if the most sophisticated economy in the world - Germany - is now running away from its massive investment in renewables because they've proved economically disastrous, why should we believe plucky Australia will do better ? It's nuclear for me, as it was for Germany until it overreacted to Fukushima.

HH | 19 August 2014  


Jennifer Herrick | 18 September 2014  


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