Today, ideas about environmentalism are nothing ground-breaking or unheard of. They’ve been adopted into our mind-set of political and social consciousness to the point that every other advert appeals to our sensibility of ‘green living’. While many of us will prescribe to a vague environmental principle, we still aren’t questioning the most environmentally harmful decision we make: flying.
Aviation is a growing industry and according to governmental advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, the fastest growing source of CO2 emissions in the country. Both current projects and plans for airport expansion across the UK are a very real threat to aims to meet reduced carbon targets by 2050. Pitched as an economic solution, BAA’s recent advertising campaign claimed that ‘The road to economic recovery isn’t a road, it’s a flightpath’. Thus, airport expansion appears to be favoured and financially backed by policy makers: Boris Johnson’s proposal to develop an airport on the Thames Estuary is estimated to cost £50 billion and plans to accommodate 150 million passengers per year. While this may be one of the most far-fetched proposals on the table, the list of UK airports undergoing and potentially embarking on expansion is lengthy.
Short-haul flying (anything under three hours) bears the weight of responsibility for much of the increase in demand. Virgin have announced their new domestic flights from London to Manchester to be the first of many routes, keeping up competition with BA. The majority of fuel is burnt during take-offs and landings, meaning that short haul flights are even more disproportionate in terms of fuel to distance and more ridiculous compared to emission levels of travel alternatives. Domestic flying is ten times as carbon intensive as train use before we even consider the difference in altitude.
What is important to recognise in all of this is the necessity of reduction. While aviation businesses may seek to separate the two, aviation growth and emission reduction are starkly contrasted aims. Current flying levels and the projected increase (250% by 2050) are completely incongruous to carbon reduction. While Matt Gorman, director of sustainability for BAA and chair of the Sustainable Aviation Council, which represents over 90% of UK airlines and airports, claims “Growth in aviation and tackling climate change are compatible,” it is clear that we have to be more rational. Carbon trading, biofuels and greener aviation technology are not comprehensive solutions to the impact of flying and would see huge amounts of money and carbon wasted. Ultimately it’s about facing up to reduction or otherwise using food for fuel and shifting environmental responsibility to other nations.
The role we play in such a huge infrastructure and industry may seem small but it is significant. It’s fair to say that our recycled Buckfast bottles and shortened heating hours are paled into insignificance if we take a few flights home from Glasgow. However, when we think about the choices we make, what we support and endorse, flying is invariably assumed to be the simple way to travel, as it is convenient and cheap. But a train booked in advance can easily be cheaper than the runway; that’s not to mention the more creative methods of travel. Websites like liftshare.com are an exciting way to add a bit of idiosyncrasy to travelling, not to mention the opportunity to meet new and like minded people. But if we refuse to look outside of the aviation industry, there is always the danger that we as a society will rigidly naturalise the short-haul flight industry in our minds. Whatever the method, greener travelling can be something cost-effective. If anything, I would ask everyone to reconsider their attitudes to flying and rather than ask Ryanair to pledge to plant a tree for us, consider avoiding the runway; get a bus, a train, hitchhike, sit back and feel the distance go by!
Words: Rowan Ings